It’s not every day that Nashville’s business leaders rub elbows with progressive activists. Hispanic and Kurdish teenagers aren’t always found mingling with Nashville’s most influential movers and shakers of local politics.
But a surprising cross-section of Nashville demographic groups and political orientations crowded together in a Loews Vanderbilt Hotel event room Thursday to celebrate a shared victory. Far from an unholy alliance, this group celebrated together the defeat of the English Only ballot initiative. Volunteers said Nashville is a better place for having grappled with English Only.
“Councilman Eric Crafton did something that I think was amazing. Through something so divisive, he more than any other individual brought this city together,” said attorney Gregg Ramos, a prominent immigrants’ rights advocate and outspoken opponent of the English Only amendment. “The people that are here, they’re from all backgrounds. They’re so diverse. This is the broadest-based coalition that I think this city has ever seen.”
The ballot initiative, spearheaded by Bellevue’s Crafton, would have changed Metro’s charter to require that all official government business be conducted in English. Opponents of the amendment say the amendment would have sent a message about Nashville that a variety of citizens found unacceptable.
The coalition of English Only amendment opponents was led by Mayor Karl Dean, and included the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, immigrants’ rights advocacy groups and faith-based organizations from across the mid-state area. The coalition raised in the neighborhood of $300,000, according to its campaign finance disclosures.
Ralph Schulz, president of the Chamber, said Tuesday that the victory over English Only is an economic boon for the city. Leaders of large local employers including HCA Inc. and Ingram Book Group sent company-wide e-mails urging workers to vote, but also explaining the arguments of the amendment opposition. Schulz credited Chamber supporters — as well as the volunteers who phone-banked and walked door-to-door — with making a big difference.
“The turnout was probably double what people thought it would be in the beginning. … The joy you see around this room is earned,” Schulz said Thursday evening, just after election results were announced. “From an economic perspective, it’s really important for this message to get out, for people to see what we stand for.”
Overton High School sophomore Sal Aljabbary said Thursday that he was drawn to become active due to concerns for members of his family. Aljabbary said his father moved to the United States 20 years ago and has graduated from college and secured a good job, but many in the city’s Kurdish, Hispanic and other international communities haven’t learned to speak English. An English Only amendment could have jeopardized their ability to access crucial services, he said.
“One of my aunts barely speaks English,” Aljabbary said. “What if she calls 911? Her kids have medical problems.”
Aljabbary is no stranger to activism, and volunteers with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC). In opposing English Only, he said he has worked for months, gathering signatures, hanging signs in shops, knocking on doors and placing phone calls urging voters to mobilize. He worked — and on Thursday, celebrated — alongside a group of volunteers he considers diverse.
“We didn’t see each other as [being] from different places. We’re all from the world,” Aljabbary said.