Sam Byrd

People say, "Why do you live in Idaho?" Because it's wide open, because here you can actually engage yourself and actually be a part of that process.

Sam Byrd

Sam Byrd is a longtime community facilitator and leader in human rights groups in Idaho. Fluent in both Spanish and English, he owns DiversityWorks, which specializes in helping businesses and non-profits understand cross-cultural issues within their firm or with their customers.

Franklin: What do you think the effect of the Aryan Nations verdict was on human rights in Idaho?

Byrd: Here was a moment in history -- not just in Idaho history -- but a moment in history where people said, you know, "basta"-"enough." And it's exciting. I think it's what keeps me really continuing to do the work. You've got to have that something, that victory if you will. And in this case it was a huge victory.

Franklin: But there's still work to do, yes?

Byrd: You can stop and breathe a sigh of relief, but it also needs to be kind of a way of catching your second wind, because what happens is that many times you drive out what is very overt, and you know below that surface it's more difficult to root it out.

It's kind of a silent way of continuing to attack, you know, inclusiveness, and I'm sure that's more hurtful. I'm sure that that's worse than folks that you can see, folks that you can hear. You know, that covertness of hate is dangerous because you don't know where it's going to hit, you don't know where it's coming from. At least if you see it, if you hear it you have some sense of where to direct your energies.

Franklin: Is poverty part of the issue, too?

Byrd: I think about Hispanic kids who aren't doing well in school but I immediately start thinking about the number of dominant culture kids or predominant culture kids who we don't talk about. It's as if they are missing because they are the right color. But if you really take a look at how poor children do in school, you know income does matter.

The other one is that...many times poor folk and folk of color have been packed into the same communities, the same schools and so we've actually been pitted against each other and so what happens is that we're scrambling for that little…we're competing against each other. And so what has happened is this incredible amount of misunderstanding cross-culturally.

The strength is in cross-cultural work. We both need to move towards each other. I need to see the world through your eyes but you too need to see the world through our eyes.

It's not just a white/black thing. It's not just Latinos against white but it's this dynamic, this dynamic of race, this dynamic of ethnicity and each of us needs to call ourselves to what do we need to do in here to be able to really address it.

That's the hardest work you and I will ever be called to do, anyone will be called to do, is to see it through the eyes of the other, including the people you disagree with. And so if I'm asking folks to look at it that way because I want them to include me, then aren't I also compelled to do that same work? But that's the most difficult.

Franklin: What causes bigotry?

Byrd: Fear. I think it's fear. You know, we're fearful of them, them "the other" and what they believe, and the other is fearful of us. Boy, that makes for a horrible environment and that's the problem. That's what we still need to address.

Does fear still exist because difference matters, diversity matters? I argue yes.

Now within that then there are unique challenges that we face. I say this whole lack of movement at the federal level for any immigration reform, any meaningful reform, has really set back race relations as regards to Latinos and others in Idaho twenty years. 13:36

I've been doing this work 30 years and what I find is that there is more fear, not less. There is more misunderstanding, not less....the new way of going after the Latino community is by bashing immigrants. When people say "I'm against illegal immigration" are they for legal immigrants? Well, the empirical evidence is no. They tend to not be the advocates of those individuals as well, and so that is our huge challenge.

You see states and local municipalities, because of the lack of inaction we're at each other's throats. What happens in the school where half of the school children are undocumented and half of your community resents the fact the other half is there? How difficult is it for a teacher to teach a child if half your patrons resent the fact that the other half of the community members are there?

And then what does that do to a community, the very concept of community if in fact I feel and I resent that the outsider is coming in and they are taking over?

They are not only taking my jobs - this is where the argument I think begins - but they may be taking away my culture. They may be taking away my language; they may be taking away my status. That's the fear.

Franklin: Why do you do this work?

Byrd: There's not a lot of glory in this kind of work. It's tough to make a living, but you do it because you are hopeful that one day, I really do believe that that day will come.

People say, "Why do you live in Idaho?" Because it's wide open, because here you can actually engage yourself and actually be a part of that process. Here you can be a part of really creating that world that you speak of, this world where borders don't matter.

But before those real borders go away we need to eliminate the borders within ourselves. It's those imaginary borders that I want to concentrate on. Those other ones are just kind of a focal point. It's a diversionary border if you will. But what about the borders within us?

The other is that we're multi-dimensional. I'm not just my ethnic group. I'm not just my religious beliefs. I'm not just my gender. I'm not just my sexual orientation. I'm multi-dimensional and if I realize that about myself can I begin to realize that about the other?

Above all here is why I have hope -young people are like the other generations are misunderstood but I just love a young generation that says it's all good - in the midst of everything that is coming at them, in the midst of all of these things that are being debated in society today - to be able to still say it's all good is I think that eternal hope, that eternal way of looking that things can really be different.

Franklin: There was a huge march in Idaho 2006 of Hispanics and their supporters for immigration reform. Latinos left their job for the day to show how much the state depends on their labor.

Byrd: In one week we were able to get more than 150 volunteers and raised more than $4,000 from people who would call and say, "You know I don't have a lot of money but I have five or ten dollars because this is…we're doing something for the community. We're going to speak out for something, for immigration reform, for meaningful debate, for moving forward."

People were excited because we weren't just marching against something, we were marching for something. How many times do we march for the right thing? Yhat's why you see people come out - because we were able to do something -I'm not kidding you, in less than seven days that march was organized. It was huge.

Some people say that it was no more than 4,000 but I say it was close to 10,000. I've never seen that many Mexicans in one place and not only Mexicans because I'll tell you what - it was exciting -I was standing on that stage and to look out and to see faces of people who I didn't expect there. I get goose bumps because I say these people were for, they were for their community; they were for something.

It also has created a backlash....we had people who got fired from their jobs, people who are here legally, who are here legally who got fired from their jobs for coming to the march to stand for something.

We had a group of 20 individuals who called us and said "we lost our jobs" and so we started telling folks, "We can't advocate you leave your job to go out and do this, because we have the luxury of being able to go back to our jobs, so they don't." But even then, even in spite of that people were willing to come out, so what does that tell you?