There’s a saying, “People come for a season, reason or a lifetime.” It’s my great pleasure to know that Betty Cruz, the founder, and force behind Change Agency is here for a reason and a lifetime. Change Agency, a social enterprise missioned to elevate civic initiatives including implementation of a countywide community-designed immigrant integration plan that exists independent of government is one of many ways Betty is purpose-driven about creating positive social impact. Having known Betty for over a decade, while I could not have predicted her exact course, I had certainty that her commitment to social justice was more than a 20-something fad. In October 2016, Betty was awarded the prestigious 40 Under 40 Award for her outstanding contribution to the Pittsburgh community. Her work is positive, progressive and offers a promise (as well as many solutions) of the kind of humanity and equality we collectively need to bring forth from an ideology into practice.
Most recently, Betty launched Kids Without Borders, a multi-cultural family-friendly event to create awareness and space for inclusive play and open dialogue to occur. The event, funded by The Sprout Fund, was in direct response to the new administration’s 100 Days Plan and was a tremendous success. (The event was on January 29th). The youngest residents enjoyed the Imagination Playground and other kid stations, while teens participated in a range of creative and interactive workshops to develop improv, slam poetry, and photography skills designed to encourage positive expression through storytelling. Additionally, there were family workshops including a Know Your Rights panel, anti-bullying session, and counseling support.
I asked my first generation Cuban-American friend her thoughts on change-making in an authentically powerful and sustainable way. Here are her thoughts. Take notes!
How did you come up with the idea for Kids Without Borders?
In the days following the 2016 Presidential election, I started hearing stories from across our community of parents who were concerned and dealing with children who were distraught – worried for their families, their friends, or their own future. Some represent the very communities that were being targeted during the campaign who now feared for what policies may follow. Other communities became targets after the election and were dealing with emboldened neighbors now openly directing hateful words and actions towards them. Service providers began putting out calls for pro bono legal help and counseling to support families. It seemed clear that we needed to do something to counter this angst, remind our youth that they are valued just as they are, and connect families to resources.
What are some of the issues these children are facing every day in school and in their neighborhoods?
In terms of the everyday issues immigrant kids are facing, it can include a number of things that come with integrations and amplified by the challenges that come with growing up. We often talk about the importance of building welcoming communities in order to support immigrant integration. Well, schools are an essential part of the community and the experiences that youth have in school will impact them for the rest of the life. Feeling like they connect and have access to the same types of opportunities as their classmates are important. The stories that have been shared with me post-election include youth from all backgrounds who more than anything communicated an elevated sense of fear. In some cases, these fears are reinforced by increased incidents of bullying.
Your parents came to this country as immigrants, right? Can you tell me a little bit about that? Specifically what that meant to you growing up?
Growing up Cuban-American in Miami meant that I was hyper aware of my Cuban roots. My first language was Spanish, my parents had a small Cuban restaurant most of my life, and family conversations almost exclusively focused on Cuba – the family that was left behind; history and politics of the island, and its unfulfilled potential; the embargo; new Cuban arrivals and how they compare to generations before. All things Cuba and Cuban-American are dissected regularly.
Pittsburgh, like other cities around the country, is a designated refugee relocation community (“Sanctuary City”). While recently there has been much negative talk about welcoming refugees, many local residents have extended their communities with open arms. What do you think the real temperature is in the country, or at least in Pittsburgh about open doors?
Many of the fears and distortions about immigrants, specifically refugees are coming from communities that have never encountered a person of color much less an immigrant. This is why exposure, education, and intentionally connecting communities around their shared experiences is so important. In Pittsburgh, as in many urban areas, the community has voiced a great deal of interest in supporting welcoming efforts by connecting with their neighbors and taking proactive steps to volunteer. When we talk about welcoming and what that looks like it needs to be more than just being a good neighbor – although that is an incredibly important start.
Lastly, what can we do on a supportive, personal and or more organized way to provide resources, open doors and safety to these children and their families?
Start where you are. Open your home to break bread and have a conversation with someone you otherwise aren’t connected with in your day to day life – maybe they’re an immigrant, LGBT, Black American, Muslim. We can put up lots of walls to many different groups. If you’re an employer, take inventory of what you are doing to be more welcoming at your organization both to your staff and to your clients. If you have the privilege of serving on a board, do your part to get diverse faces around the table and push the organization to challenge themselves on what they are doing around equity and inclusion. If you are a parent, find out what your child’s school is doing to be more welcoming to English as a Second Language students and their parent. You can always support organizations advancing welcoming efforts and pushing for more equitable opportunities by donating you time, funding, and even by attending events. If we want to see more opportunity and investments in these communities, we need to show up and support them.
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