"For Native people, we believe that we walk on Mother Earth with momentum. Every step that you take, make sure that you do it right because somebody else is following you. You’re opening and building that path for others to follow."
Pictured above, Teresa Vivar, Executive Director of Lazos America Unida
Teresa on who she is, and her role and journey in forming Lazos…
"My name is Teresa Vivar and I am the executive director of Lazos America Unida, which is a Mexican-American organization in the state of New Jersey. We’ve been serving the community for the last 30 years. I started organizing when I was 18 years old. The reason I do this is because when I came here back in 1995, there were few places that would offer health services and legal resources to community members that spoke languages other than English. Most of these places that offer those services did not have translators. Therefore, getting access to these resources was difficult. Most of us young, women organizers came from rural towns with Native people. A lot of people use the word “Indigenous” people, but we prefer the words “People from the First Nations”, or “The First People”. We’re Native people from this land, so for us, immigration does not exist and persist in the view of Anglo people, or White people. For us to walk Mother Earth, it’s one. We don’t see the divisions, we just walk by whatever is needed in the transition of one place to another which is something natural for us. For example, as I said I grew up in a rural town, so our agricultural practices and food practices were organic. We don’t buy canned food, we buy fresh produce at the market. We even farm with our own animals and hunt. A few days ago, I was speaking with Oaxacan community members talking about the practices of hunting for our tables. By trying to find a way to connect these practices of health and human resources that only speak English, and build this bridge where this exchange of knowledge can coexist, we have to establish an organization where Anglo people could collaborate with us. I found that everyone from the Oaxaca area and other Native groups, although the cultures differ, we have to collaborate with the state government in order to find translators to help us communicate with health departments, hospitals, clinics, jails, and in trials in courts. Many things around Native or Original Peoples needs this collaboration from Lazos, not only in New Jersey, but also in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts in order to create this network of language resources.
Right now, I think we have more groups that have come up because of COVID. As Native Mothers, we have the sense of caring and nurturing other people. If you care about your kids, you need your kids to get up for others as well. Not just Native people at home, but Native people here share that. Regardless, we care. So I think that’s the reason behind my and other Lazos’ women’s work."
Teresa on the importance of policies that preserve Native heritage, language, and tradition …
"Well it’s a process. Right now, we don’t all know what specific policies exist to protect Native people. So first we need education on what policies are already in place in New Jersey, especially on who they consider to be Native people. Starting with research about it, we’ll see what the needs are. From there, we can start writing policies that maybe are present in other states, but that we’re not doing here. Also, we need to collect data on who these Native people are, what languages they speak, what resources they need, or if they need translators. All of the housing leases are in English, and don’t always have translations. A lot of people don’t know about the services that are available to them. If Natives aren’t already protected, then we can start somewhere. Also, with all the money that has already been given for cultural preservation and history, we need to see where that money has gone and who it has gone to. For example, in New Jersey, I noticed that funds aren’t necessarily given to the Lenape tribe. There’s research about Native people that isn’t being used for Native people. I think we have to start thinking about Native people year round, globally, not just during this month. And then I think little by little, we can start changing the sentiment of only paying attention during Thanksgiving, or during Native and Indigenous People’s Day. Something I want to work on is a Native People’s Day in New Jersey. We might lose our elders soon, so we need them now to speak at higher levels. Definitely, we can do more."
Some of Lazos’ recent successes and core values…
"I grew up educated in arts and humanities in my country, and I learned very young that if we didn’t have the connections with our original towns and roots and try to preserve the cultural events and activities, we might lose our identity. By losing this, we are taking away the future of our children, and the authenticity of who we are. Every activity that Lazos did in the beginning was connecting back to folk art, folk dance, Original music, and the history behind these dances and music. We taught youth how to dance certain things, where they come from, and where it originated from. These activities that Lazos did for years brought people from Mexico. We would invite people to speak to the youth, and teach them about their hometown and what it means.
Lazos is also women-directed. All of us, even the board members, are women. This is the only Mexican organization in the tristate area that is organized by women. We provide this example for more than 300,000 Mexicans that live in New Jersey. During COVID, a lot of women started selling handmade items from their own countries, like Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador. To form these connections, we found that it’s important to invite the people that are actually doing the art. Everything can be lost in the commercialization of our art, and if we don’t keep the essence of it, we have to remind people that we are Protectors. Protecting our resources and our culture means preserving the identity of the youth. Native Mexicans survive because we have to learn to transform our beliefs, but we continue to pray to everything that we believe in so that we never let it die. Now, what we try to do is embrace and connect with other people. For example, in New Jersey, we connect with the Lenape people who exist in our state and let them know that it is okay to let others know that they are here, to fight back, and extend themselves with pride. It’s hard for me to see how many youth have been lost in the transition. In order to “fit”, it feels like you have to lose who you are, your language, your dresses, you feel shame- it’s so sad.
Right now there’s a collaboration in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and even California to create a group of translators- it’s called Cielo. Each group in each state is part of a network that offers translations and legal services, which is something that we’re so proud of having, especially now that the Mexican Consulate is going to be opening in New Jersey to serve NJ Mexicans. We’ll be able to include the network that Lazos has spent so many years building in the government as well.
Since we’re talking about Thanksgiving, Native people teach our youth to be grateful- grateful and respectful for other people and languages, as well as service and supporting others. For Native people, we believe that we walk on Mother Earth with momentum. Every step that you take, make sure that you do it right because somebody else is following you. You’re opening and building that path for others to follow. You need to teach your youth to be gentle, to be kind, to be a service to others, and to be grateful for and protective over what you have. We are protectors, and we have to teach people how to protect these traditions too."
What does the month and tradition of Native American Heritage Month and Thanksgiving mean to Teresa as a leader in the Native social justice movement in New Jersey…
"I think it’s about getting involved, as I mentioned before. Maybe with your family, try to collect some funds, go to places and work with them on an activity that they might use these funds for, or help to establish a program. These projects could be something that is going to provide support to women, something where you can learn about the culture. The holiday is a commercialization. In our hometowns, we invite people that don’t have food to eat, we send money to people who are working on projects back in our hometown. Right now, we’re working on raising funds for women in Oaxaca that make dresses and jewelry. We need to transform this celebration into something more active. Every year, we collect groups of people to raise funds to provide for projects back home."
One thing Teresa wants everyone to know about the Mexican community is that…
"We’re keepers of the traditions and legacies of our ancestors who were here to preserve the environment, protect our resources, and teach us how to live in that organic way with everything that is around us. The Native people are keepers of these values. The commercialization of these “past lives” takes it away. Native people represent the balance of these scales, to keep our feet in the ground. They’re connection between these scales and Mother Earth. Our connection is so important and beautiful that it needs to be nurtured and learned from. If you attend a ceremony with Native people, you learn so much from the elders, dancers, speakers, and practices. In any Native group in any country, they teach through music, arts, and anything their hands have made. It’ll all differ, but all art is like a human being- it’s all different. When they offer you something, it’s all unique. That’s something I think we can all learn from it- be unique, be yourself, don’t be afraid of your existence. You have to cultivate yourself in a way that’s in peace with everything around you. But also, the capacity of resilience that they offer to us is important.
Something that we need to do, and that I suggest, is visit these groups and learn from them. You become part of something more real. You can either be a viewer, or an agent of change. You have to become a light and inspire others to do the same. You’ll never be able to learn exactly what we go through unless you see it. Elders still find ways to teach us now. They’re weaving history and traditions for younger generations."
Teresa’s tips for observing this holiday alongside loved ones while also making space to dismantle and confront white supremacy and the legacies of settler colonialism…
"My suggestion is just to find groups that provide for Native people and work with them on their activities to help establish programs and projects that provide for women and the Native culture. We have a lot of Native people that do folk art, but they just need the space to sell it. Invite speakers, invite artists to showcase and sell what they make, they just need the chance. These programs should be year round, not just one day. Every day, someone should be able to contribute to it, and it should continuously be used to preserve the culture and support tribes. It can even expand, and should be made to be more sustainable. For example, we always need volunteers at Lazos. Any kind of knowledge is welcome to continue building this bridge. This is a transnational effort that Lazos runs throughout multiple countries, and we need people to help coordinate these efforts so that they don’t die. Here in New Jersey and the tristate area, we need people."
Teresa’s favorite activities outside of Lazos…
"I grew up with priests, nuns, and elders all around me who I felt so connected to. We call them old souls, “espiritu viejo”. I love to speak with elders and hear stories. It’s never lost time to sit down and hear these stories, knowledge, and experiences. You learn so much. Also, I like hiking and outdoor activities. When we go hiking and light a campfire, I speak with Grandpa Fire, and it helps me a lot in terms of mental health. Speaking with Grandpa Fire outdoors in the night with a little mezcal and tobacco- I love it. With my grandmother, she used to keep her mezcal by her side on her altar. She used to use incense and tobacco as sort of a healing process. You don’t use these kinds of things to abuse them, it’s medicine. Every society has something. I enjoy the solitude. In New Jersey we don’t always get that, so just enjoying a nice sunrise or having moments to yourself is what I like."
“I’m bringing my work into the community because I’m from the community. That’s how we’re bridging that gap”
-Johan Mora-Valverde, Youth Coordinator at SPAN Parent Action Network
Johan on who he is, what he does, and why he does it...
"My name is Johan Mora Valverde and as the SPAN youth coordinator, I came into the organization about two years ago. My main role is to support, design, and create initiatives to connect with youth and young adults with disabilities. We do that through weekly chats, our blog, webinars, conferences, self-advocacy, and things of that nature. I do it because I’m a young adult myself, as well as an uncle, nephew, and sibling to individuals with disabilities, so these are my life experiences that I bring onto the job, so it’s all shared between personal and professional work."
Johan's part in SPAN's recent successes...
"I can speak on two levels: the work that I do, and the work that SPAN as a whole does. I work on the Youth Chats and Blogs, which started around when I came on, around two years ago now in 2020. These are initiatives that welcome youth and young adults, and we’ve had over a thousand attendees join these chats over these two years. We also started a blog to talk more about these chats, where we talk about advocacy, youth empowerment, and how you can get involved with New Jersey state services for individuals with disabilities. But we’ve also expanded to professionals across the region, because SPAN is a parent center, so the Office of Special Education and Programs, which is part of the Department of Education, provides funding for a parent center in every state and territory. We’re divided into regions, so we’re part of Region A, out of 26 regions. We’re also the lead of that region and team, so we expanded the blog to different parent centers, and we have subscribers from all across the nation, to which we’ve seen incredible successes there. We have at least 400 monthly visits to our blog! For SPAN as a whole, we’re celebrating successes that we’re seeing in the process. So right now, with the 2023 Appropriations Bill and the federal government, the President’s budget has called for a 50% increase in funding for parent centers that currently receive $30 million. Overall, this could mean an increase of around $250 thousand to SPAN and the work that we do. This language is present in both the Senate and House version, so we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
Another thing that we’re working on is the National Defense and Authorization Act, which is thanks in large part to SPAN staff, Peg Kinsell’s, advocacy (More about this Act can be found at the end of this interview). This is historic because they set up a competitive grant modeled after the parent center language in the Individuals for Disabilities Act. This is important because for every military installation in the country, it must include IDEA language that we use in parent centers. This means supporting military families in their own journey with their youth or young adults with disabilities, which is all new, historic funding that they’re bringing into the Department of Defense."
How Johan works to build inclusivity across the many demographics of New Jerseyans who use SPAN as a resource...
"SPAN, being the only designated parent and training center in NJ, has a responsibility to bring in funds from the Department of Education into our families. The primary goal is to support not only individuals with disabilities, but focusing on what that looks like to these individuals. We can’t pick and choose which families we work with. In New Jersey, we have communities of mixed backgrounds, indigenous communities, people of color, communities where language access is an issue, and they’re only growing. So as SPAN receives these funds, we have to meet the communities at their needs, wants, and support them in their strengths. And we can only be inclusive and accessible if we’re living up to that goal and mission that we set out to do. Not only is it important for us, but it’s important for any organization to be representative. One of the many things we do is host a Warm Line at our organization for technical assistance. We encourage families to call in, and we have staff all over New Jersey in every county. Some of them sit on boards of education, on the ground for different projects, work on our maternal and healthcare grants, and more. These services primarily affect immigrants, and as an immigrant myself, that’s how I got involved with SPAN. Our organization is to allow families to take advantage of these resources that are offered. And actually for the first time ever, we received funding from the NJ Dept. of Labor for our efforts at SPAN."
As the school year is in full swing and school can be considered a safe haven for many, creating an equitable and safe environment means...
"For me, as a youth coordinator, it’s not just about making sure these youth and young adults are in school, but also in jobs. When we talk about school, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What does that come with’. We have these individuals looking for the next step at a transition age. We have students with disabilities who are 14, which is important because from 14-18, they’re going through the last four years of school, and they need to know if their IEP (Individualized Education Program: a legal document under United States law that is developed for each public school child in the U.S. who needs special education) helps them after they’re 18. Because of the pandemic, many of these students might be aging out of the school system and might not have had the opportunity to be part of this program, and don’t know where to go. As an alternative to this or guardianship, where a child transfers all of their rights to a guardian, we teach supportive decision making and teaching students how to handle their own IEPs, instead of handing over all control to an adult. However, it’s off putting when these conversations don’t include the youth. Their way of communicating is their best way of communicating, so they should still have a voice in the process."
Risk factors for BIPOC and immigrant children are higher than most, especially when it comes to mental health. How does SPAN address these issues with your work and resources?
"Mental health is still at a crisis. Although we’ve gotten to the point that we don’t see it in the headlines as much, it’s still happening. We see it through our Warm Line. We get a lot of calls from parents and families, and there’s always a mental health component. It doesn’t get easier when schools are struggling to bring these services in, especially in the immigrant community. On my end, we try to bring in organizations that already have nationwide initiatives. For example, we brought in ASAN, which is the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and they do a lot of work to empower these individuals on mental health, as well as bring in professionals to strategize programs in schools and communities. We brought them on to speak with our Executive Directors, talk to students, and be in our Youth Chats and Blogs. A lot of these initiatives can look like just putting resources out there, not only what self-care looks like, but what is the NJ Department of Health doing? New Jersey has a lot of resources on the NJ Youth page by county that lists where you can go for health care, clinics that are available, and more.
The staff isn’t just reaching out to these communities, we’re part of these communities. I live in Newark, NJ, but was raised in Plainfield, NJ. So not only am I here, but I’m also a student, a resident. I’m bringing my work into the community because I’m from the community. That’s how we’re bridging that gap."
Johan on why it's important to have wins for the youth, by the youth, and how that changes the implementation of initiatives in the long run...
"At SPAN, a colleague of mine and I have started an initiative called “Advocacy Stories: By Youth, For Youth”, which is a playlist on YouTube where we invite youth and young adults who have gone through IEP meetings, their state’s systems for individuals with disabilities, who have advocated for themselves, and who have been in situations where there was no one to help them, and we recorded their story. Not only did we record it, but we tied a resource to what they were sharing. These are life experiences, and you can’t really go through a campaign or help communities if you don’t have a story yourself to share. They are the experts of their own experiences. Not only should these resources empower families, but that these families are directly brought into the communities. And as I said before, our SPAN staff is representative of our communities. Everyone on our staff is a parent, a sibling, or has a relation to someone with a disability. So we are not only leading campaigns for these communities, but as a part of them, so the work affects us. It goes in a full circle, especially when focusing on youth and young adults like myself. Although we believe in allyship, we believe that we should have someone in the room who’s been in the room for many years beforehand, supporting us."
One of Johan's passions outside of work is...
"One of the things I’m passionate about outside of work is higher education! SPAN works mostly at the point that stops before higher education, because the IEP process happens during your transition age, but while there are some initiatives for college students, I’m passionate about higher education and getting financial aid to individuals with or without documentation. I lived it. I’ve gone through an Associates, Bachelors, and am now starting my Masters, and I did all that by myself. As a first-generation student, you have to do it all yourself. In my own way, I share resources online to my friends, family, and siblings to let them know that there’s a lot of money here, or programs like Rutgers-Newark’s RU-N to the TOP, where just graduating from a New Jersey high school can get you a certain amount of money!"
Check out more from SPAN below!
Aidee Pascual (left), our Community Events Coordinator and Administrative Assistant, is the daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico and was born and raised in New Jersey. She is thoroughly impassioned with the work led by coalition members at NJAIJ and supports the critical infrastructure the coalition needs for our work ahead. Laura Bustamante (right), is our Policy and Campaigns Manager. Prior to joining NJAIJ, she was the Chief of Staff to Jersey City City Councilman James Solomon where she managed and maintained the day to day operations and helped lead and coordinate key progressive initiatives like affordable housing, social justice issues, and improving government efficiency. Aidee and Laura are cornerstones here at NJAIJ, and we celebrate them and their Latinx heritage every day!
A large part of our philosophy at NJAIJ isn’t to just celebrate holidays, heritage months, and special wins just when they happen, but rather to keep the sentiment going year round. How do you make sure to connect to and honor your Hispanic heritage on a daily basis?
Aidee: "My family is my strongest tie to my heritage. I honor that by asking them about what it was like to grow up there, what they miss, what they don’t, etc. They always have new stories to tell and it reminds me of the entirely different lives they lived before coming to the US. I believe knowing my family’s personal history connects me more to them and to my culture as well. On a more regular basis I like to blast my mom’s favorite Spanish pop songs of the 80s and drop in on her for the best Mexican food you just can’t get at a restaurant."
Laura: "Staying close to my culture and heritage is really important to me and it’s something that I always say it’s in my blood (quite literally). One way that I stay connected to my culture is by listening to music in the morning’s when I get ready for work or what I have in the background when I’m at my desk. I especially love listening to vallenatos, salsa, and everyone’s favorite Bad Bunny. I’m also really lucky to have Colombian stores near where I live so for breakfast I almost always have arepa and Colombian coffee which makes me feel as if I was in Medellin."
As a Latinx woman of the immigrant community in politics and advocacy, what does this identity mean to you, and why do you think it’s important?
Aidee: "Being the Latinx daughter of immigrants and being able to work in advocacy is extremely important because it is the ultimate way of honoring my parents and all of my family. I can’t change what they’ve had to go through as immigrants in the US, but I can be a part of the movement towards justice for them."
Laura: "First, I’ll say I stand on the shoulders of giants that came before me, people that inspire me everyday that look like me and since I was a little girl made me feel like I too one day could use my voice to create change. I’m thinking of women like Sonya Sotomayor, Michelle Obama, and some local women right here in New Jersey like Senator Ruiz and activists like Karol Ruiz. It is thanks to so many Latina women that came before me that I felt the empowerment to get involved in this movement. I think being loud and proud of who I am in this space is extremely important because it gives so many others like me a voice that they might not even know they have. Historically immigrants especially women of color have always been pushed to the side and are repeatedly told their concerns don’t matter. Due to this, those that are in this space need to be 10x louder and stronger to ensure our issues are always heard and we aren’t left behind no matter what space we are in."
Pictured above: New Labor celebrating the Temp Workers Bill passing through the Senate in August 2022
"For me, in the role of an organizer, it’s about getting behind people and pushing them to be in the front. It’s about getting people to come to their own conclusions, it’s good to be on the sidelines and watch that happen"
-Lou Kimmel, Organizer and Co-Founder of New Labor
Lou on who he is, what he does, and why he does it...
"I’m Lou Kimmel, director and co-founder of the organization New Labor. We educate organizers to fight for better conditions for work. We have centers in Lakewood, Newark, and New Brunswick. We have mostly low wage, Latinx and immigrant workers as our members. We do things together that we can’t do on our own, such as learning English, fighting against wage theft, supporting different campaigns that can improve our different circumstances of work, and fighting for comprehensive immigration reform among other things. As a co-founder, I didn’t know anything about anything, and I’ve been learning from people along the way and members themselves. I was brought in to start an organization for people that didn’t have one. So in the year 2000, it was temp workers in New Brunswick. What people wanted was to learn English, so we actually started the organization around that, and lo and behold, it wasn’t just temp workers that wanted to learn English. So we created this space to build relationships and develop skills. Organizing through education is not just learning English to get ahead, but rather, if everyone is facing the same bad employers and bad landlords, we can build bonds of trust, connection, and identity in that space to help people move along, what we call, the ladder of engagement. We’re always about developing leaders, and a majority of our leaders come out of the membership itself. As for why we do this- what are the alternatives? Do nothing? For me, in the role of an organizer, it’s about getting behind people and pushing them to be in the front. It’s about getting people to come to their own conclusions, it’s good to be on the sidelines and watch that happen. Knowing your rights is not enough. If you don’t have the group behind you, it doesn’t do anything. Because of the difference in power, even if you know your rights you’re not always going to assert them."
Some of New Labor's current successes and campaigns...
"It’s not just New Labor, but the Temp Workers Bill at the state level is something that was founded around temp workers and we’ve been fighting for that for a long time. We work with Make the Road-NJ on that as well. It’s almost a victory- it’s gotten to the point where we just need Murphy’s signature. It creates the right to know, in writing, about where to go for worker insurance, pay raises, equal pay, pay transparency, and more. It allows you to not have to pay the agency provided transportation that comes out to around $2,500 a year which could be going to the local economy. We actually had a case back in 2015 where a temp agency was misclassifying their worker comp, so the state froze their assets and people were out of pay for about eight months. This is about getting rid of the bad actors and working to improve the ones that are hopefully trying to do the right thing. We’re trying to cut down on wage theft, unsafe working conditions, vans that are too crowded, harassment, discrimination, favoritism- you know, it all happens and it’s all part of the system. So this is just one tool to improve the situation. We’re also fighting for a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which is also for more transparency and written contracts. Locally in Lakewood, almost 10 years ago, we passed the first resolution in support of a local campaign which is born out of the workers’ reality there. You can’t legislate or regulate respect on the job, you have to demand it."
Lou on why it's important to center communities as a whole...
"For us, we try to look at everything more holistically, so we focus on workers first, and a lot of them are Latinx immigrant workers. But they’re part of communities also. So let’s say, community health- improving conditions for health is about improving it for everyone. If we’re creating safer workplaces, we’re creating it for everyone, regardless of who they are or where they’re from. At the end of the day it’s about improving conditions for everyone and making New Jersey a better state."
As we approach Labor Rights Week, what does that mean to you personally as part of New Labor?
"For a lot of these things, we shouldn’t be reducing them to a week or a month, it’s obviously a year round thing. And workers are beyond just a 9-5 or 11 p.m.-to 7 a.m. shift. They are parts of communities outside of that, so it’s important to symbolically remember the contributions of workers, in particular, unions that won things through bloodshed and strikes. At the end of it, there are still state laws and problems that happen. It’s not just a day for having a picnic and remembering the past, this is about the present. It’s not just US Labor Day, there’s also May Day, which is the international labor day. It’s an ongoing thing, so obviously we’ll have the public’s attention to think about work issues, just like we think about poverty around Thanksgiving and Christmas time. But it doesn’t just disappear just because it’s around those days. One of the things we’re fighting for is the Protect NJ Workers Coalition which is born out of our own reality. You know, asking how much safer are we after the pandemic? We saw people at Amazon facilities in Illinois and people at the Kentucky candle factory forced to work when tornadoes were predicted to come, and they died. It could’ve been different had they had an organizing space to say “No, we’re not going to work today because our lives are at risk”. We see the need to have health and safety committees for all, and we’ve worked with other organizations to collect surveys and hopefully have an event in September to highlight the needs in those surveys."
Why wins by and for immigrants are essential...
"The people that are involved are the ones that need to be striking the blow. We’re not trying to push anyone, we want people to realize their own potential. Change doesn’t come for a price or a paycheck- people have to want it. Stuff doesn’t happen on a policy level just because a politician woke up one day and said “I have this great idea”. It’s a result of many actions, tactics, and pressure in order for them to take action. It might take a while but it does help to hear straight from workers about their stories and why it’s going to help New Jersey as a whole. The ones that are going through it will tell that story. It doesn’t need to be me, I don’t live that reality. They have their own voice and can tell their own story. It comes down to understanding service and justice versus charity. What is the role of people, advocates, and organizations? Not to say that you can’t have social services that fulfill needs, but it’s not just about giving out those services, it’s about building relationships and hearing what the issues are and mobilizing around those. It’s important to shift narratives. There’s a certain perception of what a nonprofit is and how they operate, but it’s not always the same. It’s also about looking past staff or the head of an organization, because it’s people that make things move; it’s not about supporting something just because one person said so."
Let's say I want to get involved with organizing in NJ's labor movement. Where do I start?
"First thing is to show up to the spaces and just listen. Even if you have ideas about what would and could work, you need to listen to what people want. What are their desires or dreams? From there, you can get involved as a supporter or member. For folks that are financially well, it’s about donating and for those that have time, it’s about making the phone calls and acting in solidarity with one another."
What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many people know?
"I always answer the same thing, so people might know it by now. I’m actually 75-80% deaf in my left ear. I always use it for two truths and a lie! I’ve also broken the same leg twice during soccer. I’ve never played professionally, but I have played against Tim Howard in high school."
Lou's passions outside of work...
"Probably my family! That’s probably my top thing. My kids are 13 and nine. There’s not always time for it, so just creating that time to just be with them is important. And even though I don’t really play anymore, soccer. I play pickup games over the summer and fall, and I like watching the Red Bulls! Creating any kind of space where I can turn off any distractions is great, and for me that’s being in the woods and mountains."
Check out New Labor and what they're up to here!
“We need to continue to work towards being seen as equal and make sure that we have that same seat at the table, that our voices are heard, and that we are creating long term change in policy.”
-Rania Mustafa, she/her, Executive Director
“What PACC does, very uniquely, is to show the beauty and everything else we can offer- not to prove ourselves to anyone but for our own sake and emotional wellbeing”
-Abire Sabbagh, she/her, Community Outreach and Palestine Education Director
Abire and Rania on who they are…
Abire: "The first thing that comes to my mind is that I like to teach, and I like to think of myself as an educator in different capacities, not necessarily in the very typical classroom, but through community work and mentorship. Education is really important to me, but moreso a decolonial education, rethinking ways to disperse knowledge in a way that is tied to people with lived experiences. Politics is very important to me with or without PACC, which makes working herre great because I get to integrate that into my professional work."
Rania: "Can I answer for her? Abire is a very passionate person in terms of education, specifically with the need to bring people into the social movement. She’s great at bringing people from where they are and getting them to the place they should be in order to create positive change in the long run. I think she’s also a great friend, a great person, a newly married person! She’s also a great sister, mentor, is amazing at giving workshops and she has a huge passion for Palestine and all social justice causes. I could keep going. She’s a social justice activist in every sense of the word. She embodies it. Even in her personal relationships she’s there to advocate, mentor, help those around her, and uplift the work of those around her. She’s also huge on education- hopefully she’s going to change this entire world.
For me, I’m very passionate about the community, that’s always been something very important to me. I’ve been involved with our community specifically with different ways of advocating for our community since I was about 16. So this is a real passion of mine. I’m a mom, I have 2 kids! So that’s a huge part of my identity right now too. I have my masters- Abire has her masters too! And she’s going for a PhD and is starting in September! I have my masters in management, and a certificate nonprofit management. I have a huge passion for coaching organizations to get to their optimal potential, and I have a knack for finding the hidden gem in each person and trying to take it out."
Abire: "And life coach and marriage coach to many people."
Rania: "Life coach, marriage coach, parenting coach, everything."
Abire on why it’s important to achieve policies in New Jersey that welcome and support immigrants to become rooted economically, politically and socially within the state…
"I think a lot of places and states including Jersey pride itself on the diversity and what immigrants brought to New Jersey, so for me it’s not just a celebration of immigrants, which can sometimes feel a bit performative. Instead of saying things like “we love our immigrants because they give us this…”, we’re actually going to integrate them into all of the resources that the state has to offer so that they can internally start to grow and flourish, which in turn gives back to the state, so everyone is kind of winning. You can’t just love us when it’s convenient for the state or the nation, and then not give us the right credit and resources to help our communities prosper and do well."
PACC was recently vocal about your support for the Data Disaggregation Bill. Abire tells us why these policies are vital to New Jersey…
"For our communities specifically, the Palestinian and Arab communities, the biggest thing is that we aren’t recognized as a racial category in a lot of government agencies and paperwork. That’s harmful for two reasons. One is the social implications of that, you never see your identity actually represented and empowered. As a student for example, growing up and always having to check “White” or “Other” when that wasn’t really who I was always made me feel… othered.. I see that as socially harmful, especially to youth who struggle already with hyphenated identities and feeling like they don’t belong. Another reason is that because of the lack of representation in let’s say, medical records, we aren’t able to accurately identify medical, legal, or domestic violence issues for our community because we don’t have our own category. But if we did, we could identify the issues or themes, and then we know what we need to work on more specifically instead of having to think of such abstract ways to do critical work internally in our community. PACC was involved in a lot of the census work to make sure that we could have Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) as a category in the upcoming census so that we could get statistics to help us with our communities. But also in redistricting efforts, that’s something that PACC was really involved in, so a lot of times when you want to advocate for something on a legislative level, they’re going to ask for numbers. But if we don’t even have a category and can’t physically get those numbers here, we’re not going to be able to strongly advocate for our community needs as strongly as other communities. They don’t see how large our community is and how we could benefit from that support."
Abire and Rania on some of the organization's recent successes, and what PACC is currently leading on…
Rania: "I think our biggest success is the renaming of Main Street into Palestine Way. The actual vote was in March, but we did a huge Palestine street festival, which was the first of our kind and we had the highest attendance out of all of our previous events. People came from all over the area and people have been coming from all over the country to see it. So I think it’s been a huge source of honor for us personally, and it’s symbolic of our struggle for Palestinian liberation. In general, it’s just a huge win for our community. Since I was born and raised here and have frequented that street growing up, seeing it called Palestine Way and having people come from across the country to see the sign is just a huge win for us.
In terms of a more internal win, we’ve done a lot of internal organization and restructuring, we’ve standardized our programming and now we’re working to standardize our different positions. So I think that’s been a huge success for us to ensure long term sustainability for the organization.
Our biggest thing that we’re working on right now is our summer program, it’s a six week summer program where we cater towards kids between the ages of 5-15, and we basically provide a fun, safe environment where they can be themselves to the fullest, plus introducing a lot of social justice and Palestine education into the mix so that they can come out as critically thinking individuals. But at the same time, making sure that they can have a better sense of their identity and community that they belong to."
Abire: "We’re also continuing with our Get Out the Vote and Civic Engagement campaign, so we have our community mapping and story bank pushes that we’re doing right now, which is feeding off of the redistricting work where we want to continue mapping where the community is. So that’s asking people what city they live in and how many people there are so that we can get more data and numbers. And then the community story banking, similar to the Alliance’s, we realized that we know the stories because we’ve talked one on one, but we don’t have them documented, so we realized the importance of that. So that inspired us to have a form where people can fill out stories."
Rania: "I think that goes back to the idea of us not having a formal MENA category. We realized that we can get our work across with these stories, so we have this database to better represent our community and bring their issues to the forefront."
Last month was Immigrant Heritage Month, and PACC participated in our Immigrant Heritage Day Rally. Rania on what Immigrant Heritage Month means to her personally, especially as a leader in the social justice movement in NJ…
"I think it goes back to what abire said in the beginning. A lot of our families came as immigrants to this country. They came with the intention of making this their home, and it’s not reciprocated. Immigrants are used to bolster other people’s platforms, but when it comes to hearing the needs of these communities, it’s silent. We’re not given a proper platform or seat at the table to advocate for our issues properly. We all come from immigrant backgrounds and see how hard the generations that came before us worked, and the efforts they’ve put in to make this country what it is. For it not to be reciprocated, to be otherized constantly and questioned is a unique struggle that immigrants and children of immigrants have. We need to continue to work towards being seen as equal and make sure that we have that same seat at the table, that our voices are heard, and that we are creating long term change in policy.
Growing up, I always heard that America is a melting pot, and I think that whole idea has been completely challenged. We're not just people coming together and becoming a homogeneous person. We’re more of a salad bowl, with everyone coming with their own identity to create this vibrant “salad”, which then makes this country work and reality work. If you’re trying to take people away from their identities, you’re just going to end up messing everything up."
Rania and Abire hear a multitude of community stories every day. Here’s Rania on a story that stuck with her while at PACC, why it inspires her to continue with this work…
"One of the earlier stories that made me realize the importance of our work was when the Syrian refugee crisis was at its peak, so we had Syrian refugees come to us as part of an integration program. Someone came to us who had to be enrolled in English conversation classes to progress to the next level of this process. And I remember having conversations with him saying “They want me to learn English, but the teacher doesn’t speak English. The teacher speaks Spanish.” So the Spanish students were learning and picking it up, but we weren't. I think that stuck with me because that made me realize that, while we have a long way to go for all minorities, Arab minorities specifically don’t have that representation where what they say matters. I realized that we have a lot of work to do to recognize that one, Arabs are a growing minority, and two, to work on uplifting these voices. After that, we opened up our first English class at PACC, and one of the requirements was that our teacher had to speak Arabic. That’s something that I’ve always kept in mind. I’m privileged to have been born and raised here, so I don’t understand the struggle, but it’s about creating that space to hear the needs of the community to use the privilege to uplift these voices and get real active change.
Another quick story that guided me with the work we’re doing is that a family came in that immigrated from Jordan. The kids were failing out of school for no other reason than that they had no access to English. Their school was not offering ESL (English as a Second Language) Classes, and they were failing because they didn’t understand the language. So we worked with our connections and advocated for them to be placed into a school that offers ESL, and it was literally an act of two or three phone calls. They switched into a school out of their district for three years, and got more of a grasp of the language. Going back to the idea of language accessibility, if this family had not had advocates with the privilege of these connections and knowledge of the system, they would not have gotten that switch that had such a long term impact on their lives. It’s been six or seven years now and the kids are in high school. Sometimes, I play that game of “what would’ve happened if we had never gotten involved?” They probably would’ve failed out of school for no other reason than not having anyone understand them and not having anyone to advocate for them."
One thing we notice about PACC is your dedication to reach all ages of the community. How do you bridge the gaps between generations to fight for your common goals and come together in times of celebration, such as PACC Day?
Abire: "I think intergenerational work is a really key component of Palestinian and Arab culture, so it’s kind of reminding ourselves of that. Individualism is a very Western concept, so for us we try to keep the communal focus even within families and generations because that is a part of our culture. Not to say that elders and kids don’t have differing things that might be problematic, but the point is to work together and explain what can be changed and what we can hold onto in a comfortable way. One way we did that was with our conference last year, and the theme of it was “Past, Present, Future”. So we were learning about our past, to take lessons from it to understand the present and apply it to visions for our future. We need to know our past and our history, not to repeat it, but to better understand what’s happening now. It’s through that and visions of liberation in the future that we try to bridge elders and youth. Everyone has a role to play within the community and within the struggle."
Rania: "I think PACC Day is important because with it our main focus is to showcase the different talents of our community, so it gives them a space where they can feel like they truly belong and are able to have that platform to uplift their different passions. I think it’s also important because it brings together a sense of community. So we always have different people to get involved, so internally it’s a great way to encourage other people to come together. Also, for people who don’t usually have that sense of community, they’ll be able to meet other people there and feel a sense of belonging. They see their identity being highlighted or are surrounded by people who look like them or talk like them, and they can feel like they belong with them. Ultimately, our goal is to uplift and highlight the Palestinian narrative, which is something we definitely do during PACC Day."
Abire: "About the Palestinian narrative, I think it’s important to do it in a way where the talents and the beauty of the community and culture is highlighted. The time when Palestine is on the news is when the occupation is heavier and it’s termed as “clashes” or “conflicts”, and Palestine is seen only in the context of Israeli occupation. What PACC does, very uniquely, is to show the beauty and everything else we can offer- not to prove ourselves to anyone but for our own sake and emotional wellbeing of the youth. It’s important for them to see themselves in their community in a positive light and a better way than the occupation."
Rania on why building local, community power is important to the movement…
"I think it’s rooted in our theory of change. Our theory of change is that if you empower individuals, you empower a community. If you empower a community, they can create long term, sustainable change, which ultimately leads to the liberation of Palestine and all oppressed people. I think that’s really the guiding rule and mantra that leads a lot of the work that we do and keeps us motivated. When we’re investing in the individual, we’re always thinking about the larger community that they’re placed in, and always thinking about the societal change that that person can create. I think that’s it. We never look at it as one part. It’s like a domino effect. When you push one domino, we’re trying to see what effect that will have in the long term. Before PACC was created, the Palestinian struggle existed long before us, and there was a huge focus on Palestine, while forgetting our community here. The reality is that we won’t be able to achieve liberation there if we’re not investing in our community here. This is where PACC came in and created this sense of pride, ownership, and belonging. If they feel like this is MY struggle, they can impact generations to come. We’re creating a movement where everyone feels ownership and is working towards freedom. That’s the key. Highlighting and recognizing your privilege and struggle for liberation."
What’s the last book you read, or what book has impacted you the most?
Abire: "I just started The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence, which talks about nonprofit roles and the difficulties of being in nonprofit work when talking about revolutionary ideas."
Abire on one of her biggest inspirations…
"One of my biggest inspirations is Malcolm X. Reading his autobiography as a teenager helped validate where I was starting at, specifically as a Muslim and for Palestine. Malcolm X and his experiences aren’t taught enough when we’re young, also, in terms of contextualizing US imperialism and a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with."
Rania on what brings her joy in these turbulent times…
"This might sound cliche, but definitely my kids. When I found out I was pregnant with my son, I had a moment where I was like “Ah! Masculinity! What are we going to do with it?!” and Abire told me that you’re aware of these things and you’re able to instill these concepts to raise a new generation. That, for me, I see it as my direct contribution to the world which is how I’m instilling confidence and proper morals and values into my kids."
Check out more of Rania, Abire, and what PACC is doing here!
“We’re able to create representation and say we’re here, we matter, and we’re present, and for people who aren’t part of the community to see that we have a voice and we are going to represent ourselves."
-Stephanie Mills, Program Director at Hudson Pride Center
Stephanie Mills is the Director of Programs for Hudson Pride Center. Since joining the HPC team in 2011, she has maintained an active role on the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness committee, Hudson County HIV/AIDS Planning Council, Jersey City AIDS Task Force, Partners In Prevention’s Board of Trustees, and has contributed tremendous efforts to creating safer spaces throughout Hudson County for our LGBTQ+ community. She was born and raised in Paterson, NJ and is an alumna of William Paterson University.
Among Stephanie’s proudest moments are: becoming a parent, receiving the “Member of Excellence '' award (Americorps) and being featured in the Business Equality Magazine (Top 40 under 40 LGBTQ+ Leaders). Her overall goal is to empower members of the LGBTQ+ community to become leaders and cultivate self-sufficiency.
Stephanie on why it’s important to achieve policies in New Jersey that welcome and support immigrants to become rooted economically, politically and socially within the state…
As always, if not, we're going to see worse situations. As a nation, if we don't give folks things that they need to survive, we're going to have an apocalypse, which is where we're headed. Folks who are here and found a way to be here- I don't think we should punish them for finding their way. If you want to keep things safer, you have to give people access to things like healthcare, housing, great medical and mental health counseling, all of these things so that they can create a stable, independent, healthy lifestyle. If not, we're going to keep dealing with things like this pandemic. We have all these things happening and we can't find the answers and we can't contain it, but if people were able to live comfortably, we wouldn't have to worry about it. So I think it's important to make policies to fight for folks who are immigrants because they're here, and they need to be protected too. We all want human rights, so let's just give folks exactly that. We’re born into that. Otherwise, we're just going to be dealing with pandemic after pandemic. We had the HIV epidemic, COVID, the LGBTQ+ movement, and I'm Black, so I don't know if that's an epidemic or pandemic in itself. You have to give people what they need to be good, because if not, they're all going to be bad.
Who Stephanie is, what she does, and why she does it…
My name is Stephanie Mills, my pronouns are she/her, and I’m the Director of Programs at Hudson Pride Center. With that role I get to oversee our outreach initiatives, our social platforms that allow our folks to interact with peers about issues that they’re facing in their community, and to really celebrate their diversity. I also oversee staff, so I’m responsible for scheduling and making sure that we’re really represented in different arenas, so you’ll see us at different community centers, participating in community events, you’ll see us in medical facilities, or schools, you know we’re really everywhere that there’s a sense of community. We’re just trying to create safer spaces.
I first started with HPC in 2011. My goal was different then- I engaged directly with our youth and young adults with that program, and it was super empowering to lead a program where I saw myself plenty of times. When I first saw the position available, it was sent to me and I was like “Wow this is literally me!”, you know. I get to be paid for being LGBTQ+ and for supporting youth that have gone through challenges that I’ve been through when I was younger when I didn’t have this platform or resources. I was very proud to even apply for the position, and I ended up being awarded it. It really made me want to go super hard and make sure that the youth understood that they had a space and organization that was behind them. We needed the Youth Connect Program to represent them, and to do that, we needed them in the forefront. They were very much involved with program planning, and giving us ideas that they wanted to see happen or where we should go for outreach. So I do it because if not me or someone else in the community, who else is going to take on this role? I feel like I’m obligated to work to create safer spaces and support our youth with the tools to take on leadership roles, because one day I’m not going to be at HPC and we would love to have someone who was a Youth Connect member be considered to take on this position. That’s why I do it. To make sure that our community has a voice.
Stephanie on some of Hudson Pride Centers’ recent successes, current campaigns, and initiatives…
This might take a little while, we have a whole lot happening at Hudson Pride. So we’re grant funded to do specific things, one of them being outreach. For one particular program, it’s designed for folks specifically living with HIV, so we go out to the community, find folks who are eligible, enroll them, and help them get linked to medical care and stay adherent to their medication. With COVID-19 we’ve been utilizing other platforms to engage with folks that we normally wouldn’t see at Hudson Pride. When I say that I mean that we had an open mic for our Lez Fest group, the lesbian, bisexual, and queer identifying people. It was virtual, so we saw that we had folks from Africa and Canada, and we thought “Why have we never done this before?” We had access to areas that weren’t even on our radar. Overall, I think our success is from community leaders, our supporters, and our members in addition to the staff, board and volunteers. HPC really is a community, and everyone has a role to play for us to be successful, and that’s why I think we are- we have amazing staff leaders who are dedicated to similar visions. We’re all about creating safer spaces, and we’re all like superheroes! Everyone has their own superpower and attribute that they bring to HPC to make us so awesome. So we have all these amazing folks who are dedicated to creating a safer space for our community come together and commit to specific outreach and PrEP programs, taking on event planning and social support with the program, along with a magnificent board who can hear you and utilize their network and privilege to uplift you.
I talked to you a little about Lez Fest, we also have Youth Connect, which is a program tailored for youth and young adults ages 13-24. We have SAGE for our seasoned LGBTQ+ community, Beyond the Binary, which is for the Trans and Non-Binary communities, and it’s so important to highlight those specific groups because it’s a platform for those communities to come together with their peers who they may not see in person. Although we have a presence in Hudson County and Jersey City, when it comes down to it, we don’t always get to see each other that much. For Beyond the Binary, we have had voice coaches come in and talk about that process, we’ve had medical providers that have offered reassignment surgeries and talk about the process and what is needed, so it helps folks prepare for that journey so that they have less barriers.
For HPC, we now have Trans specific services. We previously didn’t have grant funds for Hormone Replacement Therapy, but after hearing our community and having an amazing leader like our Executive director, Liz, meet with the mayor and county folks and tell them that this is what we needed, we were able to secure small amounts of money to help folks who can’t afford to pay out of pocket when it comes to things like HRT, name change, or gender marking change. We know how valuable that is for folks to have, to have their documents align with their presentation. Again, it’s eliminating some of those barriers. The evolution of HPC has been really successful with leaders and our granters, we’re able to discuss the trends in what we’re seeing so we can request for different funding. HPC has been in existence since 1993, practically 30 years ago. The needs that we started out with in 1993 are different now. Now we’re able to communicate with our granters and community and say “This is what we’re seeing. X amount of LGBTQ+ people are dealing with homelessness. We need to have a LGBTQ+ shelter here” We just had an adult prom fundraiser this past Friday, and it was so phenomenal to be in a space with political leaders, college university reps, high school staff and just party together. Usually we’re working on something LGBTQ+ related, but to be in a space where we can really get to know them on a different level is awesome. We had young adults who aged out of Youth Connect who were able to come, and it was phenomenal to introduce those same youth in our programs to folks who made sure we had what we needed for those programs.
What Pride month means to Stephanie, personally and by being a part of Hudson Pride Center…
This is a great question! Pride has a couple of layers here. First and foremost, Pride is awareness. We’re able to create representation and say we’re here, we matter, and we’re present, and for people who aren’t part of the community to see that we have a voice and we are going to represent ourselves. So that first layer is just to say that we exist. The second layer is for us to celebrate! Celebrate the progress that we have made and celebrate our community leaders who are working hard to create a safer space to make the changes that we want to see happen. And last, definitely advocacy. We still have barriers that are placed in front of us that we have to demolish, so it continues on with the advocacy to make that change. So Pride for me is a combination of all three, its representation, celebration, and advocacy, all of that meshed into one. Pride means community needs. Folks who share that LGBTQ+ identity, who can relate to each other on some level, coming together saying “I see you, I’m here for you, I support you, we’re in this together”. So I think Pride for me is definitely community.
What continues to be a large misconception of the queer community and what can we do to address it?
I think a large misconception when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community is that to be any letter in the acronym means that you have to look a certain way or fit a certain mold. If I had to dig into it a little bit deeper, and I’ll use myself as an example (I’ve talked to my relatives a lot about Pride and they feel comfortable asking me questions that they may not ask someone else), I have a relative who always expresses to me that he sees lesbian women a certain way, and that’s because of his experience with or meeting lesbians. So because of his experience with those particular women, he based his outlook on the whole community, so at times I have to reel him in and remind him, “I know you had that experience but they don’t speak for all of us, they speak for a small part of that particular community” Another misconception is that we have some agenda to convert people to LGBTQ+, and that goes to show that people don’t understand how it works being LGBTQ+. Like, you can’t convert someone! When we fight for our rights, people who aren’t LBGTQ+ are like, “We feel like you’re trying to take over”. And we’re like, “No, we just want you to stop killing us and stop having laws that prevent us from having the same things that you’re able to have!” Another misconception: All gay men are not going to have HIV in their lifetime. Not only gay men live with HIV. We need to break down the stigma around that, and attach facts to it. And last but not least, Black Trans women. We know that Black Trans women face the most violence. I wanted to put that out there because we need to do a better job of protecting our Black Trans folks. I don’t know if that ties to the question, but I definitely wanted to put that out because I’m not sure which stigma contributes the most to the violence that comes upon Black Trans women, but I hope it stops, so note to the public: Stop killing our Black Trans women.
How is the struggle for queer liberation linked to the fight for racial justice? What can we learn from both movements?
It’s linked by just the fact that we’re fighting for equality. When you look at race, gender identity, sexual orientation, it all comes back to identity factors. These are the attributes of my identity. So when I think of the way that I'm fighting for humanity as a Black person, I'm also fighting for humanity as a non straight person. So they are linked because I'm fighting for human rights on different levels- my ethnicity, my heritage, the way I identify, the way I present to people. I’m fighting for humanity twice- squared even-, which makes this super hard. There's even a dual conflict with the intersection of being Black and being LGBTQ+, because now when I go into spaces that are exclusively black, I'm fighting for my LGBTQ+ identity to be heard and seen and respected. When I'm in spaces that are exclusively LGBTQ+, I'm fighting for my cultural identity to be seen, heard and respected. So the fight is the same, it's just two different- Or now that I'm thinking about it, is there really a difference? I don't know. They're both identity factors so I don't know if there's a huge difference. One is linked to my lineage, and one is linked to how I identify. So if there is a difference, one battle I was born into- the race battle. I was born Black. It's not like I came out and said I identify as Black. While I feel like I was born into the LGBTQ+ identity, I had to come out. One struggle I was born into, and the other one, I voiced my identity and it makes it another struggle right there.
Stephanie’s favorite pastimes and joys in these current turbulent times…
I love going outside and being near big bodies of water. I'm from Paterson, New Jersey, and luckily we have the Great Falls there, so I love just looking out into the water. I love going to Atlantic City and hanging out by the beach. I went to Asbury about a week and a half ago. I love being by the water where I can lose thought, and just letting my thoughts flow, but still not having a whole bunch at the same time. Just like a way to relax. I love looking at stars at night by the beach, that's really dope. I think it does something to my soul, and it's different from everyday city life. Of course, spending time with my kid, my princess! Her name is Kennedy, pronouns she/her. She's six, and going to be seven in October. Just her personality- she’s able to make me smile with a joke, and she loves knock knock jokes.
Learn more about Hudson Pride Center here!
"I think this month is an exciting month to take a moment to celebrate our cultural heritage. But I think that it’s also important to build solidarity with other communities, especially communities of Color and talk about who we are and what we do in conjunction with other communities"
-Chia-Chia Wang, Organizing and Advocacy Director at American Friends Service Committee-Immigrant Rights Program
Chia-Chia’s thoughts on the importance of achieving policies in New Jersey that welcome and support immigrants…
"It’s a question of human rights and equality. Everyone should have the same basic human rights, and that there are many injustices and inequalities in our country that we continue to work to dismantle, eliminate, and reduce. Once we achieve that goal of equity, everyone will feel safe, including immigrants. Whether you or your ancestors came 100 or 200 years ago, immigrants who came after that are all here for the same purposes: to pursue better opportunities for themselves. People should have the right to protection as well as better futures for themselves and their children. With that belief, New Jersey can play a role in creating a pro-immigrant, welcoming environment as well as a state with concrete policies that uphold everybody's rights. I do think that welcoming immigrants does not hurt anyone, so I see all the benefits of fair and welcoming policies."
Chia-Chia on who she is, what she does, and why she does it…
"My current title and position with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is Organizing and Advocacy Director. I started with AFSC about 16 years ago as a pretty junior staff member that didn’t really know anything about Quakers or Quakerism. I was very curious to learn about it and was looking forward to a different policy environment. I was working in New York before with a really great organization called Children’s Defense Fund doing a lot of public benefits work, but I felt like I needed a space that could speak to my own experience as an immigrant and being foreign-born. I found AFSC and have been here ever since. I believe in the work because I work with really, really good people and everybody wants to see changes. That’s one of the reasons why I come to do what I do, people want to see change and believe in change. My own values are really because of my family. You know, my grandparents taught me how to not take advantage of others, and really see how you yourself can contribute to your community. That has stayed with me."
AFSC’s recent successes and ongoing campaigns…
"One success would be helping to ban of ICE Detention contracts in New Jersey, which just became law last year. It was really quick, but it wasn’t just about the policy that became law. It was about how we were able to get support from legislators, the community, and the State, and move the public to stand against incarcerating people for profit. For me, the most significant thing is that there is a change of hearts and minds, there is a broader support for immigrant rights and for anti-detention work.
Now, we are advocating for the passage of the Values Act (A1986/S512), in coalition with other NJAIJ members. We continue to support Temporary Protected Status holders to obtain permanent residency, and serve a large number of DACA holders and their families.
We are working on two new program areas. One is to cultivate immigrant women’s leadership in immigration, anti-detention, and anti-deportation organizing. We want to support them as they share their stories and call out the injustices they face. The second new program we’re working on is supporting the leadership development of Black immigrants, primarily focusing on those of West African and Haitian descent. Haiti is very special for me and others (such as Serges Demefack who’s going to be the lead person for this work) because of the multiple oppressions that Haitians face in their country, in Latin America, and in the US. We hope to see more Haitian leadership in coming years."
Chia-Chia on what AAPI Heritage Month means to her personally…
"This month is an exciting month to take a moment to celebrate our cultural heritage. Though, t’s also important to build solidarity with other communities, especially communities of Color and talk about who we are and what we do in conjunction with other communities. There’s a need for that. There’s often a disconnect between Asian Americans and other immigrants and communities of Color. I say that because I’m usually the only Asian person in rallies and policy work. It’s exciting to see people like Amy Torres, as well as a few other leaders, joining the policy and organizing work in New Jersey.
In terms of myself, I have a little bit of a different experience. My grandparents moved to Taiwan, and my mom went to Taiwan when she was two years old. I lived the first 22-years of my life in Taiwan, and I believe that - and this is getting political - Taiwan is not part of China. I have the experience of being categorized or defined as a stateless people, and there is often ignorance among advocates to make comments like “Why don’t you want to be part of China'' or “Why don’t you want to be Chinese” or “What’s the difference, they’re all the same”. While fighting for others rights, it’s sometimes hard to assert your own rights because it’s not something that everybody else has to fight for. It takes time to invest in relationships to have conversations about the perception of who Taiwanese people are. I want to just mention that I do have my own identity, and that might be different from others. I encourage people to not generalize because of my last name or where I came from."
AAPI Heritage Month as part of Chia-Chia’s work at AFSC…
"I don’t think there is any Asian person in leadership at AFSC. Because of this, I’m proud to be where I am in a small local leadership program, but its difficult. I do think that within the Asian and Asian American community, there’s a lot of silence about the oppression that we faced years ago and continue to face. When you face or receive unfair treatment, Asian Americans usually don’t say anything. In general, there's a common culture where we don't want to talk about politics. “Why do you work in nonprofits?”, “Why do you talk about policies?”, “You should work in finance.”, “You should try to be a lawyer or a doctor” or “Work to support your parents”. Theres an endurance in order to survive hardship or oppression or discrimination and not talk about it. We need to change that. If we don't talk about those discriminations or oppression or the unfairness that we encounter, things will never change. Larger communities must also realize that Asian Americans face a great deal of discrimination. One day, I was just walking down the street in Newark and kept reflecting to myself, “how am I being seen on the street?”. An altercation happened where someone spat on my shoes and joked about it. This was not a joke to me, but I didn’t want to start a fight. Did they not expect me to speak up because I’m Asian? Maybe. I do think that those things can be very hurtful, and if you don’t talk about it, then you’ll never be recognized."
Chia-Chia shares her thoughts on indigeneity within the AAPI Community…
"I love the word Pacific Islander. I haven’t read much about Pacific Islanders but Taiwan is an island that's in the Pacific. There were a lot of indigenous communities that I grew up with and I’d like to be recognized as part of that community, rather than the inland community. I also want to highlight Pacific Islanders as the original people in many parts of Asia."
What’s the last book you read/what book has impacted you the most?
"I can’t name one! I have a lot of different interests. In recent years I enjoyed fictional novels based on true history. I love those. I read a lot of African history, about African wars based on tribal history and conflict. I really enjoyed those, and learning and appreciating the little things about it, like how food sometimes united them. I’m also very interested in psychoanalysis. I like reading on how people’s minds change their behavior or how there are certain things that are passed down through generations.
Recently, I’ve picked up some Chinese writing because I’m forgetting how to write things. I think that I’m going to lose it more as the years go by, so I’ve started reading traditional Chinese books, from novels to self improvement books."
Check out AFSC-Immigrant Rights Program here!
“When we talk about environmental injustice, we are talking about our neighborhood being seen and used as a dumping ground for corporations. We are talking about the land being sacrificed and people being displaced. We are talking about our neighborhood being targeted by companies because they want to build on our community.”
-JV Valladolid, Environmental Justice Organizer, Ironbound Community Corporation
An introduction to JV…
"My name is JV, and my pronouns are JV. I am an Environmental Justice Organizer with the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) based in Newark, New Jersey, unceded Lenape Land. But that’s not really who I am. I self-describe as a Newark-native and child of immigrants. I see my current job as an extension of my previous work in education focused on Reproductive Justice. I started organizing with the Masakhane Center which is a youth-driven organization providing community-based sexuality education in and around Newark. I became an educator with the Masakhane Center, where I helped orientate youth about reproductive justice."
An introduction to the Environmental Justice Department at ICC…
"Under our Environmental Justice department, our team works to reconnect people to the earth, and bring attention to the pollution in the neighborhood. Here at ICC, we have an urban garden called Down Bottom Farms. We have youth and adult programs, volunteer opportunities, and community events that operate out of Down Bottom Farms. Our team also works to bring attention to the terrible air quality in Ironbound caused by three existing toxic gas power plants, congested diesel truck traffic, an incinerator, and one superfund site (a superfund site is an abandoned toxic waste site that requires a cleanup response due to hazardous materials and conditions). More than 50% of what is burned in at the garbage incinerator comes from outside of the Ironbound. The asthma rate in Ironbound is three times higher than anywhere else in the state of New Jersey. We know that the environmental and health hazards in our community are a consequence of the emissions from the corporations and factories in the neighborhood. When I think about all the connections between environmental justice, health, political decision-making - I realize that each factor impacts the other.
Our current effort is to increase public awareness of the fourth power plant trying to make its way into our community (Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission). We are preparing community members to provide public testimony. The struggle is strategic on the part of our opposition, where they are probably thinking that with enough time, people will forget and the community will stop showing up."
JV on the environmental justice fight in Newark, New Jersey…
"Newark isn’t unique in the fight for environmental justice. Newark is an environmental justice community, meaning that the people who grow up here have no choice but to be exposed to environmental hazards. Newark is similar to the other environmental justice communities across the country, which are low-income, predominantly residents of Color, and/or undocumented. Communities that look like Newark are likewise targeted by power plants, luxury housing, and highway construction, which consequently bulldoze people off the land. What makes Newark special in the movement, though, is that our community has been leading the fight for an environmental justice bill moving through the legislature, which is meant to protect overburdened communities in New Jersey from further pollution and harm."
JV’s thoughts on achieving policies in New Jersey that support immigrants…
"When we talk about environmental injustice, we are talking about our neighborhood being seen and used as a dumping ground for corporations. We are talking about the land being sacrificed and people being displaced. We are talking about our neighborhood being targeted by companies because they want to build on our community. I have been thinking about the recent Census, and how every Census year, pockets of our community go unaccounted for. The Census doesn’t reflect that our neighbors have been pushed out. Or that the area is filled with waste, so community members have been forced to move. The majority of our community is working class, undocumented, and people of Color. They are hardly ever counted, but face the most extreme injustice. There aren’t strong enough policies that exist in New Jersey that protect our communities from harm."
JV’s sentiments about Earth Day…
"Earth Day brings up a lot of memories and feelings for me. The first time I actually saw something blossom was in my adult life. I visited Soul Fire Farm and had the opportunity to see a pea blossom. I saw this beautiful flower, wondered what it was, and someone told me it was a pea. I became emotional, and still do just thinking about it. A lot of the places we live in don’t have green spaces, so there's not enough opportunities for us to build an intimate relationship with the Earth. Too often, programs focus on teaching people about the Earth, but I don’t think we need to be taught that exactly. Instead, I think we should be helping people reconnect with the Earth."
JV on the intersection between reproductive justice and environmental justice…
"The intersection between Reproductive Justice and Environmental Justice is often overlooked. Reproductive Justice to me is the right to live in a safe and sustainable community and have full autonomy over one’s body. We know that there are health issues that are happening to people’s bodies just because of where they live and the pollutants they are surrounded by. There isn’t enough validation given to this part of the work, despite the amount of research that exists on the impacts that environmental hazards have on people’s bodies. For example, high asthma rates in children, cancer as a result of toxins, and so much more. It’s also really important for me to highlight that whether we choose to parent or not, toxins from our environment live in our bodies and get passed down. Whether someone chooses to parent or not, there are reproductive challenges that arise, which range from fertility issues, gynecological issues to pregnancy outcomes. People who are Black and Brown, low-income and undocumented already face higher risks of reproductive challenges.
Giddy Health recently published an article titled “Environmental Racism's Toll on Reproductive Health”, which details how the Ironbound community’s environmental concerns contribute to reproductive justice concerns in the neighborhood. The article also brings to lights’ ICC’s campaign against the fourth power plant (PVSC)."
"My mother inspires me deeply. My mother has a rare diagnosis and the way she’s had to navigate life has informed my work. Throughout my time as a Reproductive Justice educator, I recognized the lack of educational material for people with disabilities. Now in my organizing work, I try to always think of ways of making information and events accessible and relevant to all people."
Check out Ironbound Community Corporation and the rest of their services here!
“If I can be a voice, that’s what I was meant to be in this world”
-Jennie Vega, Social Services Manager, Oasis - A Haven for Women and Children
Who are you, what do you do, and why (do you do it)?
“I wanted to break the cycle that my grandmother went through, that I also went through, watching her struggle. Just in general, asking questions and seeking resources. I remember being that child that had to translate for my grandmother, and watching people laugh and smirk at her hurt me. A social worker has a unique and privileged opportunity to assist people to claim their rights and also improve their circumstances. My grandmother went through so much and didn’t have someone to advocate for her. Seeing her go through those struggles and not finding solutions to her situation helped me realize that people need help, and if I can be a voice, that’s what I was meant to be in this world.”
What are some of the organization's recent successes? What are the initiatives that Oasis is leading on currently?
“There’s so much that we do, where do I start? On a basic day here at Oasis, we open the doors officially at 8:15 am, where we provide women and children with a hot breakfast, so that allows a lot of our women and community to come in and get a warm meal before they go to work or take their child to school. We then provide our community members with a hot lunch at 12 pm, which again gives them an opportunity to actually be able to sit somewhere and build relationships with the other women in the community, which I feel is super important. We provide adult education classes, like GED, citizenship classes, ESL classes, computer classes. Oasis is so flexible that we’re able to adapt to whatever the need is within our community. If the women come to us and tell us that it would be great to have a certain type of class, we’re able to do so, which ultimately helps the community in general. We assist our community with food bags, clothing, and baby items. In the social service department if a client comes through our front door and just needs help translating a letter that they received, or filling out an application, or making phone calls, or generally communicating when they’ve had difficulty before, we come in and assist the clients with that voice. Our hours are usually 8:15 am to 2:30 pm. After 2:30, it becomes a program for kids. We have our afterschool program where we service about 100 children, a teen boy teen teen girl program, and in the summer, we have a summer camp.
We’re all over the place in a great way, but we try to help in whatever way we can. During the pandemic a lot of the kids had to stay home for a full year so bringing them back in and providing them with support, love, and nurture has always been our goal as well as our community members’. We’re doing a lot, we have a new mommy series that we’re starting, the program will provide mothers with access to resources. When we finally opened our doors after the pandemic, we received a lot of phone calls, and a lot of the women that came in were actually informing us about how hard it was to get access to healthcare and things like that. We’ve identified that that’s one of their big needs, and that we can be that bridge for them. We’re actually hosting a community baby shower to kick it off! Last time we had one, about 90 women came and it was a full baby shower. I think the most important thing was them building a community among themselves. A lot of women have come to us and said that they’re on their own and don’t have a lot of family, so helping them build that community is very important.
We just expanded our childcare facility on the first floor, so now we can take care of more children. A perk now is that we have a rooftop garden, so we’re really excited to facilitate workshops outside. And guess what- we have a new wellness center so we’re going to have yoga classes, parenting classes, etc. The expansions of the rooms have given us access to service as many people as we can. We actually also have a new thrift store in the building called The Nest. One of the great things about it is that we have a retail internship program that is funded by the sale of gently used clothes to our community members for cheaper prices. It’s a 10-week program that will train women in retail, customer service, and other skills to prepare them to go into a retail workforce, put something on their resume, or just a general place to be."
What does Women’s History Month mean to you personally, especially being a part of the social justice movement in NJ?
“Women’s History Month means so much to me. It reminds me to remember and honor the women who have paved the way for me, like my grandmother, my mentor, my ancestors. But it also reminds me to not forget that there’s also a lot more work that needs to be done, and I should definitely be part of it. It makes me really sit down and think about everyone who’s fought for women to be in the positions that they’re in. I can’t even identify someone in particular because so many crucial people took part in creating where I am today."
How do you embed social change and social Justice into your work as a social services provider?
“As a social worker, one of my goals is to provide the client with advocacy. When a social worker engages in social change, or works with women and children, they do what they can to make sure that our clients are treated like human beings with respect in that whole entire process. Allowing the right people to hear them out is so important because that’s where social justice lies. It’s part of a social worker’s professional responsibility to be that advocate. As much as we hear people say that social workers are superheroes, I don’t view it as that. I see it as our responsibility to be that voice. Working hard to achieve that kind of social change for women and children is really difficult, but at the end of the day it is our responsibility. Our job is never done- we live it and see it every day. We do this for everyone, including ourselves.”
Tell us your favorite story that reminds you of why you do this work?
“When I first started at Oasis, there was a woman who had come in who seemed as if she was very upset and frustrated. She had just applied for services through an agency, but was told that she needed an interpreter because the only person to help her spoke English. She didn’t have any community support or any family to help her, so when I saw her at Oasis, I asked to just go with her, however, the agency still denied me as an interpreter thinking that I was a personal interpreter and not knowing that I was with my own agency. So what was the point of telling her to get her own? It seemed to me that there was a lot of miscommunication throughout the office, and it felt like we were both being mistreated. After asking to speak with a supervisor, they realized that Oasis had a very close relationship with this agency, and I immediately got an apology. I then spoke to the first person that serviced us and made the point to tell them that they shouldn’t have to know who I am or where I work to treat their customers with respect. It reminded me of being a child ith my grandmother at these services and not being able to advocate for her the way I can as an adult. I just couldn’t believe that we were experiencing the same thing years later. After this, she brought me coffee using her own savings, something that made me think of what my ancestors, my grandma, and even my mentor had gone through just to be heard- that cup of coffee was everything to me. Six years later, she still comes to visit and brings me coffee.”
As a direct service provider, how do you take care of yourself or counter vicarious trauma?
“Being completely transparent, I’m still working on identifying those things too. What I will say though is that I do have a great support system where I can go back and tell people how I’m feeling. I like to go on long walks on the beach year round, as crazy as that sounds. But I honestly have yet to identify how I’ve been taking care of myself because I really feel like this is just part of me. It never feels like I really need to take care of myself, but I know I have to. Being able to feel the feelings that I am and allowing myself to grieve definitely helps me out with it. “
What’s something about you (a fun fact) that not many people know?
“I love to collect antique tea cups! I talk a lot about my grandmother, she was really my drive, the one who took care of me, and she loved pretty antique cups, so when people would come, she could serve them and it felt like she had a lot. We would go to thrift stores together and would buy one cup, and I stayed with that. Now, at least twice a month I go to antique shops everywhere just to find one teacup. I have a total of 35 porcelain tea cups! Just talking about it right now, maybe one day I’ll host a conference and we can use the teacups.”
Who inspires you?
“Obviously, my family and my children. But also, my community. When I see my community members sharing their knowledge and their skills and ideas and the way that they come together to help one another- honestly, that’s the true meaning of community and that just reminds me of how resilient they are. Where I am today is because I had a community of people who pushed me here, who empowered me, so they inspire me every day. Every time I see someone get up early in the morning after working late hours to take their child to school and give them love- that’s inspiration to me.”Read more
Member Spotlight: Andrea McChristian, Law & Policy Director, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
“It is important for us not to be operating in silos as communities of Color, but rather we must work together because our collective advocacy gets things done”
-Andrea McChristian, Law & Policy Director, NJISJ
Andrea tells us who she is, what she does and why…
I am the Law and Policy Director at the NJ Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ). NJISJ, based in Newark, New Jersey, uses cutting-edge racial and social justice advocacy to empower people of color by building reparative systems that create wealth, transform justice, and harness democratic power – from the ground up – in New Jersey.
I do this work for my ancestors who lost so much for me to be able to be here today. I do it for my current community because as a lawyer, I feel it incumbent upon me to use my expertise to support communities of Color. I do this work for my parents. They invested so much in order for me to have what I have.
Andrea on the importance of achieving policies that are rooted in racial and social justice…
As the most recent Census data shows, people of Color are 48% of New Jersey’s population (and probably more!). Our state cannot prioritize racial and social justice without recognizing we are home to some of the worst racial disparities in the country, such as mass incarceration, education, health outcomes, the racial wealth gap and more. Being that our population is so large, our voices must be heard. We are excited to work with NJAIJ on a number of issues, from redistricting to ending mass incarceration. It is important for us not to be operating in silos as communities of Color, but rather we must work together because our collective advocacy gets things done.
Andrea on what some of the Institute’s campaigns and recent successes are…
The Institute’s work focuses on three interconnected pillars: economic justice, democracy and justice, and criminal justice reform. Our aim is to topple the walls of structural inequity in New Jersey, specifically for communities of Color. Within our economic justice pillar, we recently were able to get a student loans data collection bill passed. The new law will allow for greater transparency in New Jersey to understand how much debt graduating students are accruing by race, ethnicity, gender, and first generation status. This is critical to our work to ensure debt-free college. We were also successful in introducing the first in the nation statewide Reparations Task Force bill, and continue to fervently advocate for this legislation as part of our #SaytheWordReparations campaign. The Institute is also about to release a racial wealth gap report, which will target the various factors that have led to New Jersey having one of the highest racial wealth gaps in the nation.
Within our criminal justice pillar, we have a major campaign called #150YearsisEnough, aimed at closing New Jersey’s three youth prisons. Through this campaign, we were able to get the closure announcement of two of New Jersey’s youth prisons, as well as ensuring that New Jersey became the first state in the nation to test all of its incarcerated youth for COVID-19. This secured the release of over 100 young people from state youth facilities. Most recently, the Institute also won the appropriation of $8.4M for the development of restorative justice hubs in four cities that are disproportionately impacted by youth incarceration. Our campaign is now hyper-focused on closing our state’s failing youth prisons once and for all.
With our Democracy and Justice pillar, our #1844NoMore campaign restored the right to vote to 83,000 New Jerseyans on probation or parole. Our advocacy also led to online voter registration, automatic voter registration, early voting in New Jersey, and limiting police presence at polling locations. We are currently involved in the redistricting process, as part of our #FairDistrictsNJ project, to ensure that racial equity is at the heart of the redistricting process. And we are working diligently with partners to ensure that same-day voter registration is passed into law this year.
We have a very busy body of work, and we are very excited to keep expanding it.
Andrea on what Black History Month means to her…
When I was in college, acting was my primary extracurricular activity. A number of racist incidents occurred on campus, and I felt that my specific grievances as a Black woman weren’t being addressed. In response, my friends and I decided to reactivate Yale’s NAACP, which had been dormant for about a decade. One of our first activities was centered around Black History Month, where we put facts all over campus about historical Black figures. For me, Black History Month is personal because it represents a shift in my life towards doing racial and social justice work.
Black History Month also provides an interesting moment after the racial reckoning of 2020. It was then that many people (for the first time) understood the depth of structural inequity. We may now see legislators using hashtags and talking about racial equity, but, at the same time, we see that they are not willing to invest in Black and Brown communities. So I reflect on Black History Month for personal reasons, but also see it as a rallying cry to address the persisting injustice that communities of Color face. We must expose that New Jersey has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. We must expose that there is a lack of investment in communities of Color. We must expose that there is a long and horrific history that has led to the inequities we see today. That is what it truly means to honor Black history.
Andrea gives a piece of advice to people of Color interested in policy advocacy…
It frustrates me to enter a space and see nothing but white faces speaking about racial justice. It is critical to have allies, but the experts who are most needed in this work, and who have solutions grounded in lived experience, are people of Color. Sometimes people of Color may opt out of these spaces because they believe they don’t have the fancy degrees or sufficient system-knowledge to be present. But, people of Color are experts in their experience. It has nothing to do with a fancy degree or title, and everything to do with your expertise as an impacted person. I encourage community members to get involved. Know that you are the expert and have the power to get the work done. You don’t want people outside of your community telling you what you and your people need. You know what you and your people need.
Andrea shares what she is passionate about outside of work…
A lot of what I am passionate about is connected to my work. I am passionate about being a Black woman. I am passionate about social and racial justice. But outside of work, another passion I’ve recently rediscovered is acting. Right now, I am part of a community play. It is really exciting to have an outlet. As part of self care, it is important to make time for hobbies. There was a time when I questioned myself what my hobbies were, because work is such a large part of my life. But, as I continue to do this work, I am passionate about making sure I am a full person. The work of social change is not 9-5. It consumes a person, and it’s easy to burnout. You have to make sure you are taking care of yourself first to be the best steward of this work.
Visit NJISJ’s Action Center: Take Action (njisj.org)
Call on NJ to create a statewide reparations taskforce at 400yearsnj.org
Endorse Fair District NJ’s Unity Map sign-on letter to ensure racial equity is central to the legislative redistricting process
Urge President Biden to award Fred D. Gray, a lawyer of the Civil Rights Movement, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Petition · Give Mr. Fred D. Gray the Presidential Medal of Freedom! · Change.orgRead more