Maria Cortez-Perez: NIEP community organizer highlight

Get to know one of the eight National Immigrant Empowerment Project, or NIEP, community organizers that are advocating alongside members of their community and empowering the immigrant community to take the lead in creating long-lasting, positive changes in their cities.

Maria Cortez-Perez, Church World Service, Greensboro, N.C.

1. Why do you enjoy working with the immigrant and refugee community? 

I enjoy working for the immigrant and refugee community because part of my mission is to serve the community that I belong to and actively seek justice for our people and the greater community.

2. What inspired you to enter this field of work?

What inspired me was the desperation and impact that anti-immigrant policies that affected me and my community directly as an undocumented individual.

3. In your opinion, what benefits does integration offer your community? What strategies have you found most impactful when promoting integration?

Intersectional work is crucial for community building. People come from all walks of life and each person has something to contribute to our community. However, in order for us to work through our differences we must respect one another and get to know one another. This allows our communities and environments to blossom and promote a welcoming and nurturing village. 

4. How have community organizing efforts impacted your community?

The Greensboro/Triad is a welcoming and inclusive community. Through years of advocacy, local nonprofits and organizations work alongside the Latinx, refugee, and Muslim communities to empower them and provide leadership development, equitable access to health care and other social services. Although we have made great progress over the years, there is still work to be done. 

5. In what ways have immigrants and refugees been involved in grassroots organizing?

Our community leaders have been involved in multiple ways from being vulnerable and sharing their stories, developing leadership skills and lobbying their representatives and educating them about their constituency and their issues. Some community leaders went on to become members of local government committees such as the International Advisory Committee of Greensboro. The immigrant and refugee communities have come together to support the city of Greensboro, for example, in 2018, tornadoes ravished and destroyed residential communities! As a result, Immigrants, the receiving community, and nonprofits came together to clean up and support the impacted neighborhoods.

6. How has the immigrant community been empowered in your community? Why is it beneficial for them to feel empowered?

CWS collaborates with other local organizations to support the resettlement of refugee families into the Triad area. Through these efforts, we work with community leaders that share their stories and inspire others in the community to get involved and engage in organizing efforts. By empowering the immigrant community, they will be inspired to create and pursue their own pathways to success and happiness. Immigrant leaders and other organizations have collectively come together to defend the dignity of our immigrant communities, demand just laws and practices to be in place and hold the administration accountable.

7. Can you briefly explain your project and what changes you are hoping to see over the next few years? What do you hope communities across the country will learn from the National Immigrant Empowerment Project (NIEP), your project specifically?

The project focuses on refugee community organizing. Our goals include empowering the refugee community through leadership development trainings such as storytelling and public speaking workshops, informational sessions on civic engagement and how to be an active citizen in the community, on a local, state and federal level, to name a few. We uplift the voices of the immigrant community and help them build their confidence by affirming their worth and encouraging them to remember who they are and that they do have the power to create a meaningful and fulfilling life alongside others. I think what other communities will realize is the need for active citizenship and communication in order to have nurturing, structured and peaceful communities. We need people from all walks of life to come together as a collective to make tangible changes toward a more humane society that cares about our physical environment, our neighbors and overall world peace. The government works for the constituents of communities, we have the power to select who represents us, therefore the government does not have the last say nor should it dictate the trajectory of a population.  This work is continuous, and it will be an ongoing effort for everyone in their respective communities to engage in change and create a home that is welcoming and inclusive. We can no longer harm one another for our differences.