Katelyn Robalino

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Katelyn Robalino is a Community Connections Coordinator for the Affordable Housing and Community Connections Department at the Town of Chapel Hill. She was first interviewed by New Roots in 2013 when she was a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill; this 2023 interview is an update on her journey, the various professional roles she has held, and lessons learned along the way. Soon after graduation, she worked as a Bilingual Teaching Assistant at a Montessori school in Charlotte and subsequently moved to Louisville, KY, where she held two AmeriCorps VISTA appointments and was a staff member for local nonprofits focused on community education and advocacy. Katelyn shares reflections on many topics throughout her interview, including imposter syndrome and other challenges she has faced, her sense of purpose and justice, and her ideas about leadership and the sharing of power. Lastly, she emphasizes the value of lived experience as a professional asset, which she believes has helped her in her current role at the Town of Chapel Hill.



Daniel Velásquez: Okay, today is the 30th of May of 2023. I am Daniel Velásquez. I am in the Global Education Center at the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. I'm here with Katelyn Robalino, a Community Connections Coordinator for the Affordable Housing and Community Connections Department at the Town of Chapel Hill. Katelyn, thank you so much for sitting down with me.
Katelyn Robalino: Yeah.
DV: And updating us on what you've been up to. Katelyn has an interview with us already archived on the New Roots website, but she has journeyed past that interview and is here to update us on what she's been up to. So, thank you for being with us.
KR: Yeah, definitely, it feels like so long ago now. It was 10 years ago.
DV: Wow. Okay, well can you update us on the last years of college and the time immediately after? I think that that was the time of your first interview. You were in, I think, a sophomore or junior in college?
KR: I think I was a sophomore. Yeah, I must have been because it was in the spring of 2013, so I was in in my second semester of my sophomore year. I wouldn't necessarily say that I ended up doing what I thought I was going to do. I had kind of some vague interests in education because my work study when I was an undergrad was at the Franklin Porter Graham Child Development Center, which actually doesn't exist. So, my work study job was a teaching assistant for two years. So, my first two years of undergrad I worked there and I really loved it. And that was the first time that I considered I really like working with children and being part of that environment and watching them develop and assisting in that process. And I was like, I wonder if I could be a teacher, but at the time I was so locked into my major that I kind of was like, I don't think I can necessarily do that.
DV: Can you remind us, what was your major?
KR: I was a studio art and Italian double major, so two different, really unrelated ones. And at the time I was interested in either art education or art therapy, so I was already thinking about a more professionalized degree, getting a master's eventually, but I wasn't quite sure exactly what that would look like. So, I did art and Italian not really with a specific purpose other than those were subjects that I was interested in. And then I, you know, after graduation, I had applied for a couple of different education-related stuff. I did apply for Teach for America, I got to the final round, didn't get in, was really devastated by that. Did some teaching, residency applications, again got through a few rounds, but really just panicked and was like, I don't know if this is exactly what I want to do, so I'm just going to take a step back. And I moved back home, I lived with my parents for a few months, for a couple years actually. But as I was living with them, you know, that summer right after graduation I was just at home, you know, I had friends that were already figuring out what their next steps were going to be. Some were in the same boat as me. And my mom and I were driving to run errands somewhere near my parents' house and she was like, oh, there's this Montessori school that's really close to the shopping center where we live, have you thought about seeing if they're like--. Just look, you never know, you know, because it's a private school, right. So, they have different requirements for what kind of, you know, teaching certifications you'd need. Usually, private schools run pretty independently in that sense, so luckily, they were looking for a bilingual teaching assistant for a primary classroom, so I applied, and I got the job and I started working there and I was there for three years. Really enjoyed Montessori approach, learned a lot from it.
DV: This was now 2015, still? Like when you got the Montessori job? So, you graduated 2015?
KJ: Yeah, so I graduated in 2015, was at home for two months scrambling and [laughter] kind of breaking down because I was like, I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. And then realizing: oh, it's fine, I don't have to figure that out. It's still a lesson I'm learning now, but I got the job, I think, August.
DV: So just before the school year started, basically.
KJ: Yeah, so it worked out really well, and then I stayed there for three years.
DV: Okay. Well, start telling us about your time at the Montessori school.
KR: Yeah. I really loved the environment of Montessori education, especially in a primary classroom, which is a multi-age group, ages three to six. Everything is kind of oriented towards that stage of development, and so it's a lot of sensory activities, a lot of practical activities, like learning how to take care of yourself, like hand washing, which sounds a little bit very practical, but they really do need to know how to do it because they don't know how to wash their hands well at that point. Hand washing, but also things like taking care of the garden outside or watering the plants in the classroom. And also, social skills, you know, it's their first time really being in a social environment that's not their family, so I found that really, really exciting to be a part of that process. And I also met my partner there, so I'm really grateful for that season of my life for what it was. But at the end of it, I was really ready to just go somewhere that I could continue to apply those lessons that I learned there in a space where I knew that I was going to be able to give back, I guess. Private school, I guess now looking back at it, I'm not necessarily sure I agree with the idea of private school as a concept, and so working at a private school was like, this is great that these resources are available to these students but I know from my upbringing, and as a first generation college graduate, that none of these things were available to me, and I still figured it out, and I'm really grateful for that. But I think one of the reasons I was able to do that is because I had people like me that were spurring me on to those things. And so, I was like, I guess my thinking after these three years was, I've learned a lot of things, and I want to be able to take that into other settings. And not--. There's always going to be someone that's willing to work here. There's not always going to be somebody that's willing to work in other settings, you know, that, for lack of a better word, underserved or underprivileged. And I'm using air quotes, because I don't really like saying that, but it's, you know, that's what I was thinking about at the time was, you know, I didn't have all of these things that I am giving my students and I still was able to be who I am. And I want to be able to do that for somebody else.
DV: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
KR: Yeah.
DV: So private school was in a way somewhat insulated, and you wanted to take some more of that elsewhere. So where else did you go from there?
KR: Yeah, so at that point I had been dating my partner for two years and his family is from Louisville, Kentucky. His dad is, that's where he grew up and his grandparents were still based there and some of his extended family. And so, his grandfather had really progressed in his dementia and he knew that he was going to, you know, not have so much time with him and so he told me, you know, I want to make this move and I want you to come with me. And honestly at the time I really didn't want to stay in Charlotte. I've never had an affinity to Charlotte. I think I probably referenced this in my previous interview, but I moved to Charlotte when I was a sophomore in high school, so I had a very difficult time adjusting to suburban Charlotte, growing up in New York City. So, I was just not really looking to stay, and this was my reason to leave, so I jumped at the opportunity to start anew and didn't really have a plan. But I ended up, through one of Matt's college friends--. She was working at a non-profit, and I ended up working at that non-profit too, as my first year as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. And then my two years after that as a staff member. So, that was--. And then after that, I actually did another VISTA year with a different non-profit organization. So, I did two VISTA years in Louisville.
DV: In Louisville, okay.
KR: Yeah, and I got a really intense non-profit background in small non-profit, like local non-profit work.
DV: A crash course.
KR: Yeah.
DV: Okay, and what kind of work were you doing at least for the first VISTA?
KR: Yeah, so the first VISTA was with Educational Justice, small non-profit startup kind of type of non-profit. The focus was on 5th through 8th grade students and mentoring them through our 9th through 12th grade volunteers. So, we would pair, ideally we would pair a 5th grade student with a 9th grade student so they could stay paired for multiple years. If you know about Blue Ribbon Mentor here in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, well, there's a--. Through Chapel Hill- Carrboro Community Schools, there's a similar kind of program where they do a kind of a more consistent, intense type of mentoring program so that they build a relationship and they kind of follow each other through their schooling. So, I think Blue Ribbon in Chapel Hill does this, I think, with adults. So, it's a little bit different, but it's the same idea of forming a relationship with someone and emphasizing that in order to connect that to their academic success. So, I was a program administrator, so I basically facilitated the applications on both ends for the students receiving tutoring and for the students interested in volunteering, and also orienting the families. And doing all of that in Spanish too, because I was the only Spanish speaker. So yeah, that was definitely, like you said, a crash course. I'd never used Spanish professionally really before that.
DV: Wow.
KR: I mean, I had at the Montessori school, technically I was, you know, giving language--. I was speaking in Spanish to the children, but nothing as intentional as this kind of--. It was more of a professional setting, I guess, that's as far as I can say.
DV: Yeah. What is educational justice?
KR: The non-profit or the concept in general?
DV: The concept, I think I get some of the outlines from where you've already described, the work you were doing, but what does it mean to you?
KR: To me, well, that's a big question. I mean, I think equal outcomes is probably what I would say now. It's the idea that regardless of where you start, you have the potential to reach the same outcome as somebody else. I don't think that's true necessarily, but right now as we exist today, but that's the goal is being able to have equal outcomes, yeah, and equal opportunities.
DV: Okay, I understand. And did this lead to the next VISTA appointment, or were you looking for something else to be able to stay in Louisville another year?
KR: Kind of. That's where it gets kind of messy, and I don't mind saying it because I think it's more public information now. Basically, the board of that nonprofit, EJ for short, made a lot of decisions that the staff did not agree with. And so, we were seven full-time staff, and all seven full-time staff left.
DV: Wow.
KR: Yeah. So, it was kind of an unexpected move for me. I was honestly fully intending to stay in that job for a long time. Coming to Louisville was also originally not part of my plan, and so when I moved, I was like, okay, let's see how this goes. And then I ended up loving my job. My partner's grandfather passed away about a year into us living in Louisville, and he was like, we don't have to stay here. I did what I wanted to do, I was there for my family, and if we want to move on, we can. And I was like, no, I love it here. I've really built my community here. I was really invested in the local students, in the local nonprofit culture. It is kind of cliquey, but it is just very--. Everyone knows everyone, and I was networking, I was building myself professionally. And then that happened, and it really kind of pulled the rug out for me and what I thought that I was going to do and so the VISTA position--. Honestly, I was kind of looking for something but I wasn't sure what I was going to transition out of or what other nonprofit work I could transition into, and so it was housing advocacy work and I was like, well I am interested in kind of more the advocacy side of things. And I know based on my experience in this education nonprofit that housing is the most intersectional issue, and so I was like, at least--. Even if I don't continue in housing advocacy, at least I will have a foundational understanding that I can take with me into my other jobs because housing affects everyone. That's ultimately why I ended up taking that position, even though I don't think I was necessarily, it wasn't my first choice, I would say, because I didn't want to do another VISTA position again. But I was also very wary of non-profit work because of my experience that I just had. And I wanted to go somewhere where I knew that I would have a good team and a good boss. And I got that feeling from the beginning of the interview process with them. And the boss that I ended up working with I still really respect and admire and think about him very often because of the work culture that he created. So, although it wasn't in my plan, I am really grateful for that time too because of what I also learned there.
DV: So, tell us more about that time.
KR: Yeah, so that was at Coalition for the Homeless which is a housing advocacy organization. And they focus not only on homelessness, but also on just, renters’ rights issues. So, my main focus was helping with the eviction outreach team. So, when the federal government did the CARES Act or ARPA, I can't remember that, or the--. Yeah, it was the ARPA money. When they distributed that to the state, Louisville got its own pot of funds from the state to do emergency rental assistance with the Louisville Office of Housing, their government there. And they asked the coalition if--. They used some of that funding to hire eviction outreach workers, because we do the work of actually letting people know about the program. Because in the beginning, they had this emergency rental assistance money, basically for anyone that qualified under a certain income bracket, they could apply and get their rent paid out. If they had any back rents that they owed, they could get that paid and then avoid eviction. And so that was the big thing, once people have an eviction on their record, it's really, really hard to rent anywhere else. And so, we wanted to be able for them to avoid that. But in the beginning, when they first started the program, so many people just didn't know that they were, the local government was doing that. That's when they asked the Coalition to step in and help with that. And so, our team of outreach workers was going almost, I mean, probably five times, like Monday through Friday, we had--. There was three, yeah, three of them, were going door to door. They would get the eviction court docket and just go down the list and be like, hey, my name is so and so, I work for the Coalition, I'm a volunteer, I'm not the government, I'm not police, I'm just here to let you know that the Louisville Metro is offering rental assistance, and if you fall under a certain income bracket, you'll qualify, and here's the information. And so just spreading that as much as possible. And basically, I helped with the facilitation of that. We also managed volunteers once a month to help us do that, so I also managed that. So, kind of having to do all the background-slash-admin work for making that as an organized effort, because the grant was for a year. So that's kind of how my job corresponded for the grant’s term, was to help with that until the funds ran out, which they did, I think maybe a few months after I left in October.
DV: So, this was also a bilingual position. You were doing this--. You were using Spanish professionally again?
KR: Yes. I would say not to the same extent, only because at EJ I was conducting entire orientations and presentations in Spanish, whereas this was more casual. Like--.
DV: Sometimes you just need to use the language.
KR: Yeah, it was like if I knocked on a door and someone spoke Spanish, then I would speak Spanish. And we did get flyers translated and stuff like that, but I didn't translate those. We got those professionally translated because it's a lot of housing jargon. But yeah, it was more informal.
DV: Okay.
KR: Yeah.
DV: And then it's after that that you came back to North Carolina?
KR: Yes
DV: Okay. So, before we get to that, are there any anecdotes or experiences that you think might be interesting to share from the two VISTAs or from the Montessori School, from that time since college to this point?
KR: Yeah, I thought a lot about that because, I mean, it all kind of blends together now. But I think something that is more recent, when I was working at the coalition, towards the end of my time there, we tried to kind of facilitate these community conversations to figure out where to target our advocacy work, and also to include people with lived experience, people who are actually living through eviction, people that are actually renters and living paycheck-to-paycheck, to include them in the conversation of advocacy work. We were able to talk to some people, not too many. I think that was one issue too, is that just because of who the nonprofit is in the community, it was always hard to get a larger group of people together. But in one of those conversations, somebody that was there and participated, she had a very simple question. I'd never thought about it, but she just kind of said, I don't understand why you're doing this. Why do you care? Why does this matter to you? You're not going to be affected by this in any way. And yeah, I was taken aback, I think, because no one had ever been so direct with me in that way, and at this point I've been working in kind of, I don't want to say pub--. Not public, I guess just a kind of service settings. I worked in a classroom for such a long time, from age 18 to, you know, whatever, however much time I was in at the Montessori school, like six, no, seven years basically I was in a classroom setting to some capacity. So, some, you know--. In service to children and then serving the community and then serving renters and people on eviction and I never really asked myself that, and it was like, it stuck with me I guess because it was good to remember. I'm doing this for a reason, not just because I think it's the right thing to do, although I do think it's the right thing to do. But because I want to see the community be supported and the community that I love be taken care of. And so, it's just a nice reminder to be like, I'm not just doing this out of the goodness of my heart but because I believe in seeing that--. What is, like, realizing the world that I want to see, I guess. Being a part of that, not just saying like, oh, we need to change the way that housing is--. The, you know, housing legislation. Or we need to change the way that, you know, we treat homeless people, or we need to change the way that children are educated. I want to, when I say that, I want to be a part of that change too. So--.
DV: That question that you were asked, did it come from a confrontational standpoint or was it just a query, someone was just curious? Like, why do you care?
KR: I think a little bit of both, honestly. I think a little bit of both because that specific community conversation, we were in Louisville's West End, which is predominantly Black, and I'm Latina, obviously, and my supervisor was white, and so the majority of people participating in the conversation were Black, and so that, I think, dynamic of us as the facilitators, and them as the participants being Black, was pretty obvious, you know, it stood out, and also because of the location we were in the West End, which is their neighborhood. And I mean, people can Google this, but you know, especially with what happened with Breonna Taylor and all of that, there's just a lot of tension and a lot of people that don't--. Specifically, the government, but also the community at large, they don't feel heard or listened to or cared about in any way, especially in the West End. And so, for us to be there in their space, I think she was taken aback, but it was confrontational because it's like, why are you here, coming into our space and our community and what's your investment here? What's your real motivation, I guess. And I understood that, I wasn't offended by that. I understood where she was coming from. And I was glad that she asked it, because I still think, it makes me think now even, now in my work, now why do I do this? So, I keep that question in my head continuously.
DV: There are trust issues, obviously.
KR: Yeah, definitely. And I totally understand that.
DV: Yeah. Any other anecdotes you want to share from those previous experiences?
KR: I think, I mean, this kind of is in a similar vein, but maybe on the flip side of that conversation was when I first got hired, my supervisor who is the Director of Education and Advocacy, his name is George. One of the first things that he said to me when he hired me was, you know, I think about this job as really important to acknowledge power and power dynamics because of the type of work that we do. And so, there's going to be times that you're going to--. I'm going to say something or tell you to do something in a certain way and maybe you don't agree or you think that it could be done in a different way, but maybe you don't feel comfortable to say that, or share that with me, because I'm your boss, and you're my employee, and you report to me. And it's really important for you to know that I want you to know that I acknowledge that, and that if you do feel that way, you can tell me, and we can talk about it. It's always going to be a conversation.
DV: Wow.
KR: Yeah, I've never had a boss do that for me before. And I've also, again, something I've taken with me is thinking about not just myself as a person that has the potential to--. Or I guess in the past I have thought of myself as a person that has had power taken from them, but not necessarily as a person that can share or give power to others. And so now, I think because he gave me that ability to say, I do have power, and I do have the ability to share that power and give up power when I need to, or wield it in a way that will give others power too, I'm very mindful of that now. And that's something that I also take into my work, is like, how am I sharing my power? How am I yielding my own power? Because I do, we all do have our own power that we're sharing or receiving or wielding, so it's a question that also I take with me in my work, especially now as I’ve progressed, I feel like I’ve come into a new space in my career and working for the town. But that's something that also sticks with me, is the idea of power and how we can wield it positively or negatively.
DV: Yeah, I understand. It sounds like that whole experience was very enlightening.
KR: Yeah.
DV: What are some challenges that you encountered so far, in your journey and the various positions that you've held?
KR: Challenges. I did write this down because I was like, I can think of so many. Honestly, first one is just very practical, being broke. Working in a non-profit sector means that you're just underpaid. Luckily, I wasn't overworked most of the time. I think that both of the supervisors that I had were very respectful of my time, but I was definitely underpaid, which meant that I worked two jobs a lot of the time. And I only stopped working two jobs when my partner and I moved in together. So, it wasn't necessarily that I had been in a higher income bracket. It was just that I was sharing expenses with somebody now, so it was easier. So that was quite difficult. I was just really tired all the time.
DV: Through the time that you were in the Montessori school and the VISTAs, you were working two jobs?
KR: Yeah.
DV: Wow.
KR: Yeah. It was tough. And then, once I became a staff member at EJ, once my VISTA year was over, then I stopped working two jobs. Although I did a couple of times still, like seasonally, for Christmas gift shopping and stuff like that. I would pick up some shifts--. I worked at Starbucks on and off and then I worked at a local bakery, you know, just like icing the pastries and slicing bread and making coffee and stuff like that. So, it wasn't anything glamorous. But yeah, that was probably the hardest thing is, I was just--. It's so hard to be present when you're tired all the time and just working. But I think that also kind of contributed to the other things which is like, you know, networking and figuring out how to have, you know, build a resume and focusing on, kind of, long-term planning; it was hard for me to do during that time because I was working so much. And then also just not having that generational knowledge of career advancement. My mom did eventually get her degree. She did get her degree when I was--. Right before I started college, actually, she graduated with her Bachelor's degree in communications. But even for my mom, she was kind of starting her career late, and I saw her kind of having to figure that out a few times. I don't feel like I had a lot of guidance in what are my next steps here. I knew how to get to college, but then once I got to college and finished college, I was like, I don't know what to do next, really. I don't know what are my next steps. I don't know how to describe that more other than the generational knowledge.
DV: It sounds like you were navigating that with your mom almost at the same time then.
KR: Yeah.
DV: So, she didn't have that to be able to give to you.
KR: Yes, and she would--. If I asked, she would say the same thing. I think both of my parents are pretty self-aware of like, there's lots of things that in this regard we couldn't really share our guidance on because we also didn't have that guidance. And I think that having that lack of knowledge then also contributed to my imposter syndrome. I think that to me, coupled with what I talked about, not having--. Having a second job, but just like, I didn't have the vocabulary for it at the time, but when I was an undergrad, looking back now, I realize I had a lot of imposter syndrome. And even when I was, I think, at the non-profit that I was working at, I don't think I felt it as strongly. But it was, I think, the positions that I was taking and my, I guess, I don't want to say inability, because I don't think that's the right word. But I guess that feeling of feeling stuck, like I'm just going to stay in this nonprofit work and not really--. Kind of making lateral moves, I guess, for those four years in Louisville. It felt very lateral to me, those moves. I think one of the reasons that I wasn't, I guess, willing to take that risk is because I did have a lot of that imposter syndrome of, well, this is what I'm good at, and I don't think that I could do anything--.
DV: At a higher level?
KR: Yeah, I couldn't really see that for myself. But that's, I mean, yeah, that's imposter syndrome, I think. That and working two jobs, both of those things were probably the toughest.
DV: Well, how did you navigate, especially the imposter syndrome, how did you navigate that kind of challenge?
KR: I mean, honestly, what's funny is that I was telling my sister when I started this job with the town that this is the first time I felt imposter syndrome this strongly since I was in college. Starting at the town has really made me, brought me back to my college years and feeling like I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what's going on, and I am not good at this. Which is not true. I know it's not true but I think more recently it's just been giving myself time. Yeah, I mean it sounds simple; I know that it's a little bit more complicated than that but really just giving myself time to adjust and giving myself space to do that, which is like--. It sounds, again, sounds obvious, but I didn't do that. And I don't--. I think that--. I didn’t think I was going to be getting emotional.
DV: It’s okay.
KR: When I think about my grandma coming here when she was in her 30s, my mom's mom, she never learned to speak English. She did lots of--.
DV: Take your time. [KR accepts a box of tissues].
KR: Thank you. She did lots of odd jobs, and cleaning houses, and making food for people. And I think, when I think about that, it's hard to feel like, gosh, I just lost my train of thought. I guess my point is that when I think about giving myself time and patience and grace, I think about how nobody else in my family had that. I feel like me and my sisters--especially my sister that I'm closest to in age, but both of us, I guess our generation--we're the first ones in our family to be able to say, I'm allowed to take up space, and I'm allowed to take time for myself and make those mistakes. Or even just make space to grow and change and learn. My grandma didn't have time to think about those things. And so, I think that one of the reasons why imposter system was so hard is because I didn’t always feel like, and still don’t sometime feel like I deserve to take that space, or that time, or that grace for myself, or that patience. But I think what's helped me is to think about, you know, because my grandma did these things, I can do those things. And it would be a waste if I didn't do those things that my grandma didn't get to do. I told my sister as much when she graduated last weekend, she got her Master's in urban and regional planning at Harvard, and I told her, I said, you're able to do this, and you're able to take this time to figure out who you are and who you want to be. Our parents didn't get to do that. Our grandma didn't get to do that. Our grandparents really didn't. And I'm proud of her for her degree, but I'm most proud that she's gotten to do that and that those opportunities have been afforded to us because our parents made those sacrifices. And our grandparents couldn’t, and they didn't have that time to take up that space and figure out their imposter syndrome, they just had to do things and not really think about it. And so, I think I’m--. I don't know, right now it feels like I'm always going to struggle with imposter syndrome, maybe I won't. But when I do, when I'm having a really hard day and I'm feeling like I'm spiraling, I don't know what's going on, I don't know what I'm doing; I try to remember, I don't always have to know what I'm doing and it's okay that I don't have it all figured out. Some days it's easier than others. And honestly, just acknowledging it and saying it out loud is the first step for me, and talking about it, honestly, with my sister, that really helps too, because we struggle with a lot of the same things. And honoring that lived experience is something we've talked about more recently too. And this kind of veers into a kind of a segue-way conversation, I guess, but just the idea that the lived experience that we have is valuable in our professional life and was not a consideration that I had until this job that I took with the town. And I've really been grateful for that, that that's something that the town values. And in the entire process that I was interviewing for, I felt like my lived experience was one of the reasons I was hired and I'm proud of that and I'm glad that they value that. And I've not necessarily worked somewhere where they were very explicit about that value and when I talked to my sister about it I hadn't realized that she was feeling that kind of imposter syndrome of, well, you know me and my peers are all applying to this fellowship with the city of New York. And they all have the same degree as me, right? So how am I going to stand out because we're all from Harvard. And I was telling her, I was like, you grew up in New York. We grew up low income. You have experience living in New York, in a way. And we left because of how gentrified it got and because how expensive it got, and like, that's important in the way that it informs your work because you're not talking about policy and people and their lived experience as a separate thing because you've lived that. And, you know, not everybody has that. That's something that's changing and that's something you should value and she'd always what she told me was: oh, I always just thought I don't want people to feel sorry for me. I don't want people to just say, oh, you're just this poor girl that grew up in the inner city, that kind of narrative. And it's like, no, that's not what I'm saying. But I'm saying that that is something that is valuable to have that experience. So, all that to say that, that really helps with imposter syndrome. But again, not every day is the same.
DV: Well thanks for sharing.
KR: Yeah.
DV: So, four years in Louisville?
KR: Yes.
DV: Two years doing a VISTA and then you stayed on at the second one, at the second non-profit?
KR: No, it was one year as a VISTA in the first non-profit at EJ, that's the name. So, I was one year as a VISTA at EJ, then two years on staff at EJ, the same place. So, I was there for three years. And then I did another AmeriCorps VISTA term at the Coalition for the Homeless for one year.
DV: Okay.
KR: And then I moved back here.
DV: And so, tell us about the move back to North Carolina. The decision and also what happened after.
KR: Sure. So honestly, decision also kind of unilateral for me, not unilateral for my partner. He wanted to apply to graduate school at UNC. So, he wanted to go to the occupational therapy program. So, he had already been applying, and he got in. He made his decision in April of 2022 that he wanted to accept it. Of course, I was happy to come back here. I had so many fond memories on UNC's campus and just like in Chapel Hill in general. And so, I was very happy that he wanted to come live here and be a student here. And so, I was like, absolutely, whatever job, I'll figure it out eventually. I did finish out my VISTA term remotely with the Coalition for the Homeless. So, I still had a job for a few months. And then I really, really took the time. I think this was the first time, actually, that I was like, okay, I have some savings and I have my partner, you know, and I want to take the time to actually look for a job that I really, really want and not just something that I'm going to take because I'm like, I don't know what to do next and I can't be broke right now, because I did feel like I was living paycheck to paycheck for a while. And so, I didn’t'--. I was looking for a job for about two months.
DV: This was last year?
KR: Yeah, in 2022. Yeah, so I applied but I was very judicious. I really just tried to apply to the jobs that I knew that I was interested in. And then coincidentally, my sister had actually applied for this job a few years back. And so, I showed her the posting, and she was like, oh, I applied for this job. Like, you know, you should totally apply for it I feel like you would be a really good fit and so that was really helpful before I started working for the town. I had someone you know, my sister, to help me through that process, but I did look for a long time and I was very, just much more selective than I had been in the past because I knew I was going to be also the only person working in our house, since my partner's a student.
DV: Okay, so then you now serve as the Community Connections Coordinator in Affordable Housing and Community Connections Department in Chapel Hill. So, can you tell us any details about this role and what your work is there?
KR: Yes. Actually, I'm going to look at my notes now because I'm doing my short elevator pitch. So, our team focuses on implementing the town's equitable community engagement policies and practices. We assist other departments within the town with any community engagement efforts or events that they have and also our team does community events, often to hear from residents. And also, specifically, we always target our outreach to those who identify as historically marginalized communities. There is two Community Connections Coordinators and a Community Connections Manager. So, I specifically focus on the town's implementations of the Building Integrated Communities grant, and that's a grant we have through UNC and Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation. The big grant helps us, or helps I guess local governments at large, to create inclusive practices for immigrant and refugee communities, and that also includes our language access services, and I facilitate that across the town departments as well as externally for residents who use the town services or attend the town events. So that's a big focus, is language access in my in my job.
DV: Okay, and you've been doing that since December I think you had mentioned before?
KR: Yes, like mid-December and then I went away for the holidays and then really started in January. Although I did get a couple weeks of work in December, yeah.
DV: Okay, how's that going?
KR: It's good. It's super, super new. Everything that I'm doing is just something that I've never done before. I felt like all the previous roles I had once I graduated were very related. So, you know, like I worked at the Montessori School and then I worked at an education center non-profit and then I worked in housing advocacy. So, all kind of related very directly. Although even now this role I still see as really centered on community education, whether that's the town staff as the community or the residents at large as community. I think, I really love the work of community education at-large and so this is I guess just doing that in a really new way and through local government lens. It's just very different than any other role that I've had. So, yeah, it's all new to me.
DV: Okay. Yeah, I was going to ask you if you still connected it to education, since that was a theme that you were developing in college. So, it seems like you do.
KR: Yes, definitely. And I think I'm still interested in eventually getting my Masters of Ed because I've, what I've observed in all of the different roles that I've had, even in a place like Starbucks where I worked, is that a lot of people don't know how to, when they're training somebody, teach them a process in a way that is, that is going to stick with them and then that they're able to absorb that information enough that then they can go and teach the next person. So basically, teaching as a skill. I think it is a hard skill and it's definitely a skill that you need to work on and learn and I think when people are in different managerial positions especially, they don't necessarily teach them that. And I like having that lens of education in all of my work that I've done, so I think about that a lot. I'm sorry, I think I lost my train of thought. What was the question?
DV: Oh, no. I was saying that--. Noticing that you still connect it to education in a way.
KR: Yes, I definitely do. I think it's important, and I want to continue. It's intentional on my part, at least, to continue that lens of education of treating it--. Any process that I do, whether that's speaking with a resident about the services that we offer or speaking with another town staff member, approaching it as: I want to give you this information so you can go and give it to somebody else in a digestible, easy way. So, I'm going to bring it down to brass tacks, be visual or auditory, whatever is the way that you best receive information. Knowing your audience, I guess.
DV: Considering all of these experiences since your last interview, since you were in college and through the experiences you've just shared with us, what were some of the main factors that you think helped you along the way? Whether abstract or, you’ve already mentioned some specific people that were important, factors that you think that have been important in your journey?
KR: Yeah, my family for sure. I mean, even though we don't necessarily--. I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with them on a lot of our world views anymore. They're quite religious and I'm not. That religious upbringing really did give me a sense of what it means to take care of your community and to be a part of bringing justice to the world, I guess, in that sense. So, my sense of justice has always come from my family and my religious upbringing, even though I have implemented it, I guess, in a different way than they expected. Although they do really, really like what I do. They think it's really cool. But yeah, my family, for sure. Having people that look like me, just--. And it sounds weird saying it now, because again, it was one of those things I don't think I was conscious of when I was a kid, but my parents always made sure that, even though they didn't have a college degree, that we were interacting with other adults who did, or that were professionals in some way, and had, and were Latino or Latine people. And so that was really cool. Looking back on it now, I realized that was very intentional on my parents' part.
DV: They wanted you to see many different roles that someone like you could, spaces that you could fill?
KR: Yeah, and my mom's brothers, her half-brothers, they specifically were the ones that really introduced me to other professionals because my parents' network was small in the sense that a lot of their community and the people that they were close to, their loved ones, our chosen church family, a lot of them were similar to my parents. They were first-gen Americans, were also working-class, blue-collar jobs, and so my mom's half-brothers, both of them, had their Master's degrees. And so, the time that I got to spend with them, whether here or in New York, because that's where I lived, but so the time I got to spend with them either in New York or on the West Coast was a lot of them introducing me to their network and their friends, which were all professionals like them. And again, this is not something conscious that I realized at the time, but looking back on it now, it was like, yeah, I was able to meet that network of extended people that looked like me and that were professionals and gave me an idea of the different possibilities that I could have. Yeah, that was helpful for sure. That and now I guess more contemporary is just valuing and honoring my lived experience which I kind of spoke to earlier, but yeah. I don't know if I could make it more--. I think that's pretty much it, is just being very conscious of valuing and honoring my lived experience as important and as something that I can bring to the table as an asset, not just as something that's part of my, part of who I am, but something that I can share with other people too, professionally as--. In the professional space as well.
DV: What do you think is the meaning of leadership and what advice would you give to future Latine leaders?
KR: Yeah, that was a hard question, too. I think, though, that kind of the anecdote that I shared earlier, kind of still applies I think in this case. For me the best supervisors that I've had and the people that I've considered leaders are people that know how to share their power first and foremost, and also just know how to push their team to their best work but not in a way that's demanding or that's you know I guess kind of like a stick with a, you know, the sticker carrot method, I guess that's what I think of. But just in a way that's really genuine of believing, you know, this is what I know that you can do. And being genuinely enthusiastic about it and also being genuine about, you know, there's going to be times when this doesn't work and that's okay and we can start over or try something else, and I'll be supportive of that. Those environments for me have always felt like the leadership that I've been most attracted to and most admired when I've seen in other people and so that's something that I would like to have as my leadership style, too.
DV: Great, thank you. Alright, to conclude what are your hopes for the future? For your personal life or professional life, for your community?
KR: Yeah, for myself, I mean I do want to get my Master's in Ed and eventually I want to have kids, eventually. But I don't think that's--. I think it's one of many successes. I'd like to own a home sometime, eventually. My sister and I have talked about owning a duplex together, because we grew up in a duplex with my grandparents downstairs, so we'd like to own a duplex together, raise our kids together.
DV: That's so lovely.
KR: Yeah, yeah. We've got to figure out our--. Now that she's got her master's, now I've got to get my master's, and then we can start thinking about our next steps in the future. And then professionally, after I get my master's, I don't, I mean, I want to keep--. I mean, I think I can see myself continuing in local government to be honest, I really enjoyed it. And I can see myself progressing, you know, in a way that I hadn't been able to see before in my other roles, to be honest. Even becoming a director of a department would be--. I can see being really a cool job. But I'm also open to, you know, I don't want to put myself in a box too much, I guess, and I guess that's my future aspiration, is to continue to push myself a little bit. Because if I hadn't taken that time to push myself and try applying to this job with the town, I think I would have continued in nonprofit work. So, I guess that's my professional hope for the future, is not being stagnant, being willing to be a little bit uncomfortable. And for my community, I mean, I just--. I want to see more people just be taken care of, to be honest, if I could put it that concisely. And also, just more opportunities for civic engagement. I think now more than ever I'm realizing being civically engaged is so important. And I know, I've always heard that voting is important, being involved in your community is important, but being involved in what your local government is doing, going to the town council meetings if you can, and just knowing what's going on in your city is so important. Yeah, I mean, I just want to see people thrive, I guess. That's the long-winded way of saying it. I just want to see people thrive.
DV: That makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense. Okay, thank you so much, Katelyn.


Transcribers: Sofia Godoy & Daniel Velásquez
Interview Date: 2023 May 30
Date of Transcription: 2023 August 7 / Revisions: 2023 October 17