The Day at the Capitol on February 2nd was many RISE AmeriCorps Members’ first experience speaking with legislators. Yet they were welcomed with introductions, rounds of applause and rich conversations in both chambers of the capitol. The event hosted by Volunteer Iowa helped RISE AmeriCorps Members share their stories and gain skills to continue educating Iowa about immigrants and refugees.
When RISE AmeriCorps Member Jonatan Artola informed about his service with immigrants and refugees at IC Compassion, he found that the legislators from his district were extremely receptive and interested. The experience felt especially striking to Artola, since he said it is almost impossible to talk with representatives in his home country of Guatemala. In some cases, Artola said speaking up on a politically-sensitive issue can lead to Guatemalans getting their families into trouble or even being killed.
“So this experience made me feel powerful as just a normal, common person here in Iowa,” Artola said. “I really do appreciate the opportunity.”
RISE AmeriCorps Member Fatima Abdelhaleem also took advantage of the opportunity to share about her service improving immigrant and refugees' job prospects at Kirkwood Community College. The site partners with Iowa Workforce to connect clients with resources and boost their job readiness skills. The Day at the Capitol was Abdelhaleem's first experience at the statehouse and she said it helped to build her confidence.
"When you feel like the people who make laws for you are happy to talk to you and hear what you think, it is great,” Abdelhaleem said. “I think I can help people more now. If someone from the community comes to me and it is out of my scope, I now know I can reach out to legislators.”
RISE AmeriCorps Member David Clower commuted across the state from Cedar Rapids to represent his host site, Catherine McAuley Center (CMC). As a resettlement coordinator, Clower explained how CMC helps newcomer refugees find long-term housing and other important resources. He said that hearing all the stories from members at the Day at the Capitol helped him to get a better sense of the big-picture challenges facing immigrants and refugees and reflect on the shared obstacles they encounter.
“I definitely feel we helped to increase the visibility of some of the issues we raised and hopefully it will stick with some of [the legislators],” Clower said. “I also think that being able to share personal and firsthand experiences is especially powerful.”
RISE AmeriCorps Alum Mu Paw, who finished a service term with EMBARC in 2021 before joining as staff, represented refugees from Burma at the capitol. Mu Paw told legislators about her life experiences as a refugee in Iowa and her service helping other refugees adjust to their new life in Des Moines. She said she has visited the capitol in the past to advocate, but she felt she was able to make bigger impacts than ever before through the Day at the Capitol with RISE AmeriCorps.
“[Legislators] were willing to talk to us and listen to our stories while we are working with the immigrant and refugee communities,” Paw said. “It’s not only a benefit for myself, but also for our community that we are advocating for.”
Community Coordinator Gabriela Pedroza and RISE AmeriCorps Member Nancy Alers drove hours from their organization, Centro Latino of Iowa, in Council Bluffs to Des Moines. They met with representatives in their district to share how they help Latinos and underrepresented communities channel their voices and improve their life prospects. The meetings ended in lasting connections and plans for Rep. Brent Siegrist to visit Centro Latino to get to know the community.
Pedroza was also inspired by legislators’ willingness to learn about the RISE AmeriCorps team. After recounting the exciting trip to a group of Latino high school leaders, she’s now hoping to plan a trip for the students to experience educating legislators for themselves.
“Being an immigrant myself and working in a meatpacking plant for over eight years, I never thought that the doors were always open to talk with representatives like that,” Pedroza said. “And that they are eager to talk with us and hear what we’re thinking and how we can collaborate with them and support what they’re doing so they can support us.”
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