A local advocate creates change for refugees and immigrants, with Meghan Blanton Smith
In this episode, Susan talks with Meghan Blanton Smith about her advocacy work with immigrants and refugees. They talk about her approach from a faith perspective and how that motivates her to keep going. They discuss finding your passion, getting involved and how getting involved on a local level just might be the most impactful way to create change. This is a great and timely episode you won’t want to miss.
Susan: Hey friends I am so excited to share the conversation I had with Meghan Blanton Smith with you today. We had a fantastic conversation centered around her work advocating for refugees and immigrants both documented and undocumented. We also discussed what moving the needle in a favorable direction looks like both from a policy standpoint and a personal standpoint I’d like to also note that this interview took place the Friday of just hours before we learned what was happening with families being separated at our borders which is why it was not discussed. So without further ado here’s Meghan.
Susan: Good morning friends. I am with my friend Meghan this morning and Meghan and I grew up together in the same town. The only difference is is that we when we both moved away she moved back and I have yet to do that. It might happen one day but not anytime in the near future.
Meghan: I like that word yet.
Susan: Yeah you just you never know.
Meghan: You never know.
Susan: You don’t. Anyway so she is huge in her involvement with refugees and immigration advocacy and that’s what we’re here to talk about this morning is her work in that. So good morning Meghan and thank you for joining us.
Meghan: Yeah. Thanks so much Susan for having me. This is fun.
Susan: It will be. We will get through it with or without our coffee intact. So share with us what inspired you to get involved with refugees and immigration advocacy.
Meghan: Yeah. So I actually grew up overseas in Ecuador spent almost 11 years there and then moved to South Carolina when I was 15. And so I spent you know the majority of my childhood around Hispanic people and their culture and the Spanish language and just always loved you know loved Ecuadorians and then moving to the states. I kind of had an experience similar to what I think a lot of immigrants experience when coming to the United States. You know that culture shock. That feeling of being misunderstood under appreciated all of those kind of things. So part of my own story seemed to jive with a lot of experiences that immigrants go through. Obviously very different because I am an American and a native English speaker and all those kind of things. So not trying to draw too close of a comparison there. But then also you know my my faith is is largely what compels me. You know I feel like God commands us over and over again in scripture to welcome the stranger to love the foreigner among you and all of those kind of verses that tell us to show hospitality and that you know our citizenship is in heaven that we’re called to love one another all of those kind of compelling things but then really the main impetus to getting involved with this was when my husband and I went to seminary in Massachusetts and then we moved back. Like you said move back to South Carolina. And we were going to plant a multi-ethnic church. The people in our congregation were everyone from you know people Americans who have served overseas before and are now coming back to international college students to undocumented families. And as we got to know each other and live life together and help carry one another’s burdens. That issue of immigration kept coming up over and over and over again whether it was people trying to get their citizenship or an undocumented single mom who was afraid to you know drive her family to Wal-Mart. And so it almost became a we can’t help but speak up on this issue because people that we love and care about deeply are impacted by this. So how can we with the privilege really that we have as Americans how can we use that in this arena to help bring about change.
Susan: Well that’s a big undertaking for sure. I mean that’s such a cool calling I guess. But that’s that had to be difficult. And I say difficult because I’m guessing it hasn’t always been easy. Doing what you’re doing in the town we grew up in. I know I was back recently and I was excited to see that you have found your people that those people exist our people that those people exist but I’m guessing you had to do some digging to find them. Would that be a fair statement?
Meghan: Yeah yeah I think it would. And you know you’re right. South Carolina and especially the upstate in the congressional district that we’re in we are a very conservative Republican area and just the times that we’re living in immigration reform and all of the stories and you know things that go with that is not necessarily one that is embraced by a majority of the people that live here but it has been difficult in some ways but it’s been really encouraging in others that we’ve been able to see people who’ve never really thought of this issue before or considered it critically or considered it from a personal standpoint. You know we’ve we’ve seen people move along the spectrum and go from either apathetic to caring or even hostile to maybe apathetic and then hopefully we can move them to the caring or involved. But you know this is a deeply religious area. And so when people are open to considering this issue from their faith lens you know and hear the scriptures and hear God’s heart for the vulnerable and the immigrant etc etc. Then people can kind of have that aha moment of oh this isn’t necessarily a political issue this is a faith issue for me and I engage them. But but you’re right I have found some people here. And I’ve been surprised you know how many of us there are that see these issues the way that we do and it’s been really encouraging.
Susan: And I only bring that up just to say that if you’re somebody who is out there and you’re in a smaller town or you feel like you’re in a bubble that is not your own. Your people are there you can find them. You just may have to look a little harder than in other places. And that’s the only reason I brought that up. So you talk a lot about your work with both refugees and immigrants. So can you kind of explain to us for people who out there who aren’t who aren’t in this world who don’t you just hear the words on the news. Can you kind of just explain the difference between a refugee and an immigrant and how that status. What that looks like.
Meghan: Sure. That’s a really good point because there are terms that are just kind of thrown around that are really misunderstood. So an immigrant would be a larger term to describe anyone from another country who has you know moved to the United States. A refugee is a very specific class of person that has been who has undergone you know close to 15 different steps to be approved as a refugee who could resettle in the United States. A refugee is someone who has fled their home country with a reasonable fear of persecution or death because of a variety of different things your ethnicity your race your religion your sexuality all of those kind of things. And it’s a classification under the U.N. to be considered a refugee and so when someone comes to the United States as a refugee they are invited by the U.S. government they have undergone biometric tests medical tests background tests all to verify their story to prove that yes this person has a well-founded fear. And we believe that their story is legitimate and we’re going to give them a new home in the United States. So under under what we were talking about illegal immigrants which is quite a derogatory term so I’m going to use the term undocumented. No one is illegal. Like my existence isn’t illegal. I just don’t have the right papers. So when we’re talking about immigration there’s a whole bunch of different statuses that someone can have. So it’s it’s really a much more nuanced issue than I think people often realize they want to just paint everyone into one category and not understand all the different levels that are at play there.
Susan: And I think, remind me, tell me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure in our hometown we probably have a good mixture of both refugee, undocumented, documented. We pretty much run the gamut the spectrum on this, yes?
Meghan: Yes that’s true. So in 2015 Spartanburg became a World Relief Refugee Resettlement Site. So starting in 2015 we had refugees coming to this area to Spartanburg and to Greenville and now World Relief has their office in Greenville. But you know since the beginning of the year we haven’t really been admitting many refugees at all. And I don’t know the exact number now. I think last year we had about 60 65 refugees resettle here in this area. And you know they’re coming from countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine, Myanmar. There were two Syrians who resettled in South Carolina not through World Relief. We haven’t had many many Syrians. There was a man from from Iraq. So we’ve been able to meet many of them and the first refugee who came actually lived with our family for a few weeks while his apartment was getting ready. They were going to they were going to put him kind of out in the country in a trailer by themselves. That’s probably not the best welcome to America. So why don’t you stay with us. And so it was an interesting experience that turned out to be such a blessing for our family we didn’t know what we were getting into. He was from the Congo and thankfully he spoke a little bit of English and my husband speaks a little bit of French and he speaks French as well and so he kind of became an uncle to the kids and we love him very much and still see him now. And this has become you know this has become his new new home. But you’re right. And with all of the colleges that we have here we have hundreds of international college students coming every year with all of our international businesses. We have other professional immigrants are coming and working in the businesses here. And we also have a large undocumented population and the fear you know is very real for a lot of them right now. I work with my my paying job, this is my not paying passion job. But my paying job (SC Test Prep) that I’m also passionate about is I work with high school students who are low income are going to be first generation college students and their families kind of preparing them for the the college admissions process. So one of my students earlier this year was telling me about how her parents she’s American she was born here with her parents are undocumented and how her parents had to sign custody over to an uncle so that if something happened to the parents you know her kids would would be able to remain here with a guardian and she was telling that to me with her mom right there and they were both just in tears. You know both of us are moms and you’re talking to moms every week and like the thought of giving up my child so that they can remain here in this country continue their studies and their you know their dreams just the sacrifices that that demands that I cannot even imagine.
Susan: I cannot either. But you’re paying job sounds pretty darn amazing. That is such a cool opportunity. And I know you guys started that and I just think that’s phenomenal. So tell us more about your what your day to day work looks like. With immigration and advocacy and the refugees you’re working with that what does boots on the ground look like right now for you.
Meghan: Yeah that’s a good question. Every day every day is different. You know I’m involved with the Hispanic Alliance here in town and I’m on the steering team for that. And so we have different projects throughout the year that we work on whether that kind of offering some underground legal clinics or monthly meetings to help foster communication and collaboration among those who are working with Hispanics here in town or gosh. I mean there’s really no consistency. But like last week I went down to Georgia with a group of people from Clemson to visit the Stewart Immigration Detention Center. So this is the largest detention center in the U.S. It has almost 2000 men that are detained there and they are either awaiting deportation or they are appealing a court case or they’re waiting for their asylum to be determined. And so like last week I took the whole day and drove down there. And then since coming back I’ve been talking to people about it and I’m going to try to write something up some kind of little article (see May 20th entry) or something to talk about the experience. So it’s a lot of like trying to experience things first hand talking to people who are either you know either a refugee or undocumented themselves and then trying to take their story to either another group or another person who can help move the needle on the issue. So sometimes that’s just staying on top of the quickly changing landscape in Washington and you know emailing other people in town who have questions about it or trying to rally people to call our congressmen and ask them to sign on to something. So every day every day is different and that is not even every day. It’s very responsive to what is happening and what needs to be what needs to be done. But one of the things I was most proud of that we were able to achieve was I believe it was earlier this year our Spartanburg City Council we were able to push them to issue a resolution that just said we support the Dreamers that live here in Spartanburg and we urge Congress to fix this problem. And there was no you know teeth to it but it was a very public and symbolic statement that our city government recognizes that we have Dreamers which is another term that’s thrown around a lot and what that means is a younger person who was brought here to the United States by their parents they’re undocumented but they received DACA status so Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. So with that it meant that they could go to college because in South Carolina you cannot go to a public college if you’re undocumented but with your DACA status you can or you were able to get a work permit or a driver’s license. And so I was very proud when when our city council passed that because we’re still the first the only in the state to do that. So for that come out of here was a proud moment for a lot of us. I had a Dreamer who was involved. She’s actually from your alma mater Converse College and she when they passed that she said to me she’s like you know for one of the first times I’m proud of Spartanburg because they see me and they recognize the value that I contribute to this place. So that was really special.
Susan: See me and recognize my value. That makes my heart melt yes.
Meghan: And isn’t that what we all want?
Susan: Yes. That just that just melted my heart. All right take a moment there. So what has surprised you most in your work do you think, good or bad?
Meghan: Different things. Yeah. So I was I was genuinely surprised at that city council resolution at how open and easy it was. There wasn’t really much pushback. So I was surprised at how willing our city leaders were to to make that message. But then I’ve been really surprised by in a bad way by others who either have the same faith background as me or who know other undocumented immigrants personally yet still not compassionate not understanding of their plight and the need for some kind of reform. That that’s been discouraging as well or surprising for some people but you know in this in any kind of advocacy work you have to remain focused on the individual stories and relationships or else it’s just too overwhelming and there have been times several times sometimes it feels like more often than not that it’s like what is the point. What are we even doing like for each step forward that it feels like we might take in the advocacy community. It feels like three or four steps back you know on a national scale. And so, just remembering to you know really invest in people and and here locally is what keeps me keeps me going.
Susan: Well I’ll share a little bit real quick and I can’t talk much about it. I don’t even know a lot of the specifics but I have seen firsthand how lives have been changed through this advocacy work. And this wasn’t your work specifically. But Stephen my husband is an attorney and immigration court is not his thing. He does not do immigration work. He is a very fun tax attorney very fun job very exciting work in tax law. He does do some pro bono work. And I remember when everything happened. Everybody was going to the airports last year and like protesting and stuff. I remember seeing attorneys getting involved in that. And first I was shocked. I was like I never thought the lawyers would be the heroes. And second Stephen saw that happening and he saw people advocating for others and so he used some of his pro bono hour work this year and has actually done some immigration work and been in immigration court. So don’t think that just because. And there is a young person who he has actually helped get out of a pretty bad situation. I think it’s pretty much cleared up back can’t talk too much about it but just know that people are watching and people lives are being changed because of the work that you’re doing because of the work that the advocates are out there doing. Other people are seeing it and things are happening behind the scenes. And you’re right it may not make CNN or MSNBC or Fox News or any of those other stations or any of those other news channels but lives are changing and it’s because of the type of work that you’re doing behind the scenes. So just know that I know there are discouraging days but know that people are looking to you and the type of work that you’re doing and things the needle is moving albeit slowly but the needle the needles moving.
Meghan: Yeah it’s my that’s my hope for sure.
Susan: I know it’s tough right now. I know it’s tough right now. So I guess that’s a little bit about success is there any way you I guess in your advocacy work do you have any goals that you set. Or is there any what does success look like to you. Is it a day by day thing. Can you talk a little bit about that with us.
Meghan: Yeah that’s, that’s another good question. Gosh Susan, you’re full of great questions.
Susan: Sorry I know this is hard right now because we’re talking about this today. I don’t know when this will air yet but today’s May 25th or 26 and see I don’t even know the day. And I know there’s a lot happening as we speak. So it’s hard.
Meghan: Yeah yeah. I mean there’s there’s a variety of levels of success to me like the ultimate goal is a total culture shift you know and that really hard work. A culture shift where immigrants and people from other countries as speakers of other languages are welcomed and seen as people who have traits and stories and passions and dreams that better to contribute here and know that dividing line between us and them is erased. I mean that would be like a major success. Right now you know in Washington is like legislative policy successes that we haven’t quite experienced yet. So seeing some sort of congressional permanent solution for Dreamers. That would be a success. And you know what does that look like and what is left off the table and you know there’s a spectrum of people in the advocacy world some who are you know who want more and others who would be happier with less. That’s probably unfair to say but then personally like you know a success would be having a family here in Spartanburg know that there’s a community of people who have their back. You know that’s like a microcosm of what a success would be. So it’s there’s a bunch of different things and thankfully you know nationally there’s a bunch of different people working on all sorts of those issues. One thing we tried last this past year that happened in South Carolina was passing a new law called the South Carolina Dreamers Act that would give instate tuition professional licenses and access to state scholarships for Dreamers. That did not pass in this past legislative session. But you know what. In the Fall we’re going to start back up. So it’s a lot of you know kind of learning from, not your mistakes because I don’t think we made mistakes, but learning from the past figuring out how you can tweak your message. Who are some other people that you need to sway. And then you know dusting yourself off and starting back again.
Susan: Yeah. Wow. It’s hard work. It’s hard work, huh?
Meghan: Yeah it is.
Susan: So that kinda segues into another question that was going to ask you at some point that even the strongest of us have moments where we lack self-confidence. And you guys experienced a bit of a setback. So how do you deal with that in your work and how do you how do you deal with that personally.
Meghan: Yeah for sure. And I think you know as women in whatever area we’re working in we encounter that. I Don’t know maybe men do too but they don’t. I don’t know. I know women better than I know men. Yeah that lack of confidence that second guessing myself that desire to be a people pleaser is all very right under the surface for me. And you know thankfully I have a supportive group of friends and family who encourage me along the way or who help provide perspective if I’m losing it. So I think I think that’s really important is to surround yourself with people that you trust and people who love you and people who are willing to kind of speak that encouragement and confidence in you when you don’t have it yourself. But then also sometimes I just try to give myself perspective. Like if it were you know say try to write different things you know whether that like I don’t know an article for a blog or op ed for our newspaper that kind of stuff but writing does not come natural to me at all. You know it’s like a labor to get something out and just sound intelligent to hearing everything. But like when I’m you know getting frustrated with that I think OK I’ve already done already done this like a couple of handful of times and I can do it again. One thing that we say to our kids is you can do it. You already did it. Yes you can. You know I don’t know. Find your shoes in the morning. Because goodness. Isn’t that what. Because you already did it. You did it yesterday. You know you did it last week. You’ve already done it. You already have proven it to yourself. Do it again.
Susan: I love that. That’s really self motivating too.
Meghan: Yeah, we have a little song that I’ll spare you of. But you know that helps with the kids and really like one thing I’ve had to learn in just life is the importance of self care. You know and so today I’m going to go get a massage and it’s going to be nice and it’s going to be 50 minutes of relaxation. And I think another tendency that a lot of women that I know have is to just keep giving. Keep pouring out, keep investing until we have nothing left to give. And so I like to think of it as like a water pitcher. You know if water isn’t being poured into our pitcher and we’re pouring out then you’re dry and you can’t do anything for other people. And so taking that time whatever that is. Whether that is going on a run or eating ice cream or taking a massage or having a girls night out whatever it is for you that’s going to breathe that life back into you. Really crucial in order for you to keep breathing life out on to others.
Susan: Well I love that you added that.
Meghan: And I’ve learned that the hard way.
Susan: Oh Sure.
Meghan: Yeah we always learn these lessons the hard way. I’m trying to be more cognizant of that. Now in my life.
Susan: Yes. I identify with that. I love that. I love that you answered the next question that I was getting ready to ask you and I love how you segued into that. I’m getting ready to do a whole episode on self care because I have been really bad about that in these last two years really bad about it and my body finally said enough and told me so so I’ll save that for that episode. Thank you for bringing that up. I appreciate that. I have one more question.
Meghan: Yeah well thanks for talking about it.
Susan: Well I think we to start talking about these things as women we have to start. You’re absolutely right we have to start taking better care of ourselves because it’s like the mask that drops from the plane and they always tell you you know put yours on first before the other person’s next to you. You do have to take care yourself. Anyway one last question for you. I know a woman listening today has heard your story and is inspired to find her own way to get involved maybe it’s a refugee or immigration advocacy group or maybe it’s another group that’s standing up with the marginalized. And don’t we have a lot of that today. But you know I think a lot of us are finally saying enough but we’re trying to figure out how to get involved. So what action step would you recommend she take? Do you have one?
Meghan: Yeah that’s a great question. And I think all of our passions are different. And you know sometimes, I heard somebody else say this once that like whatever kind of wakes you up in the night or when you wake up in the night and you think about it that that’s kind of what your passion could be. So I mean I think there’s a lot of people who like you like you said have said enough. But where do I start. How do I get involved. And so I think first you have to identify what that issue is for you you know is that are you a mom and you have kids in your school and you’ve seen other kids maybe who don’t have lunch you know maybe that’s working on food issues and sustainable help and all that kind of stuff. Or maybe I don’t know there’s a whole variety of different things. And so I would say you know look at your local community. How can you invest locally. I think it’s locally that we can have the most impact. I think it’s where you know the most collaboration can happen where we can be the least divisive because it’s you know a friend of mine likes to say it’s neighbors helping neighbors. So look and see what’s going on in your own community. Are there initiatives already that you can get involved with. Does your community have a United Way or another kind of community foundation or organization that’s already working on some big issues. You know go there go their website, e-mail they’re volunteer coordinator. Just see what opportunities are there for you. And then like you said at the beginning find your people and that’s not always a quick process. Sometimes it takes showing up over and over and over again and putting yourself out there in a way that might be uncomfortable for you. And I kind of went through that myself of showing up in like literally saying Here I am. What can you use me for. And it’s awkward. And I’ve kind of had to just swallow some of my introvertedness with some of that. So so you know do your research show up make contacts with people. You know we live in an age of information and you know access to that information is really quick and easy and so educate yourself on the issue whether it’s a federal policy thing or state issue. Do your research become expert at it and then also kind of recognize that we’re women we’re moms we’re wives we’re sisters we’re friends we’re busy people but also realizing that if you take on something new that might mean that you have to let something else go. And so being okay with that and doing ending something else in your life well I think it’s really important. You know when I started on this issue I stopped being involved in a moms group that I was a part of for several years and loved it. You know I had to kind of put that down and walk away from that in order to pick this up but it was important to me that I left those relationships intact and that people understood what I was going to and as I started working full time just didn’t have the time for all of that. But recognizing that adding on also means letting go and that might mean a grieving process or making sure that you have someone else to fill your shoes for something else before you move into another area of involvement. So yeah that would kind of be kind of be my advice to someone listening.
Susan: Well I thought that was great advice and I really liked that adding on sometimes means letting go. That’s that’s hard to do. Thank you for sharing.
Meghan: Really hard. Yeah. And you know that’s a lesson I’ve also learned the hard way like I can try to do everything, but I can’t do everything well. And everybody suffered along the way including myself and so I where I’m at now is I would rather do a few things really well and feel proud of my work and feel like I’m giving it all that I can. And that means both letting go and saying no to new opportunities as they arise and that that can be hard.
Susan: Well speaking of opportunities I know you have massage to get to but I’m going to ask you before I let you go. You say you do a lot of writing on this topic and I presume on other topics that are similar to advocacy and all that. Is there a place where we can find you where we can find your articles. Do you post them to your Facebook page or Twitter or anywhere like that and somebody might be able to follow you publicly if they’re interested.
Meghan: Yeah I don’t write a lot. I speak a lot about writing and then I usually write. Let me clarify that. Yeah my twitter. I do all my Twitter basically all dedicated to this kind of work. And so I am at @megitasmith and then my Facebook I also post some stuff there as well. Meghan Blanton Smith and Meghan with an H, The H is in there and that matters.
Susan: Well, we will link that. Yes we will link that over on the website. So make sure to head on over there and check that out folks and you’ll be able to find all the links we talked about and I may add some fun stuff that we talked about that we didn’t talk about linking but Meghan I really really appreciate you taking the time to do this today. You squeezed me and and I just really really appreciate it. I appreciate you talking about this issue. I appreciate all the work that you’re doing so thank you so much for joining us today.
Meghan: Yeah thank you, Susan. I’m proud of you and the empowering work that you’re doing for women both where you live and you know podcasts you can listen anywhere. So I think it’s awesome how you are helping tell stories. Bravo.
Susan: Well thank you very much and I will talk to you soon.
Meghan: All right. Bye.
Susan: Thanks so much for joining us today. I hope you took away as much from that conversation as I did. I also hope it encouraged you to think about things in a way that maybe you haven’t thought of before. And something somewhat related and yet very related is I am slowly learning just how black and white I can see the world sometimes. I think I’m finally realizing there’s a lot more gray out there than I thought and sometimes it just really helps to hear things from the perspective of others. So if I could I’d like to humbly encourage you to have a conversation this week a safe conversation to be sure but a conversation nonetheless with someone who has differing views than you. You just might learn something from each other. And maybe perhaps move each others needle just a little. Thanks again friends. I’ll see you soon.