Columbia’s Convening Power Getting to Beyond: Migration Symposium

By Amir Khouzam

You’ve heard it all by now. Refugees and migrants crossing the sea, undocumented immigrants at the southern border—these are staple news items of our time. Not so long ago all of this was new. We were talking about a ‘crisis’ of migration, a hectic and chaotic swell vaguely connected to conflict and revolution. Pictures of a young boy named Alan Kurdi, drowned and washed up on a beach, sparked outrage on the news. Western domestic politics were seized by one part righteous indignation and one part a fearful raising of drawbridges. That’s the story of the last few years, and in many ways it is just the beginning.

We are now well into a new world, a world marked by humans on the move. As oceans rise, climate-induced food shortages and natural disasters increase in frequency and severity, and instability in many parts of the world persists, people will move. That’s one truth. Another truth is that as technology becomes more accessible and communication channels speed up, the world will become smaller, and people will move. There are more people displaced and moving today than any time since the World War II. That will be true again next year, and the year after that, yet migration remains urgent but misunderstood, most often thought of as a consequence of other problems to solve.

On Friday representatives from over 50 organizations across New York, the United States, and the world will gather on the 15th floor of IAB. Among them will be policymakers and political staffers, artists, journalists, activists, and researchers. Many of them will be migrants and refugees themselves. They will come from tiny organizations with single-digit staffs and from UN agencies. They will gather to talk about how the people who experience and undertake migration first-hand might better be involved in this new world in which migration is a constant, not a crisis. It is the SIPA Migration Working Group’s hope that out of this event will come concrete ideas about how we all can work in this field in a better way.

It’s easy to forget the convening power that we have as members of the Columbia University community. We get tired and stressed, and we take for granted that only one fourth of one percent of the people in New York City get to call this place their own, this campus with a name known around the world. It’s important to take a moment to take stock of that power. The Migration Working Group has chosen to exercise this power this week, to convene an event with the aim of changing the conversation around migration from one of abstraction to one of intimate and visceral here-ness.

Tomorrow we invite members of the SIPA community to join us in this moment. The Symposium will be an opportunity to network and to real-work. It will be an academic conference, a creative space, and a visioning exercise. It will open up the conversation around human migration to the people most directly involved in it, and to those who work with them. We will focus on the theme of Representation– who represents, who is represented, and how– so as to move beyond misunderstanding and abstraction. We hope to see you there as we contribute to a conversation with real consequences, and in so doing exercise the privilege we have of being here.

The Migration Symposium will run from 2pm - 6pm on Friday November 9th. Full day attendance is recommended. More information about the event can be found on the event Facebook page here.