Staff Feature: Kevin Douglas, Senior Director of National Programs

Wednesday, July 13, 2022
As a native-born U.S. citizen working in the movement for immigrant justice, I often reflect on what brought me to this work out of the many social justice causes that demand our attention. Navigating the immigration system alongside my wife who immigrated from Albania to pursue her dreams of a better future opened my eyes to the complex and often challenging immigrant experience in America. As a Bronx-born person of color myself, the fact that our nation has a deep and persistent history of othering and discrimination was not new to me. But what was new was getting a close-up look at a byzantine immigration system that makes it extremely difficult for immigrants of all kinds to enter or stay in the country. If everyone understood how the system actually works, no one would exclaim, as so many indignantly do, that immigrants should simply “get in line!”.

Although I have had the privilege of working on a variety of issues over the years – including universal health care, affordable housing, and expanding government investments in children, youth, and older adults – the issue of immigration stood out to me because of the magnitude of the hostility directed at immigrant communities and the seeming disinterest of so many in their mistreatment.

Equally as important to me as the decision to work in this space, has been how to show up in this space. Although I have held direct service roles where I aimed to have an impact person-by-person, I have always been drawn to the big picture. A lesson taught in one of my undergraduate social work classes helped inform my desire to look at the root causes of social injustice and to address the structures and systems that cause and perpetuate that injustice.

In the class we were told to imagine standing by the bank of a river when a person crying out in distress comes floating by. We naturally jump in the water and help them to the shore, but when we get to the shore, we notice another person struggling in the river and so we jump back in to save them as well. And when we finally get them to the shore, we notice another person, and then a whole family, and as we gaze up the length of the river we see a never-ending stream of people struggling to keep their heads above water. In that moment we have to make a decision: we either resign ourselves to jumping in and out of the river indefinitely, fishing people out one-by-one, or we go upstream and find out who the heck is throwing them in.

This idea, the importance of examining the systems and structures that influence life outcomes (often in clearly discriminatory ways for communities of color and immigrants), put me on a trajectory of organizing, advocacy, and policy work that continues to this day at GCIR. At GCIR, we are deliberately providing a platform for those most affected by our nation’s outdated, discriminatory, and punitive immigration policies. We amplify the voices of these communities to help advance their vision for building a more inclusive and equitable nation. And while that vision necessarily includes tending to immediate humanitarian needs and crises, it also means looking deeply at the root causes of those challenges and planning for long-term change. For philanthropy, it must mean providing needed resources and using its powerful voice and influence to sustain and strengthen the immigrant justice movement.

To this end, at our recent national convening in Houston, we released our formal public policy agenda. From calling for an end to Title 42 and opposing anti-sanctuary city bills to supporting the expansion of immigrant access to drivers’ licenses and participation in local elections, GCIR will be uplifting the priorities of grassroots immigrant rights organizations and calling on philanthropy to resource the efforts necessary to reach these goals.