Madison Hayes

Basic Interview Metadata

Interview Text and Audio


Madison Hayes is the Executive Director of the Refugee Community Partnership in Carrboro, North Carolina. She explains her background in nonprofit and human rights work, both internationally and locally. Hayes discusses the history of power dynamics in service relationships and in research. She describes the formation of the Refugee Community Partnership and emphasizes their focus on building mutual and reciprocal relationships as the basis of their work. Hayes describes many of the goals that newly resettled families have and many of the obstacles to these goals that they face. She also emphasizes the importance of creating an open dialogue around these issues within the non-immigrant or refugee communities. Hayes also discusses the social and institutional impacts of recent US policy changes with respect to refugees.



Claire Weintraub: Alright, I’m Claire Weintraub and I’m here with Madison Hayes. It is April 18, 2017 and we are in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Do I have your permission to record this interview?
Madison Hayes: Yes.
CW: Alright, thank you. Today I want to talk to you about your work with the Refugee Community Partnership and the work that the organization does to gain more insight into the role of nonprofits in working with the immigrant and refugee communities in the area. So to start, can you just tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
MH: My personal background?
CW: Personal or work background.
MH: Okay sure, let’s see. When I—I first got started kind of in the nonprofit world when I was in college and started working for an HIV/AIDS international NGO that was doing work in Kenya. And that kind of cracked open my, I think, self-education journey about kind of the historical legacy that Americans, particularly white Americans, have in carrying out what we call kind of humanitarian aid. And while those efforts are really well intended, they can have adverse consequences. And anyway fast-forward some years, I got a grant from my university that I was at to work with another nonprofit in Argentina and did some work down there. And the project down there—I was going to help setup a kind of meal kitchen in a really very rural, kind of below poverty line village on the outskirts of Cordoba, Argentina. And when I got there, I hadn’t yet really examined or critiqued my motivations for wanting to be there and realized very quickly that I was under these, again good intentioned, but very much self-interest of ‘I want to help. I have information and knowledge and resources to provide that these people need.’ All of that you know very savior, paternalistic mindset. And when I got there it was a really formative experience because the project that I wound up working on was setting up this meal kitchen, but I wound up putting myself in a position where I was just kind of the labor hand and following the lead of this coalition of mothers from the village who had their plans already in place and had a vision for what this looked like and had all of the decision-making capabilities and power. And I realized very quickly that the role of the nonprofit that I was working with—our job was to follow their lead and gain access to the resources, particularly as westerners, that we can to kind of funnel their way so that they can build the vision that they already have. And anyway fast-forward some more years and I worked as a farm-labor hand in Central America for a while and learned more about farm labor rights and particular farm labor exploitation and the relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and wound up—and moved back here. And when I moved back here I started working with a nonprofit called the Orange County Partnership for Young Children and I was working on some food sovereignty projects, predominantly with Spanish-speaking communities here in Carrboro. And then a few years later after that, I joined the board of the Carrboro-Chapel Hill Human Rights Center who at that time worked primarily with Spanish-speaking communities in Carrboro as well. And for my paid work I got back into HIV/AIDS work through UNC and started doing HIV/AIDS research. A few years later down the line, I was offered the Executive Director Position of the Community Engagement Division of the Center for AIDS Research at UNC. And in that position, I worked to kind of build maybe healthier—that might not be the best work, but healthier relationships—collaborative relationships and partnerships between researchers and researched communities. And there’s a—this all kind of dovetails with the beginning of my self-critique of what aid and service and helping actually entails. And now applying this to the research world—as research folks we have a long history of kind of going into communities, right—so as people not a part of these researched communities. We observe a problem, we develop a solution, we decide how to get the resources and what resources we need. We decide how those resources are allocated. And then we go into said community and we extract data, in effect—right, the intention is that we are doing this for public good, but we have to ask ourselves what it feel like to be a community and see usually pretty affluent people coming in and saying “this is for the good of you and your family and your community.” And essentially extracting data that we get a pretty good salary for doing and the socioeconomic conditions of the communities from which that data came—their conditions never change. So there’s a pattern here of the relationships between institutions and the communities that they claim to serve. And I say this fully out of self-critique because the Refugee Community Partnership, we are a nonprofit and if there is anyone that is leading the charge in this kind of paternalism and being outside of a community and developing a program that nobody asked for, it’s us—it’s the nonprofit sector. And I think it’s really important that as nonprofit organizations, we develop a healthy self-critique. So, in—when I was serving on the board of the Carrboro-Chapel Hill Human Rights Center, the Orange County Health Department and the UNC School of Public Health published a community assessment on the growing refugee population in Carrboro-Chapel Hill. And at that time, there was really no refugee support organizations or agencies. If you need to do stuff, do stuff—
CW: I just wanted to make sure the time was on there, but we’re good.
MH: Cool, cool, cool. And cut me off whenever.
CW: No, no. Please keep talking.
MH: Hey [directed at another person]. So, at that time there were little to no refugee support efforts going on and I, as a board member of the Human Rights Center, read this report. A couple of other board members read this report and concerned about the kind of growing distance between local refugee communities and the resources and services that they really need in order to kind of gain a foothold here, spent about a year just getting to know a lot of the refugee folks that live in this area and wanted to first understand if—get the kind of qualitative, [door opens and closes] not qualitative, but the anecdotal stories that produce sort of data statistics that were covered in this report. But more importantly to build relationships. And that came—that was a very deliberate effort because as a group we talked a lot about this pattern of nonprofit organizations, again observing needs and developing solutions absent of the voices and the leadership of the communities that we’re claiming to serve. And ultimately wind up creating services and programs that kind of maintain the status quo and particularly maintain the power dynamics between institutions and the communities that that institution serves. So, for example in a service-based relationship, there’s a provider and there’s a recipient. And whatever that provider has, whether it’s service or it’s a resource or it’s information, the nature of the relationship—the power in unidirectional. I’m the person who has the resources or the service or the information that you need and my job is to give it you and your job is to receive it. And all good intentions here, but it’s important I think for us to think about what it feels like over the course of time to be constantly in a role receiving something from other people and not being recognized as having something to give back, to provide as well. So, from the very beginning stages we dreamt about an organization that was totally based around mutual and reciprocal relationships, where support isn’t being provided, it’s actually co-created. [door opens and closes] That and these typical service provision relationships, where there’s a provider and the recipient—both are both. The provider of support or resource or whatever or information is also the recipient whatever the other person has to give, whether that’s friendship or that’s cultural learnings or gosh, food or celebrations—invitations to participate in community events and family celebrations. And recognizing that those things—to get to be included in that kind of—to be welcomed in that kind of environment, is just as valuable as whatever service you are providing. So, we very much constructed the Refugee Community Partnership out of kind of a shared critique of nonprofit organizations, including a critique of ourselves. Fortunately, over time we’ve kind of embedded this as a practice among staff and volunteers to really check ourselves and how we’re carrying out our work. And, yeah the rest is kind of history. I worked, yeah, at UNC as the director of that engagement division until about a year ago and left and came on as the Executive Director of the Refugee Community Partnership back in October.
CW: So when you’re trying to build these relationships with the communities you work with, what is the process of that relationship building actually look like? Or, how do you initiate that sort of initial contact and relationship building?
MH: Yeah. So, because we invested about a year of building relationships with local refugee communities, now fast-forward we just naturally are kind of embedded. So we are good friends with a lot of the folks who are community leaders with the local refugee populations and they play a staff role in the organization. Our program growth is—while we have some referral partners, most of our program growth comes from referrals coming from participants, So, they’re talking to their neighbors and tell them about the Refugee Community Partnership and they get involved and then they’re talking to their cousin’s niece and tell them and then blah, blah. So then growth—program growth is a natural extension of the relationships that are built. So that relation building becomes a vehicle for recruitment—you know what would typically—what most programs would call recruitment for program growth. We have—we hold regular feedback sessions with all the participants—participating families in the Refugee Community Partnership where we report back to them and say “these were the kind of outcomes we’re seeing out of our programs lately,” and get folks reflections and feedback on that. And we’re saying “these are the resources that have come into the organization recently. This is how we think they should be allocated,” and get their feedback on that so that the participants in the programs and the organization are the governing body of the organization and we’re really following their voices of leadership. And so going back to when I was speaking earlier about my original volunteer project in Argentina—about the moms and starting the meal kitchen, it’s like that. I’m kind of perceiving our job as using the channels of access that we have as a nonprofit organization, as well-resourced people and incredibly privileged individuals, but deliberately leveraging the resources and the access and the privilege that we have to garner the resources that refugee communities need in order to get to where they want to go. And that brings us to this concept of power and there’s another—there are great conversations going on today in the nonprofit world, and have been for many, many years—these conversations have been going for a very long time—long preceding me and my ancestors [laughs]. But, about how nonprofit organizations maintain the status quo. And that’s because a lot of our programs and services are developed around addressing the symptoms of root causes instead of the root causes themselves. And when you start to understand how power structures work in this country—that structures of advantage—yeah power structures are constructed to either fast track you to access, opportunity, and privilege or they’re designed to oppress and marginalize you. And so if we’re talking about actually—if we’re ready to have an honest conversation about what actually relieving these social problems means, it means talking about power. So we incorporate that into our volunteer training. We incorporate that into our staff and board trainings, so that at an—on a program, staff, and organizational—all of those levels, we’re incorporating these self-critiques and these conversations about power, structural oppression, systemic poverty, things like that so we don’t get kind of lulled into the ease of just addressing symptoms and opting out of the hard work of actually addressing the root problems. Totally went off on a tangent. We were talking about relationships. But, in terms of the relationship building too—our volunteers are really trained around this concept of mutual and reciprocal relationships. We’re really trying to buck this notion of charity and so for example, we have volunteers that work one-on-one with a refugee family and the family—we use a goal setting process, the family and the volunteers together. The family identifies what their short and long term goals are and together they and the volunteers kind of develop a customized work plan of how to achieve those goals. And if it’s a short term goal, it might be a three week long work plan and if it’s a long term goal it might be a three year long work plan. And these are long term relationships, so they’re working together for the long haul. And really the volunteers’ role in that is to kind of be the gatherers of the resources and information that that family needs to get to where they want to go. And similarly, the volunteer sets their own goals of what they want to learn. And so that can be, “I want to learn two new words in your language every week,” or, “I want to learn how to make a traditional dish from your culture.” [water running] And thereby we’re hardwiring the relationship to be one of reciprocity. And the relationships are overwhelmingly the most transformative aspect of our work. It’s amazing what kind of mutual support can be created when a relationship moves from a transactional one, where I’m providing something that I think you need—[background noise] It moves from that transaction to one of mutual support and reciprocity, then you get into social companionship. And that—I mean social companionship and those kind of relationships—they outlive any kind of program or nonprofit. Yeah.
CW: Great, so could you talk a little bit about the specific demographics of the refugee population in the area that you work with or maybe how those demographics have changed over time?
MH: Yeah, yeah so the majority of forcibly displaced people that have been resettled to Carrboro-Chapel Hill are from Burma [talking in background] and—largely from Burma and then Thailand and Malaysia as well. And Carrboro-Chapel Hill is a relatively new resettlement area [door opening and slamming] starting probably about ten years ago and up until even about two years ago, largely folks from Burma and Thailand. There’s been a growing number of folks resettled here from the Congo, some from Iraq and Afghanistan and then more recently, a growing number of folks from Syria. And looking ahead, the resettlement numbers are projected such that most of the folks resettled here will be from Syria, the Congo, and Iraq.
CW: And you talked earlier about [background noise] the process of goal setting you use. What are some of the most common goals that the newly resettled families have when they first arrive?
MH: Yeah, so overwhelmingly families want academic support for their kids. Even the parents who might be having a hard time finding work or just covering basic financial expenses, overwhelmingly their top priority is academic support for their kids. You talk to any family that has gone through the refugee resettlement process, which is a really often times traumatizing, very—it’s a really hard, hard journey. It’s a really hard journey. And almost every single family will tell you it’s because they want better opportunities for their kids and whatever hardship they have to go through in order to make that happen, they’ll do it. And so that’s usually on the list—that’s usually at the top of the list of families’ goals. But the other pressing ones are finding employment or finding better employment. So not speaking English and most folks arrive here without documentation of their past [background noise] work history or educational history. And a lot of folks back in their home countries were engineers or incredibly skilled tradespeople or teachers or organization directors, but don’t—but their skillsets or their educational background or their vocational background may not be considered legitimate in the eyes of the institutions here in this country. And so often times the only employment that is available to folks is low wage labor and often times that’s like eight dollars an hour. So parents just to cover basic financial expenses for a family of five often times have to work two or three jobs—work 90 hours a week. And when you do that you don’t have time to participate in ESL classes. And often times these low wage jobs are working in isolation. So for example a lot of folks work in the housekeeping department at UNC and the way that that kind of work looks is you’re assigned a section of a building and that’s what you work on for the next nine hours and you don’t get much interaction with other English speakers, more less in an educational environment. So people are—face a great deal of barriers to being able to improve their English skills quickly enough to access good employment and that can last for many, many, many years. And when that happens, then folks fall quickly into poverty and it’s really hard to get out of poverty once you’re in it. National data shows that amongst refugee populations for folks who are able to transition out of poverty, the average time to do that is 13-20 years. So life can be really hard. So, one of our—just knowing that—knowing the factors that cause systemic poverty, as an organization we always have most of our conversations center around employment. And for folks who had a skilled vocation back home and they want to get back to that vocation, then that would the long term goal. And that’s when we would set out a work plan that’s studded with benchmarks. So, if somebody was a plumber back in Syria and want to get back into that vocation here then we would set plumbing—being a plumber as the long term goal and then working backwards from there. So being a plumber—what certification do you need to be a plumber? So creating kind of a customized pathway to getting that certification. In order to participate in the classes that give you that certification, what level of English do you have to have? Okay so now that’ll illuminate the pathway toward English learning that we need in order to achieve this long term goal and so on and so forth. [sneeze in background] Housing is another big one. Affordable housing options are very limited in this area and they’re dwindling quickly and a lot of families are getting priced out of the only affordable housing options that there are here. So we do a lot of work around that as well. Some short term goals would be, finding an ESL class that’s happening at the time that I don’t have to work and if that doesn’t exist then we train our volunteers to provide English instruction one-on-one in folks’ homes—in their homes. And a lot of times is it’s providing that academic support, so not just maybe tutoring daily homework help, but actually being kind of like the academic liaison for the family between the school and the family. Because parents not speaking English have a really hard time engaging with their kids’ school. And even little things like, “gosh, my kid is sick today—throwing up, can’t go to school.” Even making that phone call to their teacher to tell them that is impossible if you don’t speak English, because not even a matter of having the conversation with the teacher, but most school systems have an automated voice system—automated line where you press one to go to the directory or press two to blah, blah, blah. And if you don’t speak English you can’t do that. So, being that academic liaison between the school and the family is a job that a lot—a role that a lot of our volunteers play. [running water] Yeah.
CW: I’m curious what kind of work, if any if this is part of what you do, you do to raise awareness amongst the non-refugee or immigrant population about these issues or challenged that the refugee population faces.
MH: Yeah, we’re—we do [background noise] we do that a lot. We have that—that is kind of our dual mission is to, while doing this relationship-centered support work and real community building, the other part of that mission is to grow the—grow a community of non-refugee people who are simultaneously developing a curiosity about these concepts and similarly developing a good practice of self-critique around things like power and structural oppression and service delivery and all of these approaches that are kind of like the standard for providing support or helping people. So yeah we—you know opportunities that if we’re doing a newspaper interview or news channel or invited to give a talk at a local congregation or even just talking for a few minutes to a student group, always trying to use those as opportunities to usher in these concepts and talk about these concepts.
CW: And from your experience are people for the most part pretty receptive to this or have you experienced any sort of resistance to these ideas?
MH: Yeah, for the most part it’s all been pretty well received. That said we’re talking about audiences who have—who want to hear from us and so we’re invited into the space. I think if we were to just show up somewhere uninvited and start spouting off criticisms that wouldn’t be so well received. This is also really good practice as an organization in how you be a steward of kind of community values. And, it’s really easy to go into—be talking with a group of people and spout criticisms. It’s much harder to get that same kind of critiquing conversation going, but more I think it’s worth the investment to figure out how to do that in a very approachable and palatable way. So for me personally, when I talk about these concepts I use “we” language. I always include myself in talking about this stuff and this is also kind of a rule for community organizing work. I do—I work—I do racial equity work with folks in this area and that’s something that we talk about—me as a white person, and trying to organize other white people around anti-racism work or racial equity work—is you always talk about your own racism when talking about other people or general—general racism. And that way you can be more—you’re making the concept more palatable, but you’re also encouraging self-reflection and that way you’re kind of—you’re keeping the doors open, whereas when we start spouting criticisms, it closes doors for people more quickly than anything. [talking in the background] So, this is all—these are the kind of strategies that we use to have these public conversations [clatter in background] that overall are also in this dual purpose mission of developing a community of people who are thinking critically about these things and self-critique. Yeah.
CW: So I wanted to ask you a little bit about sort of the policy-level of things. Obviously with this last election cycle and new administration, there’s been a lot of changes in not only the rhetoric surrounding immigrant and refugee populations, but actual policy changes as well. I’m wondering how that has affected the work you do either with the refugee communities or within this more educational outreach type stuff.
MH: Yeah so speaking to kind of like the direct effects of policy changes, the executive order that was—refugee-related executive order that was passed drastically cut funding to the resettlement agencies. So, historically the resettlement agencies are federally contracted and they’re the ones who transport—let’s say a refugee family from their country of origin to the United States and then they’re contracted to provide support to refugee individuals for two months here—two to three months. And, so since that executive order was passed, they lost a huge funding stream and some of them are looking at making pretty serious staff cuts—having to make pretty serious staff cuts. A couple of our local ones have already reduced their bench of staff and so they’re feeling the financial consequences of that pretty seriously and while they’re working hard to, I think, turn fundraising efforts towards more local sources, it’s illuminated for a lot of us the critical importance of community-based efforts. Because we feel like if we invest time and energy into cultivating local financial support for local efforts, that will create a more sustainable model that can weather changes in federal policy and that can weather changes in grant-making funding streams. So, I think how’s that’s directly impacted us—the week that that executive order was passed, a few—our Refugee Community Partnership and other refugee support organizations and the resettlement agencies had a number of conversations and some of those conversations centered around how us community-based organizations can grow our internal capacity—be able to fill the gaps that are starting to materialize as a result of this slash to federal funding to the resettlement agencies. So, yeah that’s one of the direct effects of the policy itself. One of the more social—some of the social impacts from these policy changes is that refugee folks are acutely aware of the growing sociopolitical hostility that’s given the greenlight to be more public now. And the way—and that’s generating a great deal of fear. And the way that that manifests and the way that that affects even socioeconomically daily life is folks are now afraid to submit that job application to that employer that they really wanted to get a job with or they’re afraid to call the social services agency and follow up on their food stamps application to see where it is in the process, because for fear of drawing more attention to their citizenship status. And so this is having serious consequences on peoples’—on the structural factors that govern daily life. Yeah.
CW: So what, if anything, do you think can be done on a community level to address that more social aspect of it and that fear that they feel?
MH: Yeah so a lot of—so some area nonprofit organizations are kind of doubling down on their practice of convening the communities that they work with and that they have relationships with on a regular basis to have just candid conversations about this stuff, to be able to answer questions, to be able to have—to be able to air grievances, to be able to create spaces where people can express their concerns and those be heard. So, I think there’s work going on around that and for example the day after the refugee-related executive order was passed, at RCP we scrambled real quick [laughs] and within a matter of eight hours organized a potluck joy event where we just decided that if one of the intentions of these policy changes is to instill this fear and to kind of break the human spirit, then joy is an act of resistance. So, we called all the families that we work with and we just threw a big old picnic at a local park and had music and arts and crafts and painting and games and just hung out together for a few hours just to kind of carve out space where we could all just breathe [laughs] in the face of what feels like a daily onslaught of fear and threat. Yeah.
CW: Well, thank you so much. I think those are the main questions I have for you. Is there anything else you’d like to add or sort of closing statement type thing?
MH: I think—so the theme of this conversation I think is the role that community-based nonprofits play in the general landscape of supportive work with immigrant and refugee communities. And I think—I think when we center our work around relationships—around the kind of relationships that we were talking about earlier [background noise] and moving those relationships from transactional ones to long term companionship where—that are grounded in the priorities—the changing priorities of the communities that we work with, I think the benefits that come from that, they are—there are a multitude of them and they far—they extend far beyond the kind of quote-on-quote measurable outcomes that nonprofits are supposed to measure their impact by. And in that respect, I think community-based organizations play a really, really critical role—a really critical one and I think we will—I look forward to this process of all of us developing a healthy habit of self-critique and yeah—and I’m glad there are more conversations like these going on. So thanks.
CW: Thank you.