Persistence is key to agreeing on parks use for immigrants, long-time residents

Nearly 30 percent of residents in the city of El Cajon in California are foreign born. Many love to use city parks but have run into scheduling clashes with established activities. A dialogue was begun to resolve the conflict. Those involved learned the importance of persistent engagement.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/file
Zainab and Hadiya Alsaedy and Sarib Alinkeli celebrate the end of Saddam Hussein's reign at the Crystal Ballroom in El Cajon, Calif., April 13, 2003. The ballroom is a club where Iraqi nationals in exile have gathered over the years. Op-ed contributor Meenakshi Chakraverti writes: 'El Cajon’s schools have children from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.'

Members of Congress are not the only people who must bridge their differing views if they want to make progress, whether on the nation’s debt or immigration reform. Here in the city of El Cajon, Calif., just east of San Diego, long-time residents and newcomers are searching for literal common ground – in city parks and playing fields.

El Cajon is one of the most diverse cities in the state. Almost 30 percent of its 100,000 residents are foreign born, including a large contingent of refugees from the Middle East, particularly Iraq. Many of them love to play soccer, and are accustomed to using parks in the evenings for sport and social activities. But they aren’t always able to access these parks because of scheduling clashes with established activities in the same spaces.

An issue such as parks use may seem small compared to world challenges, but it involves the same kinds of tensions that play out on the global stage: differences between those who are well off and those who aren’t; cultural practices that collide; a scramble for limited resources.

Whether in Congress or local communities, resolving disagreements requires honest dialogue, a willingness to listen, and building trust. Here in this 100-year-old city, nestled in an arid valley surrounded by mountains, residents have persevered to do these things.

Last spring, some of El Cajon’s newcomers, long-time residents, city officials, and others came together to build trust by talking honestly and listening patiently. It was an organized effort to increase youth access to green space and outdoor activities. Months later, they’ve made progress – but they’re also discovering it will take further commitment to get to the finish line.

When this coming together began, I was the director of Public Conversations West, a nonprofit that helps groups address deeply divisive issues. I led a series of discussions among the various stakeholders. Funding came from the San Francisco-based Foundation for Youth Investment. We called the project “Green Access,” and it focused on linking disadvantaged young people with the outdoors and activities outside.

El Cajon’s schools have children from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. More than 40 percent of them are English-language learners and more than 60 percent are designated as “socio-economically disadvantaged.” On the school playgrounds you hear Spanish, Arabic, Chaldean, Kurdish, Tagalog, Burmese, Assyrian, Farsi, and Khmer. And you hear this variety on the blacktop and dirt playgrounds because most of the schools serving these children haven’t got much green space of their own or nearby. Efforts are underway to change that.

One of the groups most interested in Green Access is a nonprofit named YALLA, which uses the nearly universal language of soccer to motivate refugee and immigrant children to rebuild their lives through education and leadership programs. It brings kids together for drills, scrimmages, coaching – and also tutoring. But YALLA has a hard time finding places and times for them to play – and the money to fund their programs. El Cajon’s established residents also have established leagues, playing times, and rules about access. These residents are equally passionate about their needs.

Green Access brought YALLA, the city’s recreation department, and many other groups together for four sessions of dialogue. Everyone wanted the same goal of greater outdoor access for all the children of El Cajon. The various parties were not only willing, but eager to sit together and engage constructively.

The meetings helped build trust and understanding among those of differing viewpoints. Working groups were formed. Together, everyone gained a shared understanding of facts and experience. One participant depicted some facts graphically, with maps showing the distribution of schools, green spaces, and residents according to income and newcomer status. The disparities popped out.

Since these discussions ended in May, the participants – often in teams – have made progress. They presented their findings to key local officials. They’ve begun an effort to bring green space to an elementary school. They’ve started publicizing outdoor activities so that newcomers know about them, and they’re exploring ways to build public awareness of the links between green access, outdoor activities, obesity, and school performance.

But the organized talks did not resolve all differences. Indeed, the participants from YALLA and the City of El Cajon Recreation Department are respectfully candid about the different perspectives they and their institutions have about park allocation for sports – the needs, the pace of change, and the process involved.

While these key participants report greater understanding and cooperation after dialogue, they also say that finding common ground and solutions takes time and requires dedication. They and others involved in the El Cajon Green Access project realize what it takes to live in a dynamic, diverse, and democratic America: persistence at constructive engagement. El Cajon offers that lesson to everyone.

Meenakshi Chakraverti is a senior associate of the Public Conversations Project, based in Watertown, Mass., which provides dialogue services throughout the United States and internationally. One of its branches is Public Conversations West.

Readers: This is one of a new series by guest writers who offer ways to soften many of the polarizing debates over issues that sharply divide people. Are you working with others who don’t share your views in order to solve a problem in your community or beyond? E-mail us about it at

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