Champions of Change Blog

  • The U.S. Opens Its Doors, But Its Citizenry Welcomes Us In

    Teresita Wisell

    Teresita Wisell is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    Over 50 years ago, my parents left their home in Cuba to start their lives again in the United States with their young family.  I was only a toddler at the time, but as I grew up, I joined countless conversations during which my parents voiced their appreciation for the welcoming spirit of the individuals who helped them become contributing citizens of their adopted country.  My parent’s courage and achievements have inspired me to “pay it forward”, and I am honored to be named a White House Champion of Change.

    Today, community colleges are strategically positioned to play a critical role in supporting the full integration of the thousands of immigrants that we serve every day.  Through community colleges, new Americans can gain access to higher education, workforce training and English as a Second Language programs.  Moreover, community colleges partner with local organizations, government, and businesses to create pipelines of education and services to the immigrant community that not only serve these individuals but enhance the workforce and support the local economy.

    In September 2010, after several years of research and planning, Westchester Community College opened its Gateway Center, a multi-use facility that houses several academic departments and workforce training initiatives.  The Gateway Center was established to serve as an educational resource to the increasingly diverse population of Westchester County, in which one in every four residents is foreign-born.  Shortly after opening, plans were underway to provide free citizenship education to our English language learners, their families, and members of the community.  In spring 2011, our Welcome Center began to offer these classes.  To date, over 250 individuals have taken the citizenship education classes. Of those who have taken classes, approximately 60% have taken the exam and 96% of those students have passed.  We are proud of our part in these achievements but want to do more!

    Last summer, the college became the National Immigration Forum’s first New York area partner in the New American Workforce project.  As such, we have extended our role in citizenship education to offer classes to our eligible employees and collaborate with our business partners to support their employees through work-based English language classes and citizenship preparation. Collaborations like these help support the fullest integration of our county’s residents and honor the contributions that immigrants make to our communities.

    My parents are examples of such efforts, made by individuals who recognized the value of supporting their new neighbors as they sought to become citizens of their adopted country.  It is in tribute to those countless “champions” that have come before us and to those “champions” with whom I have the privilege to work every day that I accept this White House Champion of Change award.

    Teresita Wisell is Vice President and Dean for continuing Education and Workforce Development at Westchester Community College, SUNY.

  • Using Our Business to Make Change

    Jonathan Plutzik

    Jonathan Plutzik is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    We are grateful for the opportunity that our hotel, The Betsy, has had to connect with our community. In early 2009, we opened our doors just after President Barak Obama’s inauguration and enthusiastically embraced his vision of a society in which citizens actively and effectively serve their communities and solve problems.

    Over the past five years, through our Philanthropy, Arts, Culture, and Education (PACE) program, The Betsy has worked with local, national, and international organizations and has become a catalyst for energized discourse and collaborative change-making. While operating as a luxury hotel, we’ve been privileged to work with over 250 nonprofit partners in various fields. I have found that success comes when partners combine resources to reach goals together. The Betsy’s collaborative model is an authentic commitment to the tenet that “every little bit helps.” And our experiences underscore that truth.

    The immigration issue hits close to home, both personally and professionally. My wife is an immigrant, as is my mother. And while my father was born in America, he did not speak English until he was 7 years old. Yet, he still became a Professor of English and an award-winning American poet. Our staff at The Betsy speak over thirty languages, nearly a third of our workers hold Green Cards, and many of our employees have pursued U.S. citizenship.

    But these trends extend far beyond our business. More than 500,000 people in Miami, and eight million in our nation, are eligible to apply for citizenship. Many have been working here for years, filing taxes and contributing in critical ways to our economy; yet without citizenship, they are not able to become full members of our society. Like their predecessors, today’s immigrants can and will play an important role in building a better future for all of us.  

    Our hotel was privileged to become the first business in the nation to field-test model of the Bethlehem Project, in which employers help their workers prepare for citizenship. We shared our experience to ensure that the program would be replicated throughout South Florida so that thousands in the hospitality industry would get the chance to pursue their own American dream. We’re proud now that the program is spreading across the country.

    Moving forward, I am excited about the opportunities for community partnerships in the world of hospitality, in the realms of immigration, and in the many other arenas needing our attention and involvement.

    Jonathan Plutzik is Chairman and principal owner of The Betsy, a luxury hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.

  • Somali Women’s Advancement in Ohio: "New Americans Initiative"

    Khadra Mohamed

    Khadra Mohamed is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    It would be difficult for anyone to move into a new country and re-learn everything—a new language, cultural nuances, and social environment. I arrived in Ohio in 2000 amid a large influx of Somali immigrants to the state. There were no existing community-based organizations at the time, so a group of Somali women, including myself, met to form a community service organization to facilitate the smooth integration of the Somalis into their new home. Since then, the Somali community in Ohio has gone through remarkable transformations.

    The greatest needs in the community were English as Second Language (ESL) classes, employment services, and housing assistance. We established successful partnerships with existing social service organizations such as the Jewish Family Services and educational institutions including the Ohio State University. We were successful in recruiting volunteer navigators and securing funding for English classes and job placement services. We also engaged in an effort to educate local elected officials and policymakers about the needs and aspirations of our community. One of the most rewarding aspects of the work that we started was that a significant number of Somalis have become U.S. citizens and have enrolled in college.

    Somalis, wherever they are, have a natural gift for entrepreneurship. Somali women are particularly skilled at successfully starting and running small businesses. They even have a unique system, known in Somali as “Ayuuto,” for raising capital for new business endeavors. Many Somalis have become U.S. citizens and have started successful businesses. Now, there are hundreds of Somali business in Columbus, Ohio alone.

    This progress from a new immigrant community to locally integrated part of the Columbus fabric did not come easy. It came as a result of not only hard work by the community but also the embracing nature of the City of Columbus. Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman believes that it is not just enough to be tolerant towards diversity; it is necessary to embrace it. That is why he created the New Americans Initiative, an office that gives immigrants access to city services.

    To recognize the economic and social contributions of Somalis in Ohio, I proposed to the Board of Directors of the Center for Somali Women’s Advancement that we start an annual recognition day for citizenship and entrepreneurship in Ohio on March 8—and they agreed. Now, every year, we celebrate the contributions of diverse women and call for a better society in which gender parity in politics, health, employment, family life, education, media, and culture becomes a reality. 

    This is a lesson for all of us that we need to take initiative and work together to accomplish real things; with this approach, we can turn brilliant ideas into impressive outcomes.

    Khadra Mohamed is the President and CEO of the Center for Somali Women’s Advancement.

  • Why Supporting Citizenship is Good for Business

    Barbara Kamm

    Barbara Kamm is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    Many of us in Silicon Valley are working to help meet the predicted workforce needs of the next decade. This includes providing better, more efficient training and education in our community colleges and universities and creating opportunities for foreign-born workers who are legal, permanent residents and eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.

    San Francisco Bay Area businesses like Tech CU are creating partnerships with organizations such as the National Immigration Forum’s New American Workforce, which assist our customers and employees with information on citizenship.

    There are approximately 536,000 immigrants in the Bay Area who meet are eligible to apply for citizenship. These individuals do everything from writing code to treating patients—and they can be part of the solution that addresses the evolving needs of U.S. companies.  Yet, many never take that final step towards citizenship, leaving critical benefits on the table, such as increased earnings, greater access to job opportunities, and the ability to petition for family members.

    Working with local community legal service, companies like ours are hosting free citizenship seminars, where individuals receive legal assistance with their application for as little as $90. Some of the New American Workforce employer partners also host English-language training and civics courses.

    Why are we so invested in our employees? It’s good for business. By providing access to citizenship guidance and legal services, we are ensuring a robust, diverse labor force dedicated to the mission of our company.

    Encouraging our employees to attain citizenship strengthens the U.S. workforce and drives innovation within this country. This can lead to new developments in medicine, infrastructure, and agriculture, benefitting our economy, our country, and our world.

    Barbara Kamm is President and CEO of Tech CU.

  • Focusing on People and Partnerships are the Keys to Providing the Benefits of Citizenship to Employees

    Wendy Kallergis

    Wendy Kallergis is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    Nearly a century ago, at the height of the U.S. immigration boom, Bethlehem Steel became one of the first U.S. employers to begin providing free English language instruction to its immigrant workers. Today, the National Immigration Forum’s Bethlehem Project continues that mission by facilitating the citizenship of the country’s eligible immigrant workforce.

    My family and I have lived in Miami for more than thirty years. Caring about the families who live in our city has always been very important to us, so it was an easy decision to help introduce South Florida to the Bethlehem Project.

    With more than 500,000 employees eligible to become citizens, Miami is one of the cities with the most potential for the Bethlehem Project. The project’s goal is simple: Help eligible immigrants become citizens, which not only helps immigrant families but also businesses in South Florida.

    My work is in the hospitality industry, and partnerships have always been an integral part of my strategy to build a stronger organization. In South Florida, the Bethlehem Project has worked with Baptist Health South Florida, the Miami Dolphins, and Miami Dade College. Within the hospitality industry, I’ve helped connect the Bethlehem Project with numerous hotels and resorts. As the project expands, we will continue to reach out to colleagues in other cities, like the San Francisco Hotel Council.

    What we’re doing is simplifying the citizenship process: cutting back on bureaucracy, creating in-house workshops, and connecting immigrants and new citizens with employers and human resource representatives in the hospitality industry.

    The benefits are crystal clear: We’re providing our industry with an expanding workforce, and we’re creating a sense of loyalty among our workers. At the same time, we’re opening doors and generating prosperity for immigrant families and our community.

    Our board and our membership embraced this program, as our employees are at the heart of the hospitality industry. Being honored as a Champion of Change for my work on this project is truly an exciting and humbling recognition.

    The human resources director of one of our first business partners said it best: “With this partnership, we demonstrate to our employees that we care and support their best interests as much as we care for our community.”

    Wendy Kallergis is President and CEO of the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association.

  • Citizenship in the Workplace

    David Huerta

    David Huerta is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    For centuries, this nation’s economy has been strengthened by the backbreaking work of immigrant laborers who built our infrastructure and put food on our tables. This immigrant legacy makes me proud to serve as President of SEIU United Service Workers West, a union comprising workers from all walks of life who are contributing to the prosperity of our great country.

    Whether they are out in the streets demanding a living wage and decent benefits, or talking to their elected officials to stop wage theft or inappropriate police practices, immigrant workers in our union are paving the way to a better way of life for everyone in our communities. The goal is simple: provide better opportunities for our kids than what we had growing up.

    We’re accomplishing that in a unique project called Building Skills Partnership, which brings together workers, employers and building owners to give immigrant workers a fair shot at career advancement and community engagement. The collaboration has allowed more than 1,000 immigrant workers to participate in English language classes, computer literacy programs, and other educational trainings.

    Integrating new Americans into our communities has also been a priority. SEIU locals in California, including United Service Workers West, have partnered with Mi Familia Vota to assist over 5,400 Legal Permanent Residents with the citizenship process. Together, we’ve developed broad coalitions throughout California that have been instrumental in ensuring that California leads the way on legislation that respects and values the contributions of immigrants, such as enabling them to obtain drivers' licenses and to receive in-state tuition.

    Looking back at these accomplishments, I’m truly honored to be named a “Champion of Change” for promoting citizenship in the workplace, but I think the true recognition belongs to the brave janitors and other immigrant workers across California who are working to make sure that our country builds on all of our strengths to prosper in the 21st century.

    David Huerta is President of SEIU United Service Workers West.