Champions of Change Blog

  • Helping Those Who Help Themselves

    Les Lak

    Les Lak is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    My grandparents came to this country from Poland with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a strong work ethic, and desire for a better life. Today, their children and their children’s children are part of the backbone of this country. Because of the struggle of my grandparents, I can empathize with our employees at Blasch Precision Ceramics who are immigrants. We currently employ immigrants from countries all around the world, including Sudan, Yemen, Russia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many of these people endured – and still endure – the same challenges that my grandparents endured almost a century ago. We are passionate about providing our employees with tools necessary to becoming U.S. citizens.

    The Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County have played a key role in opening the door of opportunity to those who work for us looking for a better life in the United States. Founded in 1968, Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County (LVORC) is a nonprofit volunteer organization helping hundreds adults, families, and children learn how to read, write in, and speak English. Blasch works closely with our local chapter to provide workplace literacy instruction to our foreign-born workers. We understand that providing this service has enormous benefits to both the employees and Blasch. Employees participating in these classes increase are motivated to contribute more to the success of Blasch, ultimately contributing to our bottom line.

    As part of this program, employees are able to take advantage of citizenship preparation classes, civics classes, computer training, money management training, high school equivalency instruction, and math tutoring. Because of this extensive training, six of our current employees have received their U.S. citizenship.

    We feel that it is important to recognize the sacrifices and struggles that our immigrant employees faced just getting to the United States. From the beginning, they have demonstrated a strong will and determination to succeed.

    The sheer number of people that this program touches makes it a real feel-good story. Employees hail from war-torn countries seeking better lives. Volunteers give up their own time to help them prepare for citizenship. This is their award, too.   

    I have gotten to know many of our employees. They tell me about their families, their countries, how well their kids are doing, their hopes and dreams.  I highly respect them and enjoy hearing their success stories.  This award is their story, and it is the same beautiful story played out over decades by millions seeking a better life who have helped make America great.

    Les Lak is the Vice President of Operations and Systems at Blasch Precision Ceramics in Albany, NY. 

  • Investing in Employees

    Robert Hill

    Robert Hill is being honored as a Promoting Citizenship in the Workplace Champion of Change.

    From the outside, managing a hotel may appear straightforward. We provide a comfortable place to stay for our guests and host major conferences and events. But if you scratch the surface, it’s easy to understand why running a large hotel operation is kind of like running a small city.

    The InterContinental Miami hosts 500,000 people per year. No matter who our guests are or where they come from, they all expect a high caliber of service and a comfortable environment. Making sure our hotel runs smoothly is a team effort. On any given day, more than 350 colleagues work on our property. Being located in a large gateway city like Miami, a large percentage of our workforce is made up of team members who – like our guests – come from somewhere else.

    Because we view all of our colleagues as part of the InterContinental Miami family, we made the decision to help our non-native colleagues navigate the path to U.S. citizenship.

    As a very fortunate immigrant who arrived in America from Ireland with a lottery U.S. Resident Green Card twenty years ago, I have experienced first-hand how the task of earning citizenship can be daunting and difficult. It just made sense to support the New American Workforce, a nonprofit organization who could facilitate the U.S. citizenship process for our colleagues and for the more than 8.8 million immigrants who are eligible to apply.

    From organizing application workshops and civics instruction to helping individuals through the often confusing and expensive process for free, the New American Workforce fills a critical role in our society.

    Since partnering with the New American Workforce in 2012, more than ten InterContinental Miami colleagues have achieved U.S. citizenship, and four more are on the path to completing the process within the next year. Citizenship allows these individuals to make long-term investments in their families, communities, and our local Miami economy.

    It also makes business sense. Our hotel spends significant resources each year on colleague development and training. Retaining non-native members of our team through citizenship enables us to generate a long-term return on our investment while building colleague loyalty and helping us cultivate talent from within.

    Our colleagues who have benefited from our program often ask how they can give back themselves. Fortunately, our hotel is involved in a number of nonprofit organizations that make it possible to help others in our community. The best example of this is our hotel’s 20 year partnership with Make-A-Wish of Southern Florida, in which the annual InterContinental Miami Make-A-Wish Ball raises millions of dollars for the organization each year.

    The partnership we have forged with the New American Workforce over the years has been a pillar of our commitment to people—the same people who are fueling our hotel’s success.

    Robert Hill is the General Manager of the InterContinental Miami hotel.

  • 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.