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In 'Welcome to Shelbyville,' small town wrestles with demographic change

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2011 - In the heart of the Southern Bible Belt, the small town of Shelbyville, Tenn., faced the challenges of demographic change. Shelbyville is a deeply religious, traditional town that maintained strict segregation of whites and blacks until the 1960s.

A large wave of Mexican immigrants began arriving in Shelbyville in the early 1990s, disrupting the town's carefully cultivated homogeneity. After the turn of the current century, Somali refugees came to Shelbyville, further blurring the town's religious and race lines.

"Welcome to Shelbyville," a documentary film by director Kim Snyder, depicts Shelbyville's demographic tensions at the height of the 2008 presidential election.

The film, which will be screened Thursday at the Missouri History Museum, is presented by the Nine Network, the Missouri History Museum and Welcoming Missouri. The Welcoming Missouri Initiative is a project of the Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates and an affiliate of Welcoming America.

MIRA Board Chair Joan Suarez said Welcoming Missouri focuses on educating the legislature and the public about immigration in an effort to do something about immigration stereotypes.

According to Suarez, Shelbyville is one of the first places the Welcoming America campaign started. "Welcome to Shelbyville" brings the viewer into the essence of this town as residents from many backgrounds attempt to knit their community into one piece.

The tension immigration created within Shelbyville permeates the discourse of each group living in the town. One trailer for the film features Al Stephenson, former mayor of Shelbyville. "From what I know about Muslims, they don't like us," he says. "They're out to kill us, as we know from 9/11, and it just scares me."

The next scene shows Hawo Siyad, a Somali woman who works at the Tyson Foods plant in Shelbyville, driving to an early-morning shift. "I had always imagined America as a place where I could work, find better education and live peacefully," she says. "But most people are not welcoming to me."

Though the town's segregationist past is long gone, the arrival of new immigrants and refugees brings old prejudices to the surface.

Slowly, some community leaders begin bridging the gaps between Shelbyville's varied residents. The Welcoming campaign is formed, with several members from the earlier wave of Mexican immigrants, people who can easily recall their own struggle to fit into the community.

Many of the same issues Shelbyville faced are present in Missouri and many other parts of the country. "(It's) the whole question of how you bring the community together and get them talking to each other," Suarez said.

Suarez said Shelbyville's journey to bring the community together is relevant for St. Louis because many of St. Louis' neighborhoods can be considered microcosms of Shelbyville, given their ethnic diversity.

Table discussions will follow the film screening. Viewers will have a chance to express their opinions about the movie and discuss whether or not the solutions Shelbyville found are applicable here in St. Louis.

"It's a matter of asking people what they think," Suarez said.

Erika Miller, a senior at Saint Louis University, is an intern with the Beacon.