The head of Charlottes 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.
Its my first arrest, says George. Believe me, I have a natural amount of nervousness. Its 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.
Shes not Latino, an immigrant, or even a minority. Shes 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 didnt provide real enforcement for border security, the coalition sent him a load of bricks so he could build a bigger wall.
Its an unusual approach that has drawn national attention. The countrys 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 shes white, as if it were a disability.
Ive had other Latino leaders in Charlotte tell me: Jess, its 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. Im the kind of person who likes to be told how I can do things better. But when you point to me and say, Youre white, I cant 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 didnt 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 shes the right person.
George says she continues to feel uncomfortable sitting in the executive directors 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, its George who is getting credit for helping the organization endure.
At the height of the recession, nearly a dozen of Charlottes 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 couldnt fund and staff it couldnt 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 organizations $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 agencys expanding legal assistance program. It also offers victims 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 doesnt house the homeless, feed the hungry or heal the sick.
What it does is get at the root cause of those things, she says. Thats the downside of pushing the envelope on immigration. People dont get it. But to be totally honest, we dont get it either. Were 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.
Thats partly because George says that not a day goes by when theres not a new development involving immigrants, whether it be pink drivers 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 groups 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, dont give them attention because theyll go away. But theyre 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 Charlottes 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 organizations tactics.
Vanessa Faura, an immigrant running for City Council, says shed 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.
In many respects, Georges 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 Georges 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. Georges parents eventually moved to the Charlotte area to be closer to her mothers 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 citys 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. Its an unusual role to be in, but I think its a testament to her character and her abilities.
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