Wednesday, January 31, 2018

September in New York

Dominican Volunteer Viviana Garcia Blanco serves with the Dominican Leadership Conference at the United Nations. Viviana offers a reflection on her early days of living and working in New York.

In September, the United Nations General Assembly is officially in session. This means that streets close, traffic is in a hectic frenzy, and heavy security is enforced-everywhere. I felt so important as I made my way through the crowd; my shiny blue badge glistening in the sun, my hair impeccable, my heels striding through the crack pavement.  World leaders stop to take pictures, talk to news anchors and journalists. Police block a pack of protestors nearby. I notice a woman holding a sign, it reads: You might have won the rat race, but you’re still a rat. I laugh, not understanding. Some days later the statement clicks. It’s September in New York, I am 22 years old.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Transparency is key

Diana Hernandez explaining the Mexican tradition  of Dia de los Muertos to her first grade religion class.

Diana Hernandez serves as a 1st grade Religion Teacher teacher at  the St. Francis Center Redwood City California.

Growing up in the western suburbs of Chicago, I lived in predominantly white neighborhoods my whole life. Over the years, I observed how small towns began to expand in size, population, and diversity as many immigrants began to move into these suburbs looking for jobs and better schools for their children.

I remember my elementary and middle schools always lacked the resources needed for bilingual students. School programs such as student conferences, PTA meetings, sports, and other school events were always in English. At a very young age I had to learn to be the translator for my parents.

School was always predominantly white students and white faculty and staff. The only people of color I would see at school were the janitorial staff and the workers who cooked and served our food. It was not until high school sophomore year that I finally had a Latina teacher. It was until high school that I finally felt represented and supported by a teacher who spoke my language.

Ms. T taught social studies class with great confidence and boldness that my Latin@ peers and myself had never experienced before. For the first time, at the age of 15, I was learning about the success and accomplishments of Latin@ people. The first day of classes, Ms. T openly and liberally expressed her story of where she came from, who she was and what she believed in. She openly shared the story of how her parents left Puerto Rico and immigrated to the U.S in search for new opportunities.

Every day I woke up eager to go to Ms. T’s social studies class. She taught us history that she believed was not in the “sugar-coated American textbooks.” I remember being shocked to find out what Christopher Columbus really did to the Native American people and at the same time being frustrated that I had not been taught this truth earlier in my education.

Outside my class, Ms. T was also my track and field coach. Her mentorship helped me to feel empowered as a Latin@ woman to find confidence in my voice to speak up for what I believed in. She highly encouraged the track team to think about what colleges we wanted to get into. She always affirmed our potential by saying, “you are all intelligent and strong women you will be become successful independent women when you grow up.”

Being the first in my family to go to college, her words remained close to my heart, even when I faced financial obstacles in college and almost dropped out because I was sure I was not going to be able to afford it. I remembered her words and I convinced myself, “que si se puede,” and I became the first in my family to graduate from college.

Why am I sharing so much about my adolescent life?

When I started working at the St. Francis Center and the Siena Youth Center, I began to compare my own experiences to those of my students. From day one, I saw myself in the experiences of my 1st graders whom are all Latin@. My students and myself are blessed to have been born to immigrant parents who work hard day and night to provide for us.

Being bilingual has helped me connect with my students in ways that I had never imagined. Like Miss T, the first week of classes I shared my story with my students, I shared with them where I came from, where my parents came from, and what it meant for me to grow up as Mexican-American in this country. I quickly bonded with my students over similar cultural interests in food, music, art, and traditions. Speaking Spanish helped me communicate with their parents directly and has given me the opportunity to actively listen to their stories.

When I am not teaching 1st grade religion, I am an ESL tutor, teaching the parents to read and write in English. The first few weeks were emotionally draining as the parents openly shared their daily struggles in providing for their children. The first week I actively listened to the parents share their stories with me that both empowered me and broke me. Seeing the bruises of hard work in their arms and the dark circles under their eyes was like seeing my own parents sitting before me. It is so frustrating to know that immigrants come into the U.S. seeking better opportunities for their families and instead of supporting them our government oppresses them, places labels on them, and creates a caste systems to block their chance at success. 

Working with a Latin@ population has made me deeply reflect on the career path I want to take after my DVUSA volunteer service. Having experienced racism and oppression my ministry work has made me self-reflect that I carry with me pain and pride growing up as Mexican-American. Slowly this pain is being mended as the community I serve in Redwood City affirms my leadership skills and potential to succeed as a Latin@ woman.

My ministry work has also helped me realize that compassion and active listening can not be limited to a 40 hours a week job. I have purposely planned events and lead field trips outside my weekly work hours to make myself more available to the families and youth. Miss T taught me that true relationships do not form inside four closed walls. I hope that my students look up to me and feel represented and supported the way I did when I met Ms. T.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Seat at The Table

Our first blog post of 2018 comes from  Dominican Volunteer Stephanie Zavala! Stephanie serves at The Siena House, a homeless shelter for young mothers and their children in the Bronx New York. The names of Stephanie's clients have been omitted to protect their privacy.

I have started writing this blog about three times and there really is no way to tell you all about the incredible amount of joy and healing that the women from Siena House bring to me and to a shelter that is often heavy with loss, suffering, and grief. When I moved to our OLA community in The Bronx, all I kept hearing was that it was the children that made work worth it. But I could not stop wondering about the women I’d meet. I sat in the community room and expressed to one of our sisters that I was scared that the women would not like me, let alone want to build a relationship with me. Yes, I look like them, I share the culture, I use similar slang, and have some parallel experiences to theirs. But how could I—someone who carries the privilege of having a family, a home to run back to, and a higher education degree ever imagine that I could offer anything to the women of Siena? One of our sisters stopped me and said “You don’t have to worry about them liking you. Just think about being a role model for them,” as if it was me who was to teach them life lessons.  

Fast forward 4 months and the friendships I have formed with the women are what keep me going every day of my volunteer year. I sit with them at lunch and "S", who, mind you, slammed the door in my face one of the first weeks I was at Siena, makes me laugh until my stomach hurts. She has one of the kindest hearts and her humor is my absolute favorite. Maria is such a high maintenance princess, “Stephanie, can you watch "D" while I get her food. Can you pleeeease get me some water? Can you pleeeease carry "D" up to the third floor for me? I am so tired” but she has become one of my dearest friends. "C"’s little one, "M", has energy like no other —I reached my 10,000 steps in a BREEZE running around after her in the hospital waiting rooms. "L" comes to say “Hi” to us every single day even when she’s busy and I can tell she will remain in my life even after I leave. And right before I came home, "P" asked me to volunteer for a 2nd year…

I have never been so impressed by the power of relationship as I am when I think about my times with the women at Siena. Even seeing the ways in which these women support one another by laughing, sharing food, and taking care of each other’s children despite the daily frustrations they face in this shelter is powerful. These women have life experiences that I will never know first-hand, and to pretend like I know what is best for them or think they should see me as a role model would be one of the most condescending things I can do as a volunteer. I am an undocumented immigrant who has succeeded, and society loves to glorify stories like mine setting me as an example to follow. But when they look at women like the residents of Siena House, they feel pity or pass judgment about their history. Had I walked into Siena with this mentality, I wouldn’t share moments of laughter with the women the way I currently do.
Yes, their babies are absolutely wonderful, but we need to start believing that Black and Brown women in these circumstances are also capable of giving joy. We need to shift the narrative.

(Fellow Dominican Volunteer) Niki Klco and I work very intentionally to form respectful and genuine relationships. We are honest about our limitations to help, we practice active listening, and we honor the women’s struggles understanding how survival tactics manifest themselves in a world that marginalizes poor, Black and Brown women. Sure, maybe I did not have to worry about being liked but I did have to be a friendly and consistent presence in order to gain the trust of the residents. I learned their names as opposed to calling them by their room number, I learned their children’s names, made myself available, and shared lunch time with them as much as possible (they could not believe a staff member could ever eat with them). It was these actions that built the foundation for the friendships we share now thus resulting in the women loving Niki and I.