A Novel Way to Bring Immigration Issues to New York’s City Hall

Broadway artists and members of the Columbia Law School community took over the council chambers for the fourth event in an uncommon series.

Performers Ali Bradley (left) and Nikhil Saboo.

For a brief time on March 27, Manhattan’s City Hall looked more like Carnegie Hall, as Broadway musicians and dancers took over the City Council Chamber for 90 minutes to dramatize immigration issues in the Trump era. The special event, “Sanctuary Cities and Immigration Edition,” was the fourth installment of “The Invitation,” a series blending art, activism, and the law, produced by the Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC) and Columbia Law School. It kicked off a two-day gathering of lawmakers and activists from around the country for the first-ever national convening of sanctuary cities, organized by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Local Progress, and featured performances drawing upon research and writings by members of the Columbia Law School community. 

Kelly Landers Hawthorne ’17 and Tara Raam ’17 acted as researchers for the first performance of the day; Broadway artists sang, dance and read, drawing on the impassioned personal essays written by seven Hostos Community College students. One of the Hostos students, Khal Fares, spoke of being “hated in the Middle East for being American and hated in America for being Arab.” His words and those of his classmates were accompanied by an original song, “Lotus,” composed by BAC artists Ben Wexler and Britton Smith and sung by Fun Home performer Joel Perez. 

The opportunity to bring “The Invitation” to City Hall grew out of a conversation between Law School Professor Susan Sturm and Andrew Friedman, executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy and a lecturer at the Law School. “I had described the collaboration between Columbia Law School and Broadway Advocacy Coalition in an earlier conversation,” recalled Sturm who also is founding director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change. She said people behind “The Invitation”  seized the opportunity to “create new spaces for politics" and “help us make this country live up to its ideals.”  

Approximately 100 people attended the invitation-only event, including Hostos Community College President David Gomez. After his students’ performance, he told the crowd, “Knowledge is not merely power, it’s safety.” Students must know their rights, he said, referring to the uptick in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity under the Trump administration.

Research by Justin Steil ’10, now an assistant professor of law and urban planning at MIT, also inspired a dance piece, exploring how some cities are hostile to immigration while others are welcoming. There also was a reprisal of “Baggage,” a solo tap and spoken-word performance created from the reflections of three Law School students about anti-Muslim and Middle Eastern bias they’ve experienced. (It was first performed at a previous Invitation event on Feb. 12.)

Jeanine Tesori, the Tony Award–winning composer of Fun Home, also created one of the highlights of the event when she took to the stage, pointed to the “wedding cake” ceiling of City Hall’s council room and said, “This is our building,” a building “for the people.”  Last semester, Tesori had audited Sturm’s civil procedure course at the Law School. Saying she had learned from that course that justice is a feeling both seen and heard, Tesori drew the connection between artists and lawyers in democracy, a central theme of “The Invitation” series. “Athens had storytellers,” she said, “and then democracy, and then government. In that order.”

The event ended a moving performance of the song “The Color Purple” by Kenita Miller and the Pace University choir.

Mark-Viverito made the final remarks of the night, referring to New York City’s efforts to support other cities in becoming so-called sanctuaries in the face of new restrictions on immigration: “What we are starting here is a coalition of like-minded people,” she said, “and we are going to fight like hell against these ignominious policies.”

“The Invitation” is a monthly series led by BAC and the Law School that blends artistry and activism-artivism, rooted in history, advocacy, law, and policy, to inspire change.

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Posted on April 4, 2017

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