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She’s head of Latin American Coalition – and doesn’t speak much Spanish

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  • Jess George at a glance

    Family: Husband, Aaron, is dean of students at Hopewell High. The two met as freshmen in a political science class at Penn State. Son Eli, 7, and daughter Sylvie, 4.

    Career: She has worked for Easter Seals, United Way of Central Carolinas and for Computer Empowerment, a now-defunct nonprofit that helped low-income communities develop technology. She joined the Latin American Coalition 9 years ago as an associate director, then executive director.

    Childhood ambition: Growing up in Tully, N.Y., she wanted to be Nancy Drew, of the girl-detective book series.

    Moment of revelation: She went to college in France for a time to study human rights and concluded that it was one of the most openly anti-immigrant places she’d ever visited.



The head of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition intends to be arrested Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Jess George says her act of “civil disobedience” is a protest against the U.S. House for not producing an immigration reform bill before its August recess.

“It’s my first arrest,” says George. “Believe me, I have a natural amount of nervousness. It’s a little nerve-wracking going to jail. There will be repercussions.”

The protest will include 35 leaders of other immigrant advocacy groups from around the country – and George will likely stick out in the crowd.

She’s not Latino, an immigrant, or even a minority. She’s not fluent in Spanish, either.

For her, this is a matter of standing up for a class of people she feels is being bullied by the system.

Since taking over the Latin American Coalition four years ago, she has steadily increased its visibility with a series of rallies, marches and publicity stunts. When Republican Sen. Richard Burr voted against the Senate immigration bill because it didn’t provide “real enforcement” for border security, the coalition sent him a load of bricks – so he could “build a bigger wall.”

It’s an unusual approach that has drawn national attention. The country’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, the National Council of La Raza, called the coalition an “inspiration” for other immigrant advocates.

Charting a path

Jess George long ago got used to people pointing out that she’s white, as if it were a disability.

“I’ve had other Latino leaders in Charlotte tell me: ‘Jess, it’s nice that you are doing this for the community. But when is a real leader going to show up?’ ” says George.

“At first, it was really hard to hear. I’m the kind of person who likes to be told how I can do things better. But when you point to me and say, ‘You’re white,’ I can’t change that.”

Former coalition board chairwoman Olma Echeverri admits that there was backlash when George was named executive director. Prior to that, George spent five years as an associate director at the coalition.

“I supported her taking over, but I was approached by people asking why I didn’t find another candidate who was Latino,” said Echeverri, now chairwoman of the Hispanic-American Democrats of North Carolina.

“I said then what I say now: The most important thing is to find the right person for the job, and she’s the right person.”

George says she continues to feel uncomfortable sitting in the executive director’s chair, believing she will never be an “authentic voice” for the Latino community.

As a result, she has developed a leadership style that encourages her staff to take the lead. This includes staying in the background at rallies and letting others do the talking at press conferences.

Still, it’s George who is getting credit for helping the organization endure.

At the height of the recession, nearly a dozen of Charlotte’s nonprofits closed or merged with others because of a lack of money. The coalition could have been among them, with a cash shortfall, programs it couldn’t fund and staff it couldn’t afford to pay.

George tackled the problem by cutting the 15-person staff down to 10, eliminating some programs and giving up federal money that had too many strings attached.

She also pursued new ways of raising cash, including cultural events that now supply 25 percent to 30 percent of the organization’s $1.2 million budget.

As a result, the staff is now up to 20, and crowds fill the building daily to get help through the agency’s expanding legal assistance program. It also offers victim’s assistance, a labor rights program, an immigrant community center, English and computer classes and workforce development.

Funding challenges remain, however.

This year, the agency took a $25,000 cut in the $110,000 it received annually from United Way. Dennis Marstal of United Way says the lower funding was a matter of not being able to gauge what the coalition was accomplishing.

“Last year, we asked several agencies for a better demonstration of the impact produced by our funding. When those results … were still not shown in 2013, we reduced funds,” Marstal said in a statement.

George concedes that results are sometimes difficult to show because her organization doesn’t house the homeless, feed the hungry or heal the sick.

“What it does is get at the root cause of those things,” she says. “That’s the downside of pushing the envelope on immigration. People don’t get it. But to be totally honest, we don’t get it either. We’re testing a lot of new ideas.”

A ‘joyful’ tactic

In the past year alone, the Latin American Coalition has had more marches, protests, rallies, press conferences and publicity stunts than all the other United Way agencies combined.

That’s partly because George says that not a day goes by when there’s not a new development involving immigrants, whether it be pink driver’s licenses or a deportation of an undocumented mechanic with four kids.

George says she encourages her staff to be “visible, joyful and creative” with its approach to immigrant activism, the best example of which is the group’s response to a November Ku Klux Klan/neo-Nazi rally.

“We had a clown rally to drown them out,” George says. “I had some important leaders in Charlotte call and say, ‘Jess, don’t give them attention because they’ll go away.’ But they’re not going away. Hate groups are growing.”

Daniel Rico of the National Council of La Raza – with 300 affiliates across the nation – says the coalition has made Charlotte a model for immigrant advocacy, particularly in mobilizing immigrant youths.

As for measuring success, he says Charlotte’s coalition was critical in persuading Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, to vote in June for a U.S. Senate immigration overhaul plan.

“In a sense, the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte has become a pioneer,” Rico says.

Still, the coalition has its critics, including more conservative immigrants who question the organization’s tactics.

Vanessa Faura, an immigrant running for City Council, says she’d like to see the coalition work harder with “uncommon allies” to find more middle ground on immigration reform.

“Frequent rallies, marches and criticism against conservative leaders in Congress are creating more anger and a hostile environment between supporters and nonsupporters,” Faura says. “I do not think this process is working; it is only making things worse.”

Fighting bullies

In many respects, George’s entire life has been one long anti-bullying campaign.

Her father, Tom Cullen, says he first noticed this when she was about 5, after three older kids locked her and another boy in a barn for an hour.

“When she got home, she asked my wife to show her how to the use the phone, and then she called all three boys and gave them hell for bullying kids who were younger than them,” recalls Cullen.

“She was not angry; she was indignant. Even as a little girl, she had a keen sense of justice, a keen sense of when something was wrong and you needed to do something about it.”

That happened not long after another pivotal moment, when George’s mother, Pat Drea, took her to her first protest rally against nuclear proliferation.

At that time, the family was living in the small town of Tully, N.Y. George’s parents eventually moved to the Charlotte area to be closer to her mother’s elderly parents. George says she followed after graduating from college, intending to get a little work experience before moving on.

Then, she caught wind of the city’s growing turmoil over immigration and concluded that this was her chance to make a difference.

Coincidentally, her father is among those who pointed out she was not an immigrant or Latino when she was offered the job.

“They call her ‘the gringa,’ ” he said, laughing. “It’s an unusual role to be in, but I think it’s a testament to her character and her abilities.”

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