Culture is one of the most ambitious words in the English language. It is defined as "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought." Seven letters, two syllables, the identity of millions. When put this way, it is difficult to believe that so many individuals could stand under a single banner, yet we recognize others by the foods they eat, the music they listen to, the clothes they wear and the governments they follow or defy. Culture is just another word for way of life, and even in a city like Boise, our way of life is shaped by people from all over the planet.
Two such people are Theresa Baird and Azam Houle. They look nothing alike, but they share a love of cultural tradition that has colored their professional lives and brought them almost as close as sisters. Baird is a Minnesota born, University of Puget Sound graduate who spent many years in the Peace Corps in Africa and many more years working with refugees and immigrants all over the United States. Houle grew up in Iran before pursuing several degrees in the states and moving from Minnesota to New York to Massachusetts to Iowa to North Dakota to Texas and finally to Idaho, where she has happily served for eight years as Boise Public Library's Youth Librarian. Baird has brown hair and blue eyes, Houle black hair and brown eyes, but they are both the face of a new nonprofit organization that invites all people to the table to celebrate diversity. It is called the International CommUNITY Center of Idaho (ICCI), and in less than a year it has laid the groundwork for a progressive forum that combats misunderstanding and conflict with education and friendship.
The project began in November 2003 with a grassroots meeting organized by Baird. She invited other community members whom she knew were interested in uniting local cultural groups, and ideas flew from there.
"There are great resettlement services available, but nothing that really represents and reflects the actual diversity here," Baird said. She explained that hundreds of refugees are placed in Idaho each year by organizations like the Agency for New Americans and that many of them struggle to preserve the cultures of their former homes. Some, like the Basques and Bosnians, have organized groups that pass down and share traditions through performances and festivals. Others, like the Afghanis, have trouble finding resources and time to congregate in the midst of getting settled. "When I was traveling through South and Central America I had the experience of being an illegal immigrant. I couldn't afford a work visa, I didn't know the language, I was sleeping on someone's floor--at any moment they could have checked my papers and deported me," Baird said. "It taught me to empathize with someone coming to this country trying to slip into the system without a structure."
Baird's empathy fueled her desire to work with refugees, and with the help of some of the people at that first November meeting, she went to work on the infrastructure of ICCI. Soon after that, one of the founding members invited Houle to a committee meeting, and she was convinced within the first few minutes.
"There have always been people sitting around thinking 'wouldn't it be nice,'" Houle said, "but Theresa is a doer. She got everyone together." Everyone includes Houle, who is the current president of ICCI, vice president Baird, treasurer Irene Bertsen, secretary Vyjayanthi Prasad, and three directors: Irvaz Husic, Floyd Bea and Yalda Stano. Two are Iranian, two are from the Philippines, one is Bosnian, one is Indian and one is American, an ethnic slice that represents the full pie of 71 members from 25 countries and 10 cultural partners including the Association for India's Development (AID), Boise State Cultural Center, Filipino American Association of Idaho, Idaho Families with Children from Asia (IFCA), Idaho Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Kawa Taiko, Mladi Behar and Herzegovina Cultural Center of Idaho, Inc., Murray School of Irish Dance, RiverStone Community School, Thistle and Ghillies Scottish Country Dance Group, Inc. and the International Club at Lewis & Clark Middle School. "We hope to educate our members as well as the community itself. It is good for people here to know that these people are contributing members of society and that they're not just here to deplete resources," Houle said.
"It's about perspective--they are not just eye candy either," Baird added, suggesting that too often an observer's understanding of other cultures stops with the most superficial elements. For example, you can't tell much about Ireland from Lord of the Dance, and mariachi bands in local Mexican restaurants hardly represent the whole of Latin America. She went on to say that if we delve no deeper into the identities of others, we unwittingly incite a cycle of misunderstanding and conflict that can lead to problems on a larger scale. "There are so many intricacies, and all of us need continuous education and promotion of awareness," said Baird.
March 2004, this vision was granted nonprofit, federal tax-exempt status and a chance to plan for the future.
"We want to get on the map. We want to have an actual center, but getting right into a building was less important than discovering our true mission," said Baird. That mission is stated as follows on the ICCI Web site: "To celebrate and preserve cultural and ethnic traditions with dignity, pride and recognition of all people through education, exchange and community-building." Putting this mission into effect involved many meet-and-greets and potlucks where members and their guests were able to form bonds and begin to understand each other. Many of the groups make it a habit to invite other groups to their social events, weaving the international threads people like Baird and Houle put through the eye of the cultural needle. ICCI also raised $6,000 for Tsunami Relief and is planning a large summer festival that will highlight many cultures. Called the International Village, the festival will feature food, drinks, crafts, information booths, music, dancing and other manifestations of culture from ICCI members.
Baird made it clear that "American" counts as one of those cultures and that she and the rest of the board welcome anyone to donate time or money to the cause or just participate in the process.
"This couldn't be done without every single person here," she said. "We want more people to be involved and strengthen what we're doing whether it's helping with education, grant writing or networking. We find out about each other this way."
"It's wonderful the way this group has brought so many cultures together," Houle echoed. "Ultimately, it's what helps us understand the world."
For more information on how to become a member of ICCI and the ideals of organization, visit www.iccidaho.org.