“You have a voice — give yourself permission to use it.”
That was the message shared by Selina Martinez, community organizer for immigrants and communities at Nebraska Appleseed.
“Women Empowered to Lead, We Lead,” is a leadership and personal development training curriculum designed to help women gain the skills they need to create real change for themselves, their families and their communities. Nebraska Appleseed presented the program to a group at the Guadalupe Center in Scottsbluff on Saturday. The women spent the day discussing issues important to them and how they can advocate to effect change in their community.
Martinez stressed that participation and being informed are important, and that the alternative carries the risk of being ignored.
A number of women discussed their passions and how to be active in civic participation. Some of their passions include crime prevention, voting, pubic transportation, mental health, children, afterschool programs, rights of women and domestic violence.
“As women, we have a great responsibility to the community,” said Nohemi Calderón, of Scottsbluff.
As immigration becomes a contentious subject for the presidential election, some attendees discussed the importance of citizenship and voting.
Joaquina Martinez, of Morrill, was passionate about helping her husband obtain citizenship.
“The election has opened his eyes,” Martinez said. “He wants to get his citizenship so he can have a voice.”
Her husband has been eligible for citizenship for several years, but never realized the importance of voting until this year.
“I’ve been telling him, if you don’t put your vote there, you’re not doing anything,” Martinez said. “When you don’t vote, you’re letting other people decide how things are running.”
According to Nebraska Appleseed, eligible Mexicans adopt U.S. citizenship at about half the rate as those from all other countries. They also fail to show up on election day.
And it’s not a problem exclusive to Nebraska.
“Latino citizens have the potential to exert real power,” Robert Suro wrote in the New York Times in January. “But a failure to show up on election day will eclipse any strength in numbers and weaken any potential political power Latinos may have in the future.”
The women who attended the workshops had a mixture of motivations.
Martha Bernadac said she wanted to have the satisfaction of giving something back and making a change in the community.
“I know there’s a lot of need and we as immigrants have a lot of potential to help,” Bernadac said.
Yaneth Ayala wanted to learn how she could help make a difference in her community.
“I want the best for everyone and for everyone to be equal,” said Karla Garcia.
And making changes in the community wasn’t limited to just women. Christian Valencia, 9, was concerned some parents show their children “bad things” and some parents don’t listen to children.
“I want to change that because us kids are the future of this state and the world,” he said.
Concerns about misconceptions being spread about immigrants’ rights and benefits as legal residents in the United States were also shared.
Maria S. Alvizar, of Mitchel,l shared an anecdote of a gentleman who was told he would have to forfeit money he’d received in an accident settlement in order to repay medical services he received.
“He was told that because he had Medicaid he would have to pay back the cost of his medical services with the settlement money,” Alvizar said.
The man was also worried it would negatively affect his immigration status and that he might not be able to become a citizen.
The women also learned details of the legislative, executive and judicial branches and how they work on the federal, state and local levels. They learned how to look up bills in the Nebraska Legislature and track their progress, and how those bills become a law.
Valeria Rodriguez, fellow with Nebraska Appleseed, said it was important to know who to contact to help you issues. Knowing who to go to can sometimes be confusing for immigrants who come from different governmental systems.
“Just knowing who to go to in order to ask questions is something we’re working on today,” said Rebecca Gonzales, project coordinator, immigrants and communities at Nebraska Appleseed. “If they’re going to go out and advocate, it’s something they need to know.”
Victims of domestic violence, who fear deportation if they report it to authorities, was also a major concern discussed. They fear they will never see their children again and that the police won’t help them.
“Unfortunately, these men know they will stay,” Gonzales said. “It’s also difficult when the women are out in rural areas away from the community.”
The seminar equipped the women with the tools they need to get involved, and most planned to take their passions back to their communities and begin advocating for the issues that matter to them.
“This is just the beginning,” Gonzales said. “They don’t realize the power they have.”