For Jeny Padilla, awareness around immigrant rights and being an active member of her community came at an early age.
“I grew up in a low income neighborhood, everyone was Spanish speaking and most people did not speak English. Any time neighbors would get mail, people would come knocking at my door and ask me to translate their mail for them, even if it was someone I wasn’t super close to. I was just known to help people, so people would show up and I would translate for them,” recalls Jeny.
Citlali Vazquez also became interested and involved in immigrant rights issues as a young girl.
“I remember the first time I was introduced to community leadership and civic engagement was back in 2006, when there was the Immigration Reform protest in Denver. My parents were actually in the process of becoming citizens, so I remember my parents taking me to those protests at a very young age with all of my family. We were always interested in participating. And I remember helping my mom with the flashcards to help study for the citizenship test. I was always very interested in immigrant rights,” says Citlali.
Now both young adults, Jeny and Citlali continue to serve as community leaders and work on behalf of immigrant rights in their roles with Voces Unidas of Boulder County. Voces Unidas is a grassroots collaborative that develops equitable support systems for immigrant-identifying high school students (primarily undocumented youth) and their families in the Saint Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) and Boulder Valley School District (BVSD). Voces Unidas was founded in 2019, after a group of local community leaders, including Laura Soto, Philanthropiece’s Communications & Operations Manager, identified a missing link in support systems needed for immigrant youth.
“We had a concern for our children and our youth in local schools. Programming that was directly for immigrant youth and BIPOC students didn’t have participation. The students just weren’t showing up, even when it was catered to them. We started talking about how we could all come together and create a bridge for our immigrant youth. How do we connect them, how do we create a new bridge where they would feel safe and would feel like welcome members of our community, specifically for our youth and our students in SVVSD and BVSD,” says Laura.
One of the main ways to create this bridge is through building trust and connection for students. Through Voces Unidas, this is done by centering youth voices in its programming and in its leadership. Voces Unidas is led by individuals who understand the experiences of immigrant students. This is where Citlali and Jeny play key roles, contributing their passionate engagement in immigrant rights and their own unique perspectives to the work.
“It is community leading community,” explains Laura.
Citlali serves as Program Coordinator for Voces Unidas. She was hired in September 2021 and is leading the organizational and program development for Voces Unidas. Jeny works collaboratively with Citlali in her role as Philanthropiece’s Latinx Leadership and Immigrant Rights Fellow. They each bring a strong voice to the chorus of leaders heralding the work of Voces Unidas.
When Jeny joined Philanthropiece in 2020, she had already proven herself an active community leader. As she was finishing high school, she recognized there was a lack of accessible information for immigrant youth who were trying to navigate their paths after graduating high school. This led her to create the Undocu-Friendly Post High School Guide, which offers information on how immigrant students can prepare for and access a college education. This guide is currently available on the Voces Unidas website and will be incorporated into the programming efforts. After that, she developed a mental health wellness guide, which became the precursor for the Undocu-Wellness initiative. She was motivated to create the guides after witnessing a lack of access to resources for immigrant youth.
“We focus a lot on first generation students, but I feel in the immigrant community there are a lot first times for everything. They are not only first generation college students, they might be the first generation to access mental healthcare, they might be the first generation to go to therapy, to access financial stability. With these resource guides, I wanted to compile as much information as I could on education and mental health, so people will know how to start their journey and be successful.” – Jeny Padilla, Philanthropiece Fellow in Latinx Leadership & Immigrant Rights
“There is a lot of fear in the immigrant community and there are a lot of first times. We focus a lot on first generation students, but I feel in the immigrant community there are a lot first times for everything. They are not only first generation college students, they might be the first generation to access mental healthcare, they might be the first generation to go to therapy, to access financial stability. With these resource guides, I wanted to compile as much information as I could on education and mental health, so people will know how to start their journey and be successful. Most importantly, I want to decrease the barriers that I saw others go through before me. It is kind of like paving the road to be more peaceful and smooth, a less traumatic experience for immigrant youth,” says Jeny.
After high school, Jeny enrolled in Front Range Community College and is currently studying Sociology. She is focused on understanding the intersectionality of social class, race and various identities, as they relate to the overall well-being of communities.
Citlali was also active in high school, joining clubs like the Boulder High School PantherZ Z Club and later the Golden Z Club, which are both part of the Zonta Foothills Club of Boulder County. She also took an elective course, “Pathways to Teaching”, where she learned about the achievement gap, the educational gap and started to see ways in which she felt the educational system has underserved students of color. One such experience came directly from her interactions with a school counselor.
“I have always been very interested in education, I have always loved learning and I have always had good grades, as well. When I was graduating from high school, I remember one of my counselors asked ‘Where are you applying to?’ I said, ‘I’m going to apply to CU Boulder,’ and she said, ‘You do know that school is a very hard school to get into?’ I realized that was a microaggression, that she was suggesting that I would not be able to get into CU. That was just one example. After having the Pathways to Teaching course, I really understood there were a lot of things missing, there are resources that a lot of students could need. I realized I was very interested in immigration policy and educational policy,” says Citlali.
Citlali did get accepted to the University of Colorado Boulder and this past December, graduated with her B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Multicultural Leadership.
For both Citlali and Jeny, it is their ability to bring their lived experiences, along with continued personal development and professional growth, that adds greatly to their work with Voces Unidas. Laura Soto sees how both these young leaders contribute innovation, enthusiasm and depth of understanding in their roles with Voces Unidas.
“They both bring so much energy and the understanding of being a young person. They bring that unique quality of what it is like to be living in the skin of a young person, to be going through their coming of age experiences, scary first-time experiences, understanding educational systems, financial systems and while having all these other challenges, also having this immigrant identity.” -Laura Soto, Co-Founder, Voces Unidas of Boulder County
“They both bring so much energy and the understanding of being a young person. They bring that unique quality of what it is like to be living in the skin of a young person, to be going through their coming of age experiences, scary first-time experiences, understanding educational systems, financial systems and while having all these other challenges, also having this immigrant identity, “ says Laura.
Much of their energy and understanding has been focused on building out the programs that Voces Unidas will be offering. The first pilot program, Wellness Groups for Immigrant Youth, is launching this March. The focus of the pilot will be to provide a space for immigrant youth to discuss systemic oppression, cultural identity and self care.
Moving forward, Voces Unidas aims to pilot two more programs: the Undocu-Ally initiative that will provide training and education for SVVSD teachers, counselors, and staff on resources to support immigrant youth; and Undocu-Peers, which will foster and guide the leadership skills of immigrant youth for them to serve as mentors, presenters, and navigators. In their leadership roles, Citlali and Jeny will continue to serve as models for what Voces Unidas ultimately hopes to accomplish.
“We want to create a strong net where we are sustaining our immigrant students, not just to graduate high school normally like everyone else gets to do and not just to have those expected resources so they know how to get a post high school education,” says Laura. “But even beyond that, we want our immigrant student population to flourish as community leaders if they choose, to speak on behalf of their community and to give back to their community.”
Interested in learning more about Voces Unidas of Boulder County’s programs or supporting the work? Please contact Citlalli Vazquez at [email protected].
Morning Glory Farr is Philanthropiece Foundation’s Content Manager and Editor. She brings a deep curiosity and joy of learning to her work, life and relationships.