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Community Champion in Chicago

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

October 21, 2019

By Esther Rodriquez Henry, McKinley County Early Childhood Coalition

NOW community champions gathering together for a group reflection.

In September 2019, community champions from coalitions in the Networks of Opportunity for Child Wellbeing (NOW) Learning Community had the opportunity to meet together in Chicago for a powerful day-and-a-half gathering. Through their time together, champions were able to share stories and reflections about the role of community champions, challenges and successes experienced in this work, as well as exchange ideas and strategies around sustainability, building community buy-in, and fostering leadership pathways. Esther Rodriquez Henry joined as the champion for the McKinley County Early Childhood Coalition, who serves Navajo Nation families in New Mexico, and shared her reflections from the gathering.

It was a special retreat for me, getting to know many champions there. Not only to get a lot of different stories, but also a lot of reflection on yourself. I was learning to understand that I’m not the only one that goes through being a community champion. I stepped in to a giant shoe. It’s all new, and I wonder where to start. I didn’t get a handbook on what it is to be a community champion.

I was overwhelmed. There were a lot of people at the retreat, and they have titles, they are bosses or second in charge, and I’m sitting back and thinking, “I can’t be like that.” That’s what I was afraid of. I felt at the bottom of the totem pole. They all have diplomas and education. You can hear from their story that a lot of them have a bond with their family and a lot of family support. I didn’t have that support, but I did try to push my kids to go higher and get a diploma. My uncles and aunts judged me and said, “Your kids are gonna be nobodys.” I made sure my kids weren’t gonna do that.

It was my first retreat for being a community champion. I understand what role I play in my community, which is Gamerco. It’s the kids having a safe place for them to go to one day a week, which is Friday.

Esther speaks with fellow champions, Jose Abonce and Altorice Frazier, as part of a group activity.

The first part of the retreat was going to a small group of three or four people, and sharing our stories for accomplishing our goals for ourselves and our family. For example, one lady had to change her dream, she had to move from one country to another. She had to start all over. She had to fight to learn to speak English. That was one of the stories. My story is that I had a secret. I was scared but I wanted to share it, because it’s the reason I want the kids to have literature. My secret is I couldn’t read and I couldn’t spell. I had crutches: my sister and my daughter would always do my paperwork for me. They made me look smart but it wasn’t really me. So I didn’t hold back, I shared it with the other champions in the group, and they got a better sense of who I am. Now I am free to go to school and get my education, but what am I doing about it? There’s nothing holding me back from getting my education.

The stories took me to a whole new perspective. It brought it back to me. If I want to do better or more, I have to educate myself first. One man at the retreat said, “Don’t describe what you do. Say what is your passion.” I thought what I was doing was my passion: I enjoy interacting with kids. But I’m finding myself really thinking about it and needing to work on myself, setting a goal and really understanding my goals. Because I want to do more for my community, and that might mean going back to school. You see, listening and sharing stories made a big change in me.

At the retreat, most of all was the word “sustainability.” They wrote it on the board and I didn’t have no clue what it meant, but me and this lady wrote some words down (“being grounded,” “foundation”) and I finally asked: “What does sustainability mean?” That was crazy for us when we saw that we had understood the meaning. We came up with the right answer. I wasn’t gonna say the challenges in the coalition. One woman told me, “You’re safe, let it out.” I told her that the coalition used to have a bunch of people but not anymore. I said I think I’m doing the right thing. I’m showing up to the meetings.

Sometimes I think helping others is better than helping myself, because sometimes change is better. For example, I met someone who got evicted. I asked if she knew what it meant to get an eviction notice. She thought she had to leave right away. I told her she has thirty days notice. I’m helping someone and may have changed that person’s life for the better. Now she knows she has thirty days. I told her she has her rights, she can go to legal aid.

What was so cool was the champions working together, sharing ideas. Some were touching. What I learned was that they have many strengths. Some of them use words like positive, community, team-building, relationships, and leadership. Those are the words that stood out. If you don’t have a community or team leader, then you have to build relationships to accomplish things together.

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