Friday, January 01, 2010

Foundation for Change Hosts Holiday Party

Introduces Year’s Focus on Immigration, Border Issues


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Foundation for Change president Lou Terrell and director John Fanestil with the portrait of 19th century Mexican president Benito Juárez.

“Buenas tardes. Buenas tardes and bienvenidos,” said John Fanestil, executive director of the San Diego Foundation for Change, at the group’s holiday party December 20. The Spanish-language greeting symbolizes the Foundation’s emphasis this year on issues relating to immigration and the border. “The bulk of the work that we’re doing at the present time is engaging with immigrant and border communities towards the end of creating greater degrees of social justice for all of the people of our region,” Fanestil explained before a nearly hour-long program in which he introduced representatives of several groups the Foundation has given grants to and allowed them to talk about their work.

First up were Ruben Rodriguez and Amber Lee of the San Diego chapter of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which got a Foundation for Change grant for an after-school program at Crawford High in City Heights. “I’m sure many of you may be familiar with Crawford High School, but it is an extremely diverse high school,” Lee explained. “About 33 percent of the students are refugees, another 33 percent are recent immigrants from central and south America and Mexico, and at least a third are also English-language learners. So there are a lot of challenges that these students face in graduating high school in four years, passing the CASI [California state exam] and hopefully going on to higher education.”

Lee said that the part of their project of which she’s proudest is a media justice project. “I’m sure everyone is aware that immigrants are not always portrayed well in the media, really,” she said. “Muslims are not, young people are not, teenagers are not, and on and on and on. Teenagers are rabid consumers of media, so we just want to encourage them to be critical thinkers and kind of understand that not everything the media say is true all the time.” Rodriguez followed her, explaining that the media project will include a student blog, movie screenings, field trips to the Museum of Photographic Arts and other locations, and various programs — some of which they’re still developing — to train young people to look at the media analytically instead of just automatically believing everything they say.

Foundation program officer Andrea Rocha, who MC’d the event and interpreted in both directions — rendering English into Spanish and vice versa, as needed to maintain the Foundation’s bicultural theme — then introduced Anibal from the Colectivo del Chilpancingo and Nena from the Environmental Health Coalition. They talked about a joint environmental health project they’ve been working on since they encountered each other a decade ago over Metales y Derivados, a company which set up a plant in Tijuana to extract minerals from used car batteries — and, when it closed, left behind a wasteland of battery acid, lead and other contaminants.

“I’m very pleased to be here, but I’m sorry that the young people from the Colectivo are not here,” Anibal said. “Many of them — most of them — cannot cross the border. So we’re involved in a campaign to test the quality of the air outside of their schools, where the diesel trucks are going through, and they’re getting trained on how to do air quality testing. These are young people who are learning some very critical methodologies on testing air quality, and so they’re serving as advocates for that. In addition, they’re also getting trained through the Foundation and through the grant to be better able to use the media to communicate their message. One of the projects that we have is to develop a comic strip so that more youth are attracted to the work of testing air quality. We did one last year, related to the cleanup of the toxic waste dump at Metales y Derivados, and we’re going to do one on the clean-air campaign that we’re working on.”

Next up were Mark Day and Olivia Ramirez from a Vista-based organization called Asociación de Jornaleros. “Jornaleros” means day laborers, and the group not only puts out a Spanish-language newsletter (which Day passed out copies of) but does outreach to the sites where day laborers camp to “get to know all the men personally, and out of that to develop some leadership.” They’re also setting up training programs to teach the day laborers higher-paid skills, such as masonry, and to give them information on how to protect their rights.

One of the biggest problems the jornaleros have, Day explained, is simply getting paid for their work. “Wage theft is a huge problem,” he explained. “You probably saw the San Diego Union-Tribune article. We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars. We have three men, one who’s owed $3,000, one who’s owed $5,000, one who’s owed $10,000. I was hoping he could come here tonight. But the justice system does not work for these people. We can go to small claims court, we can go to the labor board, and these cases just languish. So we’re trying to think outside the box, as some jornaleros are doing around the country, in Chicago and New York. They’re forming committees and going directly to the employers.”

Ramirez spoke about the problems of jornaleras — female day laborers, most of whom work as housekeepers (trabajadores de casa) — and what her group is doing to help them. “We’re basically empowering them to believe that their work is dignified,” she said. “It should be respected like any other work, even though in society they’re taught that it’s work that as women they should just do, or that it’s not really valuable. We’ve also connected with the Alianza Nacional de Trabajadores in Casa. In California, we’re also going to be fighting for a bill with different demands for housekeepers, so they get at least some rights, because now there’s absolutely no rights, no law that protects immigrant domestic workers.”

A man named José representing another Foundation grant recipient, the Center for Indigenous Bi-National Rights, presented Fanestil and Foundation board chair Lou Terrell a present: a framed portrait photograph of 19th century Mexican President Benito Juárez, the first full-blooded Native American to serve as president of Mexico. Also present were Valentina Torres and Octavio Rodriguez, from another organization that works with Mixtec people — the indigenous tribes of Oaxaca and Puebla — many of whom are handicapped both in Mexico and the U.S because they don’t speak English or Spanish. “We’ve been taught that our language and our culture is worthless, and our parents and our children internalized that and believed it was true that whiteness is beautiful and darkness is ugly.” Torres said. “So [Mixtecs] have very low self-esteem of themselves, because they’re dark and short and so forth.”

She said her group’s effort to help them “is a cultural exchange program to teach Mixtec families Spanish and English, and at the same time conserve and validate the Mixtec language. So we have the first hour and a half in Spanish and English, and then the other half an hour we have Mixtec classes where the parents become Mixtec instructors, and that way they empower themselves and validate their own language. The kids are being taught English and Mixtec and Spanish, all three languages. For us it’s very wonderful and beautiful, our own program.” Another program Torres is working on is an outreach to Mixtec women to give them the tools they need to challenge the patriarchal demands of Mixtec men and assert their reproductive rights.”

Not all of the immigrants the Foundation’s grantees are reaching out to are Mexican or Latino. One of the most dramatic appearances came from Ernestine Illi with Somalis United. San Diego has the second largest concentration of Somalis in the U.S., but as Illi explained, since they’ve come from different parts of Somalia they’ve brought with them the tribal and sectarian hatreds that sparked the Somali civil war. “So part of what Somalis United was to do was to bring these together, try engaging them in civic activities to what it is to be Somali and what it is to be part of American culture, and to not lose your culture as a Somali but also to embrace being here in America and what the opportunities are for you,” Illi said.

Like Torres, Illi said her group also addresses women’s equality and seeks to give women the tools to challenge the demands and expectations of patriarchal men. “Women in our community generally do not get a chance to learn about themselves, especially as it relates to reproductive health.,” she explained. “To ask a question about something that’s going wrong is seen as if you’re a loose woman, so to speak. So you cannot ask questions, you cannot educate yourself, and if you seek it you’re kind of looked down upon in this society and pretty much cannot get married off. So the program we’ll be putting on in January is just to inform women in the East African communities — not just from Somalia but East Africa in general — about their rights: that you don’t have to be afraid to ask questions. If you do go to the doctor, those things are held private and confidential. Just to know what is going on with yourself: what is normal, what are some things that you should seek out attention for.”

Emily Serafy Cox of the Center for Social Advocacy, a 20-year-old human rights organization based in El Cajon, talked about the Foundation’s grant to her work focused on reproductive and sexual issues for both women and men. “We have two outreach workers that work with them and educate them about STD’s and other sexual health needs,” she said. “This is especially important because many of the men we work with — and we work with primarily men —go back home every year, or seasonally, and then live with their wives. And if they have contracted an STD while living here in the States, then they take it back to their families, and so there are health repercussions on both sides of the border for these issues. We also work with some men who have sex with men, and there are exponential taboos in terms of that.”