When invited to talk about the importance of a multilingual America, I’m the last person that anyone expects to see walk up to the podium. As a Black American with unaccented English, people are surprised to learn that I grew up in a language-minority community in the US. My family is frequently stopped and asked what language we’re speaking and what country we’re from. By now, my children (11 and 7) are accustomed to these questions and are starting to understand the nuance of our Louisiana history.
My grandparents’ generation spoke Creole French as their home language and learned English in schools. English quickly became synonymous with education. Even after university study, my grandmother still regularly slipped into Creole for her phone conversations, Friday night card games and Sunday morning coffee. I felt like she was happier in Creole than in English. As I child, I wanted to be in that language with her and decided that I would be bilingual and I would raise my children in our language as well. I didn’t know that embracing my family’s language would put me on a path to championing diverse, integrated environments later in my life.
Soon after giving birth to my daughter, I began to realize that just raising my children to embrace a vision of integrated, multilingual America wasn’t enough to shift how the world would treat them. How can bilingual, bicultural kids grow up and not feel like outsiders in our country? I became clearer that they would need stronger community models than the walls of our home and that our public schools have the biggest opportunity to promote an integrated future. A few years after my daughter was born, I founded a network of intentionally-diverse, public, language immersion schools. When we opened the French, Spanish, and Chinese schools, I narrated a long-term future vision for how our integrated schools would eventually unite the region. I knew that, as our kids from all backgrounds grew up together, they would have a more nuanced, inclusive view of the world into adulthood. What I didn’t expect was that our work would make profound changes for the adults in our community at the same time.
One day, Ms. Elizabeth, a mom from a lower-income Black community, called me about a project. Her video production class had an assignment on immigration. She admitted that, before our schools had opened, she would have focused her project on how immigrants make life worse for working class Americans. After one year of witnessing her daughter make friends across race, language, and neighborhood lines, she was inspired to film a positive perspective on the value of immigration. During that one call, Ms. Elizabeth reminded me that, with the right opportunities, change is possible for us now. We don’t need to wait for the next generation to get integrated communities right.
This is what I truly believe: Only when diverse people have opportunities to learn, live, and love together, will we fully embrace our multilingual, multicultural America.
This essay is excerpted from Building Bridges One Leader At a Time: Personal Essays by the Women and Men of Eisenhower Fellowships. I’m thankful for the EF community for encouraging us to think about our own deeply held beliefs.
Rhonda Broussard, USA ’14
Rhonda Broussard has a passion for education and has been a leader in diversity and international education initiatives. She helps schools transform their practices and align adult culture with key beliefs for teaching and learning. Prior to launching The Ochosi Group, she founded a network of language immersion, International Baccalaureate schools serving an intentionally diverse student population. Rhonda explores her own wonderings about education reform at her blog One Good Question.