Jorge Gutiérrez

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Jorge Gutiérrez was born in Mexico City and moved to North Carolina in 2005 with his family. At the time of the interview, he worked as the Coordinator of the Building Integrated Communities Initiative. In this interview, he describes the work of Building Integrated Communities – an initiative of the Latino Migration Project in the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He introduces the three phases of the project and shares observations from community assessments with the Town of Chapel Hill, a current local government partner. He discusses the Chapel Hill/Carrboro school system as a model of immigrant integration. He shares his experiences with the school district – as a father of two children that attend Carrboro Elementary School. He praises the district’s efforts to integrate and accommodate the immigrants of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro community, and cites a number of examples.



Hannah Marable: Hi, I’m Hannah Marable and I’m here with Jorge Gutiérrez on Sunday, March 31, 2019 in Davis Library at UNC Chapel Hill. I’m here with Jorge to get to know him a little better, discuss his work as the director of the Building Integrated Communities Initiative, and have him help me understand how the Chapel/Carrboro school system works to support the growing population of immigrants in this area. Jorge, how are you?
Jorge Gutiérrez: I’m doing good. How are you?
HM: I’m doing good. Do I have your consent to record this interview?
JG: Sure you do.
HM: Okay, thank you. Jorge would you just tell me a little bit about yourself?
JG: As you mentioned, I am a staff member here at the University of North Carolina and I’m themy job title is BIC coordinator- that means Building Integrated Communities coordinator. What else about me- I’m originally from Mexico. I’m from Mexico City. I grew up there and I moved to the United States in 2005. The reason for that is that my wife started her PhD here at Carolina. After she finished and she got a very good job offer here at the university, we decided to stay. What that meant for me is that because I wasn’t allowed to work- my visa status at that time didn’t allow me to work, my wife was the one that could get the working permit and in my case I- my only option was to wait longer until we were able to apply for permanent residency. What we did is our arrangement was that I would stay at home taking care of our children. At that point, our first was about to be born and she is nine years old now. We have a second one who is six years old. For six years, I was a stay at home dad. I was getting some work from Mexico for the people I was working for before moving to the US, but it wasn’t that much. It was something I was getting just to avoid rusting- but mainly I was a stay at home dad and primary caretaker of my two young daughters. Then, when we finally applied for green cards, we obtained green cards and immediately I started looking for a job. I think this job was the third or fourth place opening I applied for and I got the job. That is a little bit about me.
HM: How long have you been working at UNC?
JG: I started in May last year, in 2018, so I have been doing this for 11 months. Actually, today a year ago was the day that I submitted my application that was the deadline of the BIC application.
HM: Could you tell me about Building Integrated Communities?
JG: Building Integrated Communities is an initiative that- it was born here at the University of North Carolina. More specifically, this initiative is run by the Latino Migration Project and this is a project- the Latino Migration Project is nested within the Institute for the Study of the Americas and the director of the Latino Migration Project is Dr. Hannah Gill. I work with her at the BIC because she is the principal investigator of BIC. This initiative- just to give you a brief definition- is a multi-annual initiative in which we team up with local governments and we work I mean the team from UNC- we work as facilitators of a process that has the final end of improving the integration of persons that were born in other countries within the local communities. This is a process- an initiative- that has three phases. Each time we work with the local government, it has three different phases. Phase one is what we call the community assessment- that is participatory research that we run for ( ) things a year. During that process, we start reviewing demographic information and other primary sources. We go to the field and we ask the members of the community about what are their needs in terms of integration. We do focus groups and we do some other community conversations to gather that information from the community. This community assessment is what later will guide the second phase of the work that is the planning phase. In this second phase, we start this planning process with the participation of several members of the community. Normally, these members are individuals that are working with organizations- nonprofits, for example, that are working with immigrants or refugees. They have this first-hand experience on what are the main challenges these communities are facing. Other members of this planning committee- actually we call it a planning committee- are members of the community, also staff from the local government, the town manager, for example, or representatives of certain departments within the town government, staff members at the county level also participate. The membership to the committee is really open. Anyone that is interested in participating with us is welcome to join us. Any member of the community- for example members of the immigrant community or the refugee community, you can join us. Or, for example, if you are a Russian citizen that is interested- not a Russian citizen, a Russian immigrant, or a person of Russian or any other national origin, you can join us and work with us. The committee is completely open and all our meetings are public. This planning committee does that. Our objective is to elaborate an action that is proposed to the local authorities to embrace and apply. That second phase normally takes a year or a year and a half. Finally, the last phase is the implementation phase. That is when we present the plan to the local government, to the local representatives, authorities. We will, in some cases, they will vet the plan- we may do some modifications or the plan can be really feasible. Then they start implementation and we keep working with them in some sort of evaluation work after the implementation starts. Those are the three phases and as I said the main goal of the program or project is to improve the integration of people that were born in other countries.
HM: In what locations does Building Integrated Communities work?
JG: We work within the state of North Carolina. Any location, any town, or city, within the- any municipality within North Carolina is eligible to participate in the project. Currently, we are working- we always work with a pair of cities. Currently, we are working with Chapel Hill and Siler City. In both places, we are finishing- the planning in Chapel Hill is already finished and this coming week we have our first implementation meeting. Implementation is starting in Chapel Hill. We can say the same about Siler City because tomorrow we will present the action plan to the Board of Commissioners- that in the case of Siler City is equivalent to the City Council. They have a Board of Commissioners and we are presenting the plan so we are- this will be the kickoff of the implementation phase there. Previously, we have worked with Samford, Winston-Salem, High Point, and Greenville. We have worked with six municipalities so far, since the initiative started. I want to mention that the funding that we have- I think this is important. Our funding comes from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation that is located in Winston-Salem and that is the only funding source that the initiative has.
HM: How did you get this center- or this foundation- on board to give you the funding? How do you get local government of Chapel Hill, or Siler City, or whatever to be willing to cooperate with you?
JG: I can speak more about the second part of the question. It is a combination. Sometimes we go and look for someone within the government or within the community in a certain location and sometimes it is because of the network that we already have. We have heard about someone who is interested in the project or we get recommendations from, for example, last time that we worked with Sanford, there was someone in the Sanford local government that knew about Siler City and who knew the Town Manager in Siler City so this person talked to Siler City’s Town Manager about us. I wasn’t working at that time with BIC so I’m telling you this from what I have heard so I think that Hannah (Gill) is the right person to answer these- but what I have heard and what we are doing now to look for other city is that we have different strategies to go and invite the cities to apply. Sometimes we go ( ), sometimes they ask us, so it is a combination.
HM: What is the application process like?
JG: I cannot answer that. I know that there is an application process but I have never- I haven’t been there so I don’t know exactly what you have to do. The first part of the question was about the funding- the funding is also- I haven’t- I will experience for the first time this summer working with all aspects of the funding. You have to follow the formalities that are required from the Foundation. Something that right now we are very focused on is gathering all the evidence from our previous experiences in other locations to show to our funding partners that things are happening, and not only that things are happening, but that there are results. The integration- and that there are important improvements in integration in these places that we have been working. I can’t tell you more about this because I don’t have the experience of working on that specific aspect.
HM: Can we talk about the particular case study of Chapel Hill? What have you learned from this year of planning and gathering information about the immigrant community here in Chapel Hill?
JG: One of the highlights of the- concerning the immigrant communities here in Chapel Hill is that we have a very diverse mix. We are not talking only about immigrants from Mexico, Central America, or Latin America. We have many residents of Chinese origin, for example. You may wonder why we have residents of Chinese origin- the answer is that the university is a magnet for that because there are many students- many graduate students that come here to Carolina and in many cases they bring their parents so that their parents can help with the child rearing so they are the caregivers for the kids. Also, many of those students stay here because they got jobs here so they also become immigrants. During the last five to ten years, we have had this arrival of refugees from Burma. Burma is a country in Southeast Asia. There is a permanent conflict between the different ethnic groups in Burma. The United States is one of the main receivers of Burmese refugees. Chapel Hill and Carrboro is one of the spots where these refugees have relocated. There is a mix. We also have immigrants from many other parts of the world. The list is big. We have people from Europe, from different countries in Europe. There are also refugees from countries in Africa. From Central African Republic- no the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From Iraq, too. The mix is diverse. That was one of the main highlights. The other highlight is- it has to do with language access. After we asked them, during the community assessment, the main- the challenge that the community members referred to more often is the language barrier as an obstacle to integrate better within the community. This is especially problematic for the newcomers- people that are coming and don’t know the language. Their English proficiency is very low and they are in the process of learning. For them, it is very challenging. In terms of integrating them into, not only to have access to public services that are offered, but to allow them to participate in civic engagement, for example, or in civic participation. There is a language barrier if members of this community if they would like to join the town advisory boards or to the other boards within the town. The lack of language access is a huge barrier, a huge obstacle. I will say that those are, for me, the two highlights.
HM: After all that planning, what action plan are you putting forth now?
JG: Something that I didn’t explain when you asked me about BIC is that after we apply the community assessment, we determine what are the key areas in which more work is needed which are the key areas that the members of the community told us are important for them. In the case of Chapel Hill, we came up with five key areas for planning. Those are: communication and government communication, housing, public safety and law enforcement, leadership- and there is a fifth.
HM: Education, by chance?
JG: No, actually, we didn’t have education for a very good reason that we will go into. I will remember later. But those are the five key areas that were defined. Can we go back to the question? What was the question?
HM: I asked you what is the action plan
JG: Within the planning committee, we created, or we invited the members of the committee to join or to express which key area was of their interest to work in. Basically we created five subcommittees, planning subcommittees, and those committees were working during nine to ten months in coming up with specific actions that were directed to improve integration in that specific area. I will give you an example. In housing, they realized that in terms of language access, the applications for public housing are in English only. People that don’t read English for them it is very difficult. They will need an interpreter, or a translator, to help them apply. One of the proposal in that subcommittee is to translate the applications into the main languages- the foreign language that are spoken by the people that are requesting public housing. In the other four key areas, they do the same thing.
HM: We talked about how education was not one of those key areas. Can you tell me why that is?
JG: Because our school district is great. They are doing a great job. They have been doing a great job for years in terms of immigrant integration. What they do- I think you will learn more about this but it is a model. It is an example, not only statewide, but nationwide. If you want to learn more about this I can share with you my experience as a father of two kids that are in schools within the district. I don’t have any other- I haven’t done any work with the district, so my experience comes from that. I can tell you that in terms of language access- first of all, there are three elementary schools within the district that offer some kind of bilingual program. You have Carrboro- that has a dual language program- English and Spanish. FPG- they also offer a dual language program- what they have there is tracks of this Spanish-English dual language program. One is more intensive in Spanish than the other. There is a third case that is Glenwood Elementary. They have a dual language program- English-Mandarin. You learn Chinese. It is not easy to find that in school district. They decided to tend to the needs of the newcomers- of the immigrant communities by doing that. I can tell you, as a Spanish-speaker, someone whose native language is Spanish, for me it is very important that my children can learn my own language- and in a way that they can become fluent speakers and writers. This is what the dual language programs aim to- so that is very important. The school district has worked really hard in assuring that everyone has the part of language access solved, especially in Spanish. Almost all of the services within the school district are bilingual. There is a department within the school district that runs all these bilingual services. They make sure that parents that don’t speak English can have the assistance of an interpreter or translator when they- for example, the teacher parent conferences, or for any other events within the school. In the case of the dual language schools, and this is the case I know- my two daughters go to Carrboro Elementary. The part of language access in the school is very easy to address because half of the teachers are native Spanish speakers- those teachers are the teachers in the dual language. If your kid is in the dual language program, one of the teachers will be a native Spanish speaker. The dual language program works 50-50- 50 percent of the school time is in English and the other half is in Spanish so they always have two teachers- an English teacher and a Spanish teacher. When you go and see the conference, you always have someone that speaks your own language. I don’t know about the case of the schools that doesn’t have the dual language program- if there are parents there that don’t speak English. But I’m pretty sure there is some sort of service from the school district that they can communicate with the teachers or officials. This would be interesting to find out what they do in these specific cases- the schools that don’t have a dual language program.
HM: Are you familiar with the process for applying to the school? How do you get to go to the dual language school?
JG: You just go to the school district website and they have an application there. You fill out the application and you bring it to the office of the school district and for us, it was that easy. We heard back from them. In our case, for the place that we live at, we were not assigned to Carrboro Elementary, we were assigned to a different school. Families living outside the certain school zone can apply for the dual language program.
HM: It sounds like everyone gets in, or
JG: No, there is a lottery. The thing here is for us as native Spanish-speakers, the lottery doesn’t apply to us because what they do- and probably someone at the district can explain this better to you or there will be some inaccuracies. What I know is that the school tries to keep a 50-50 composition in the classrooms, so 50 percent of the students are from Spanish-speaking families and 50 percent are from English-speaking families. There is much more demand for the spots for the English-speakers than for Spanish-speaking families. There are always spots ( ) for Spanish speaking families because the proportion of families applying is much lower in the Spanish speaking side. We didn't go into any lottery because spots were available. But if you are in an English-speaking family, you will go through this lottery.
HM: From your experience with BIC- I guess I’m wondering- these programs are only useful to immigrants who need dual language programs if they hear about them. Do immigrants in the community know about these programs- are they able to go online and apply? Is there that connection there?
JG: From my experience, it was easy to know about this, but my experience is not the same as the other immigrant folks. In our case, it was through our connections, through our network within the university environment- how we learned that there was a dual language program in the schools here. I would have to say that any parent that goes to any of the schools or to the district offices to ask for information- they would immediately learn about these dual language options. If they go to the district website, it is very easy to see that there is a ( ) for these Spanish speaking families and things will be explained there. Secondly, the few things that I can tell you apply to the Spanish-speaking community. I don’t know what is the case for example of the Chinese speakers, or more importantly- what has been the experience of the refugees from Burma. Burmese refugees. I don’t know what specific programs the district has to take care of this community in terms of education. I know that something is done because it was in- when my youngest was in Pre-K, there was a Pre-K classroom with kids of that origin- all of the kids in that classroom were of that origin.
HM: That was a public preschool?
JG: That was a public preschool. Important here to point out is that the public Pre-K is not completely run by the school district.
HM: What is the name of the Pre-K?
JG: I don’t know. It is within the schools- the same facilities. In Carrboro Elementary, you have the Pre-K. There is some sort of involvement from the district, but I think that program is run by the education department at the state level. You will need to check the specifics about that. But I saw that they were taking care of the Burmese kids there. I don’t know if they do some sort of follow-up after Pre-K, from K-12.
HM: One other thing you said was really interesting. You talked about how beneficial it was to have both a Spanish-speaker and an English-speaker in parent-teacher conference. I can imagine that’s really helpful for parents who may not speak English. Does the school system provide other services for the parents? Are there English classes- or anything else that would help to integrate them, as well as the students?
JG: Other things that I have experienced- every year they do an assessment on each kid that comes from a Spanish-speaking family. They evaluate their progress with English. They try to make sure that they are progress in English is the same as the English-speaking kids are having. If they see that there is kid who is below the level, or is not doing that well in English, they will provide some remedies- some additional classes, school. They help them to achieve the same level of English proficiency. Another very important thing that the school district does is- the messages and the information that they send out to the parents is always bilingual. They have these robocall system- the call system- for many things. They call you about hurricanes, if schools are closed, to remind you that there is a delayed opening- whatever, that the school fair is coming, or that a special event is happening. They always call you and they make sure that the Spanish-speaking families get the message in Spanish. Not only that- they make sure that the person that is telling the message is a native speaker of Spanish. The reality- the person that does the speaking is native Spanish-speaker. They are not worried only about giving some sort of translation, but they really take care about what kind of translation- or the quality of translation that we are getting. I have heard that in other events that I haven’t attended- but some events with parents, they always try to provide interpretation. The other very important thing and this will depend on each school but they really try to engage with parents- with the Spanish-speaking parents. They foster the creation of groups of parents. For example, in Carrboro Elementary, we have this group of Latino and they meet, I think, twice a month. Someone from the school is present- some school official is there. They just talk about their needs and they also run several initiatives. For example, in terms of funding, they help the school to get the funding that is needed- so there is a big event in May, towards the end of the school year. That is the school fair and it is the most important funding event. You will always see the food stand is run by the Latino families. That is one of the many things that they are doing now. There is encouragement from the school and from the school district for the Latino parents to gather and interact with the school staff- and the principal and the assistant principal to solve the needs of the community.
HM: Thank you. That was so helpful to hear all of your knowledge about BIC but also your personal experience too. That was really helpful. Is there anything else you think would be helpful to share when thinking about the relationship between the school system here and the immigrant community before we finish?
JG: What else? Something that I think is important is- at Carrboro Elementary there is counselor that is doing a great job. For example, she is in charge of doing these “spotlight breakfasts.” Each month, they have a breakfast in which they nominate some of the kids from K-5 in certain aspects of character, mainly. So- honesty, respect- things like that. She organizes this breakfast and normally she brings and normally she brings a speaker from the community- someone that doesn’t belong to the school community. For example, Judge Paduro, one of the local judges, was there when one of our kids was on spotlight. She is- this counselor- trying to bring speakers that members of the Latino community and her goal is to bring people that can set an example and can be role models for the kids. I think there a big need of having role models and to tell the kids that- how to say this- they are not subject to go through the same situations that their parents have gone through. If they are here in this community or in this school it is because they will get the same set of skills and knowledge than the other kids, and telling them that they will be able to do the same as the white kids, for example, is very important. It is very important that they see that in these role models from the community. I was talking about this case of the counselor because I think this effort is important- the jobs their parents have are great- respectable jobs- but as we know, those jobs are the jobs that are done by the immigrants that are the newcomers. They come here in work in construction, or in landscape, or as janitors, or in kitchens. That is hard work, and normally that work is low-paid work. The kids of these immigrant folks have the opportunity to do much better in terms of income if they stay in school and take advantage of the skills that they are getting in schools. So that part is something that is very important and that the schools and the districts are very interested in enhancing or improving. Something that I want to underscore is that the reason that education was not a key area within BIC here in Chapel Hill is because the parents themselves, or the community members, when we went and asked them about their needs, they felt- they told us that there were not pressing needs in the educational field because they have all these services that I was talking about, and all these language access options that I mentioned. I want to underscore several times that the school district here does a great job in terms of integrating folks like me that were not born in this country and speak a different language.
HM: I’m really glad to hear that. Thank you so much, Jorge, for allowing me to interview you.
JG: Yeah, sure, sure. END OF INTERVIEW [00:53:56] Transcribed by: Hannah Marable on April 2, 2019