Think New Mexico

_DSC9025Amidst the political slings and arrows of this particularly acrimonious year, a modest historical residence perches, facing the Roundhouse, as it has for almost 20 years–quietly percolating. It’s a unique kind of think tank. Inside, the small staff—with guidance from its board of directors—births ingenious possibilities buttressed with persistent, meticulous research. Field Director Othiamba Umi, New Mexico born and raised, wants to give back to this state that’s given him so much; “I commute from Albuquerque and it’s totally worth it!” Native Santa Fean Kristina Fisher, Associate Director, agrees: “We stand up on behalf of people who can’t be here” during the legislative session.

Think New Mexico is the brainchild of founder and Executive Director Fred Nathan, a self-described recovering lawyer. Previously, he was Special Counsel to Attorney General Tom Udall. “Tom’s legislative campaign included addressing our drunk-driving epidemic,” Fred says. In pursuit of a bill outlawing drive-up windows, “I staffed the task force, which was a Noah’s Ark of experts, with two of everybody, including from the alcohol industry.” There was a lot of pushback to the proposal, but by the fifth year, they got it passed. Then-Gov. Gary Johnson vetoed it, and to Fred’s chagrin, “the sponsor of the bill was ecstatic! ‘When Johnson’s re-election comes around,’ he said, ‘we’ll wrap this around his neck!’” Continue reading

Dreamers

JE-DREAMERS_006The road less taken has, sadly, not many takers. All the more reason to champion Allegra Love, creator of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. Charismatic, full of life, with energy to spare, she arrived in Santa Fe 12 years ago, a recent college graduate, eager to join the other teachers in their bilingual, bicultural Southside elementary school. She was that rare kind of teacher whose love not only reached out and embraced her kids, but their whole families, as well. Over the next three years, she watched with increasing heartbreak as numbers of immigrant families, many undocumented, struggled to work and put down roots while being dangerously vulnerable to deportation. Feeling the fear haunting her 8-year-olds, Allegra felt hamstrung. She was just a teacher—how could she help?

Feeling ineffectual galvanized her into taking the LSAT exam and entering the University of New Mexico’s law school. This had never previously been her plan. But like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, helping those less fortunate stand up for themselves is who Allegra is. Throughout the three-year program, she pursued immigration law with focus. Afterward, she refused the law firm track, even as her professors said she needed that experience. Without a next step, she suddenly got word from the teachers at her old school about an opening for a sixth grade teacher. This felt right, even though to everyone else, “that seemed like a fail.” But out of that, Santa Fe Public Schools’ Adelante Program hired her as their lawyer, where she worked with students who were applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). These were the Dreamers, and this became the impetus for the creation of her nonprofit a few years later.  

All the legal services offered by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project are free of charge. Since 2015, the number of deferred-action filings that Allegra and her staff have overseen has broken 1,000, which is quite a feat. The staff also represents immigrants facing deportation; they regularly visit a family detention center; they conduct two weekly DACA clinics. And recently, Allegra expanded their legal service outreach with Dreams on Wheels, a mobile office establishing a presence throughout rural areas, giving undocumented residents all over New Mexico access to that safety net. Continue reading

Nuestra Jornada – Gerard’s House

GerardsHouse-Picture14A small group of kids kneel on the rug, engrossed in placing one of many figures—men, women, children, babies—into tiny toy coffins. Some sit gazing at the person inside, some set the lid firmly on top. Other children bury things deep in a sandbox. In the “storm room,” stuffed animals wait on wall-to-wall futons for any who come in, close the door and privately act out anger, be wild, cry, snuggle with an animal buddy.

This is Gerard’s House, Santa Fe’s unique haven for grieving children, adolescents and their families, where, says its mission statement, “healing happens through acceptance and peer support.” The need this nonprofit has met, free of charge since 1997, is indispensible. Recently, says Executive Director Katrina Koehler, Gerard’s House recognized another population going unserved: a growing influx of immigrant children. “We saw so much death, and a lot of other losses among those newly arrived from troubled areas of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and not a lot of reasons for them to trust coming to us,” Katrina says. “Which was understandable.” She says the staff imagined the immigrant kids and their families saying, ‘Who are these people?’ So we invited the Latino community to collaborate with us. We told them, ‘Here’s how we serve grieving kids.’ And we listened to the families’ needs.” And in many ways, their needs were similar to those of the children Gerard’s House already helps who are grieving death of family members; but in many other ways, their needs were much more complicated. “It was hard,” Katrina says, “for a lot of mothers to bring their kids here—some work multiple jobs, some don’t have a car.” And culturally, Bilingual Coordinator Roxana Melendez adds, “Therapy isn’t something Spanish families seek. We tend to look for support more from family members and religious leaders. For some families, it’s difficult to open up to someone they don’t know.” There’s also a belief, Roxana says, that only crazy people need therapy. “We didn’t want to load more burdens onto these families, so many of whom had been through so much human crises already!” Katrina says. Continue reading

The Siege of Chaco Canyon

JE_chaco-dreamstime_l_77801521It will not be simple. It will not be fast.  It will be a slow, steady river that braids our communities together.

Visiting Chaco Canyon, the pinnacle of the ancient Anasazi civilization, is an experience that makes such a deeply lasting impression on your psyche that it will continue to haunt you in dreams for the rest of your life. This is not the hyperbole of a runaway imagination; this is Chaco’s intended effect, and it does that job well. Prayers, mysteries and clues are hidden in its landscape, left there for generations far into the future—us—to discover and integrate into our own world. We need this

guidance. Because, greatest of ironies, underneath the Anasazi legacy lies a different kind of wealth, one of oil and gas. And as extraction encroaches closer and closer to this sacred site and all the public and tribal lands surrounding it, a flurry of passionately determined and dedicated individuals are fighting to save it before its annihilation. Some days, that job seems––even to this army of protectors, many of them women––hopelessly naïve. And no wonder; they live with it daily, progress is so slow, and what if they fail? What they, and we, have to remember is: We are a part of something much larger than ourselves. Continue reading

Rescuing A Generation, One Kid At A Time

Former foster child Josh was a self-described nightmare to his foster parents—all 12 sets of them. He was so scared, so confused and so hurt when he ended up in the Children, Youth and Families Department as a middle-schooler that he cynically set out to make each family kick him out. He made a game of it. Josh had reasons not to trust adults; besides his own parents’ abandoning him, he was raped by another foster kid in one home, and bullied so badly in another that he tried to kill himself. In his YouTube video, Every Kid Is One Caring Adult Away From Being A Success Story, he says of the foster system, “People who were literally total strangers 10 minutes ago are now apparently Mom and Dad. Adults say, ‘Kids, don’t take candy from strangers!’ but now they’re telling me, ‘Just move in with them!’” The only reason he didn’t eventually drop out of school, fall prey to drugs or commit suicide, he says, is the rock-solid persistence of one particular foster parent, “who saw me not as a juvenile delinquent—he saw something far more subtle, far more nuanced: He saw what I could be. And that,” says Josh, “was genuinely my turning point.”

How did we get to a world where parents find themselves, for a multiplicity of reasons, incapable of being that caring adult for their own children? It’s a story of spirals begetting spirals. When kids don’t receive the nurturing, love and safety necessary for healthy human development, they can grow up without the inner resources necessary to parent kids themselves, especially in a world growing ever more chaotic. When parents feel marginalized, working several jobs just to adequately support their families, often suffering hopelessness and despair, they become prime targets for some of the bad coping choices they may have grown up witnessing: drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse, all of which can land them in jail, which only exacerbates their parental neglect. As troubled families increase, at-risk kids in the foster-care system, itself understaffed and overwhelmed, continue to multiply. Over 2016, according to Santa Fe CYFD’s Nancy Woodka, almost every month saw a larger and larger number of children entering foster care than exiting it. Last year, across New Mexico, there were consistently about 400 children waiting for adoption with no available families, while the number of active foster homes in Santa Fe County hovers at eight. Continue reading

Feed the Hood

14068254_1273709942660277_4047149173267872910_nWith all the challenging shake-ups to our very social fabric, and scant living memory of how to successfully address them, how do we stand up now and, rather than waiting for someone else to do it, empower ourselves to right injustices? Meet Project Feed the Hood. This initiative, created in 2007 by Albuquerque’s SouthWest Organizing Project, was originally featured in Local Flavor’s May 2012 issue. In this month’s installment of a series investigating deeper causes beneath social issues, we revisit SWOP organizers to discover how they’re navigating this epic time.

Project Feed the Hood’s impetus was simple: organize residents of low-income, often transient neighborhoods around community gardens. In 2007, SWOP workers began to plant gardens in underprivileged communities of color, the better to empower them. In 2012, as now, SWOP Organizer Rodrigo Rodriguez helped run the nonprofit’s innovative initiative; our story highlighted its then-latest garden, in the Southeast Heights, on land donated by the City of Albuquerque. Workers and volunteers gave away fresh produce by the bagsful to all passersby, who, with a school on either end of the garden, were mainly kids. Rodrigo described large numbers, living in homes with little or no food, eagerly taking the offered bags, and one little girl carrying home a pumpkin “as big as her—I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so happy in my life.”

SWOP’s Facebook page features this quote from Chinese Emperor Hongxi: “We must treat poverty like we would treat drowning. There is no time to lose.” If left alone, economic and social injustices don’t disappear; they take ever more tenacious root. A drowning person can only struggle on the water’s surface for 20 to 60 seconds before sinking; that’s the window for rescue. With courage and a fierce belief that it can win, SWOP is determined to seize this window, organizing low-income communities into self-sufficiency. Continue reading