New Series by Esteemed Historian Michael D’Innocenzo

Photographer: Zack Lane, Hofstra University Photographer

Long Island Wins is excited and proud to introduce a new series by esteemed historian, professor, and activist Michael D’Innocenzo. A co-director of our enormously successful summit on immigration, which took place Feb. 26, Prof. D’Innocenzo will explore the history of immigration in America and its effect on our communities, our economy, our culture, and the very spirit of what it means to be an American.

Prof. D’Innocenzo teaches history at Hofstra and is The Harry H. Wachtel Distinguished Teaching Professor for the Study of Nonviolent Social Change, as well as an accomplished author and editor. In 2009, the American Historical Association named Prof. D’Innocenzo its Eugene Asher National College Teacher of the Year. He is also the co-founder of Hofstra’s Center for Civic Engagement, which partnered with Long Island Wins on our summit on immigration.

Culling from a series of pieces authored for Blank Slate Media, Prof. D’Innocenzo’s series will explore themes discussed in many of the summit sessions, as well as by immigration summit keynote speaker Michael Dowling, CEO and President of North Shore-LIJ Health System (himself an immigrant from Ireland). He also draws parallels to his own family’s immigrant experience.

The summit, titled Long Island at a Turning Point—It’s Everyone’s Opportunity, drew more than 400 people, including service providers, advocates, organizers, and elected officials to develop ideas for the future of immigrant integration and inclusion on Long Island. The crux of the summit was its seven breakout sessions, each of which focused on an important aspect of immigration—healthcare, immigration law, media, education, economy, government, and advocacy. The breakout groups were tasked with developing action steps to make the most of President Obama’s administrative relief program when implemented.

Read the first article below and stay tuned to Long Island Wins for more by Prof. D’Innocenzo.

A recent article in The Island Now, titled, “Dowling Champions Immigration,” captured some of the most significant features of what is great about our nation—throughout our entire history.

An immigrant himself, Michael Dowling gave a powerful—and emotional—keynote talk to 130 folks at the breakfast that opened the Immigration Summit conference at 8 am. He is now the CEO of North Shore-LIJ Health System, one of the major health organizations in the U.S.

He energized all in attendance by relating his own journey of struggle to advance, without money, doing blue-collar jobs, and needing to defer education until he could afford it.

As one of the co-directors of this Summit, I was moved to tears by Mr. Dowling’s account. I could empathize with his history because I, too, have lived it, taught about it (for 45 years), and written about it.

My journey was not as challenging as Dowling’s; I was born in New York, but grew up in an immigrant household of 15 people (no one ever needed a key because Nonna was always home).

Indeed, my mother’s parents, who came to the U.S. in 1907 from the beautiful Adriatic coast city of Pescara, never spoke a word of English.

My immigrant dad, who came from the tiny town of Casalbordino, had three years of schooling.

Like many children in immigrant families, then and now, my first language was that of my elders; I could not speak with my grandparents, with whom I lived, unless I spoke Italian.

Like generations of immigrants from most nations, they went through a process of being in America, without really being part of America.

As Tom Paine wrote in Common Sense (1776) the United States was a beacon for all humankind—offering new and better opportunities than anywhere else in the world.

My mom and dad spoke to us in Italian; we answered them in English.

In school, I received speech therapy for years (later, I related that to Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady” regarding how speech and education reflect the perception of people in society).

Although we lived in a “Little Italy” ghetto, the new America gave all of us a chance to advance.

My emotional response to Michael Dowling’s story was because he vividly illustrated my dad’s journey. A few months before he died, my father said to me: “You are a big shot historian, when are you going to write my story?”

Luckily, I was able to do extensive recording of his experiences. When I asked my dad what I should call his story, he said, “Michele, youa (sic) call it ‘how the low people moved up.’”

In retrospect (and, at that time, as well), I did not like the idea of any people describing themselves as “low people.”
But, clearly, what my dad was celebrating was what Michael Dowling highlighted: the United States has been the best poor peoples’ country in the history of the world—that is truly “exceptional.”

However, it is not sufficient to stop at that point.

The summit on immigration, jointly sponsored by the Hofstra Center for Civic Engagement and Long Island Wins (led by the remarkable Maryann Sinclair Slutsky) arranged 10 discussion sessions that followed Mr. Dowling’s brilliant keynote talk). More than 400 people participated.