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VOL. 40 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 10, 2016

Nashville's visionary against bigotry

Renata Soto’s work empowers immigrants and unifies the city

By Sam Stockard | Correspondent

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If Renata Soto needs encouragement in a world filled with fear or distrust of immigrants and refugees, she need only look as far as the people coming to Casa Azafrán to find their place in America.

The executive director of Conexión Américas, the driving force of the Nolensville Road center where diversity rules, admits sometimes she can feel “pretty beat up,” especially when dealing with the state Legislature or even local initiatives such as a proposed English-only ordinance she helped defeat in Nashville seven years ago.

The state Senate refused this session to pass a resolution honoring her appointment as board chair of the National Council of La Raza, either because senators oppose immigration reform the Metro Council supports or they considered the group too “radical.”

But “on balance,” when Soto sees the determination of people trying to buy a house, start and grow a business, pay taxes for the first time or to learn English so they can improve their lot in America, those negative vibes vanish.

“The energy, the vitality, the determination of the families that we hang out with … overpowers whatever fear and hate that might come our way,” says Soto, 43, full of spunk and sipping tea during a recent interview at Casa Azafrán, the $6 million international center of nonprofit agencies is just a couple of miles southeast of downtown Nashville near I-440.

Casa Azafrán offers a full menu of nonprofit agencies serving immigrant and refugee needs for Nashvillians.

Elsa, a Nashville parent whose daughter attends STEM Prep High, says she gained the confidence to talk to the school’s principal about her daughter after participating in Conexión Américas’ Parents as Partners program.

“I felt incredible power,” Elsa says through a translator.

“I’ve told many people about this program, because it truly helps. Graduating from the program now, I feel like I have so much more to (contribute) when I communicate with my daughter about the importance of graduating and going to college.”

Justice For Our Neighbors, which provides legal services at Casa Azafrán with a focus on federal immigration law, helps people fleeing violence in Syria, as well as those escaping religious persecution worldwide and those trying to become legally documented here because of poor economic conditions in their home country, says attorney Wade Munday, the executive director of the program.

“Immigrants come to Casa Azafrán for a variety to reasons, and we’ve created a network within this building of service providers for immigrants who can represent you in immigration courts, help you purchase a home, help you become a citizen and then register to vote or start your own food truck,” Munday says.

Plans for growth

Soto, a former United Way administrator who co-founded Conexión Américas with Jose Gonzalez 14 years ago to help the growing Latino community latch on to American culture, enjoys support from local leaders, including former Mayor Karl Dean and former Metro Public Schools Director Jesse Register and new Mayor Megan Barry.

Says Barry, “Renata Soto’s impact on Nashville’s success can’t be understated. Her work with Conexión Américas and the success of Casa Azafrán have helped build a bridge between the New American community and the broader Nashville community in a way that has strengthened both.

“As mayor, I’m committed to continuing the great partnership between Metro and Casa Azafrán to expand opportunity for Nashvillians, new and old alike.”

President Barack Obama jumped on, too, holding a town-hall forum on immigration policy in 2014 at the facility known for its colorful, Moorish mosaic entrance.

With backing by Dean and Register, two years ago Metro Public Schools opened the Casa Azafrán Early Learning Center for pre-kindergarten, set for expansion this year. Casa Azafrán also is a voting site for Metro elections, and its nonprofit agencies are open for everyone, making it a resource for all people regardless of ethnic background.

The Early Learning Center project, which is funded by Metro, will push out the south side of the building to the tune of $150,000. It is on the same side where Casa Azafrán’s Mesa Komal commercial kitchen will double in size and offer its vendors and food trucks office space to run their businesses in its entrepreneur center.

The project already has 23 food entrepreneurs, preparing everything from empanadas, a Latino pastry, to crepes, and a waiting list of 25.

Latina leader Renata Soto discusses the latest plans for her community at Casa Azafran community center in Nashville.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

A Metro park will follow next door, a public-private venture planned with an outdoor amphitheater and playground to be infused with color and artwork reflecting the diversity of Nashville and the Nolensville Pike community. Metro has budgeted $600,000 for the park, and Conexión Américas is raising $1.4 million.

The friendships and partnerships that make it happen come largely from the personal drive of Soto, a mother of two, and married to Avenue Bank executive Pete Wooten.

An immigrant who moved here from Costa Rica in 1993, Soto is among a handful of Nashvillians who have “a following,” says Metro School Board member Will Pinkston.

“It’s been built over years of hard work and years of developing a vision, a very big vision for not just South Nashville but the entire community,’’ Pinkston says. “And she’s one of those rare individuals who has that sort of special balance of charisma and intellect and vision. You put those together and apply an incredible work ethic to it, and you get things like Conexión Américas and Casa Azafrán,” Pinkston says.

Changing schools

As demographics shift in Metro Nashville Public Schools, Conexión Américas and Casa Azafrán take on even greater importance, helping immigrants and new Americans become more comfortable in learning how to play a role in the education of their children.

Such work is crucial to the life of Nashville, Pinkston says, because 16 percent of Metro’s students are classified as English language learners and 10 percent have limited English proficiency. A large percentage of them are English learners in grades K-3.

Latino children already represent 24 percent of children in Metro schools, and more than 30 percent of students come from families where English is not the primary language, according to Soto.

Metro schools added about 1,200 to 1,500 English learners and Latino children annually until the past year when 3,000 entered the system, Soto says. She points out by the year 2040, Nashville will be one-third Hispanic and one-third African American.

“So diversity’s just going to continue,” she explains. “That is also evidence of what is happening in our school system, so I think the best barometer we can take of the demographic change in Nashville is the schools because it’s being updated every single day when you have a new child come in through your doors.”

“Winning over kids of color” and ensuring low-income children have opportunities to learn from the most effective teachers are crucial to the future of Nashville’s children and the entire city,’’ she says.

A statewide education coalition of groups from East, Middle and West Tennessee convened in March to lobby for policies helping “kids of color,” she adds.

More to the point, Metro Nashville Public Schools needs more innovative professional development so teachers will have the tools to work with children from homes where English isn’t the main language, Soto explains.

Eighty children participate in the Early Learning Center Casa Azafrán and 20 more children will be added when a fifth classroom is completed this fall to serve 3-year-old children with exceptional or special needs.

As children flock around Soto after a recent classroom session and check their backpacks, Early Learning Center Director Dalila Duarte explains the center’s teachers speak Spanish, Arabic and Kurdish. Early in the school year they provide children support in their native language, she says. But by the end of the year, they move students toward mastering English.

“I think it’s an integral part of the experience we offer our families here with the nonprofits that are next door. A lot of those services have been extended to our families,” Duarte says.

Families can find help with medical needs, counseling, English classes, legal aid and even dancing.

“We have a mom who just joined the woman’s group not just for her own social development but also for her ability to mobilize even more in our community,” Duarte says.

Conexión Américas also tutors students in a Nashville After Zone Alliance at Madison Middle School, and Soto projects the agency will open a Madison satellite office in the next couple of years because parents are requesting English class and other resources.

Similar needs are popping up in Rutherford County, though the agency isn’t working there nearly as intensely as it is in Davidson County, and Conexión Américas wants to strengthen its presence in Antioch, as well, she adds.

At Glencliff High, 33 seniors became first-generation collegians in 2015 after going through an inaugural Escalera (ladders) course, a program set up by the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group on which Soto serves as a board member. Thirty-eight more were set to do the same things after going through college-prep and job workshops.

Setting the course

Increasingly recognized as a link between Metro schools and the immigrant community, Soto served on the school system’s advisory committee in the search for a new director.

Casa Azafrán also played host to the three finalists as they toured the Early Learning Center and met Glencliff, Maplewood, Overton, STEM Prep, Stratford and Hume Fogg high schools students.

Soto commends the school board for a “rigorous and transparent” search and pledges to work with new director, Shawn Joseph, a deputy superintendent of Prince George’s County School in Maryland, to bolster schools.

“It’s very important to have somebody who understands the challenges of low-income families, the challenges of English learners, the challenges of kids who come from immigrant families, but who also sees all the richness that that diversity brings,” Soto adds.

Making immigrant parents a partner in the school system and helping them have a voice to advocate for their children is important to the system’s future, Soto says.

She points out Metro schools are in “a good place,” ready to move forward and need someone who can “transform” schools and push students to a new level, not just making sure they graduate but can take advanced placement course and excel on ACT exams to prepare for college.

The “It City”

Take a stroll through downtown Nashville, and you’ll see buildings shooting toward the sky, whether offices, condos or plush hotels.

Ask Soto where the immigrant population fits into the city’s future, and she is quick to reply, “Well, I think we are certainly building those high rises. When you walk by any construction site, you can see who’s building Nashville, right? And that’s important to recognize. That’s part of the energy, vitality and contribution Latino workers are bringing.”

In addition to working on those massive buildings, immigrant-owned businesses are filling once-vacant Nolensville Road shops and lots, she notes.

Nashville’s challenge, with immigrants of all income and skill levels is to make sure they have “the capacity” to afford to live in Davidson County, Soto points out.

Conexión Américas’ homeownership program was helping an average of 100 families a year buy a house before recession hit in 2008, but in the last few years, it is barely reaching double-digits, she says.

In the case of many immigrant families, they have two parents working two or more jobs, enough for a home in the $130,000 to $140,000 range, but not enough to buy a house in most parts of Nashville where the median home price hit $250,000 in April, according to the Greater Nashville Association of Realtors.

Soto says she is excited to hear a commitment to affordable housing from Mayor Barry, who recently pledged $10 million toward the county’s Barnes Fund, boosting it to $16 million, to offer developers incentives for affordably-priced home construction.

Yet, Soto will have to walk a tightrope between efforts to build up the surrounding Woodbine area where Casa Azafrán is located and keep homes affordable.

Following on the heels of East Nashville, Woodbine could become the next “gentrified” part of town because of its location and a good stock of single-family homes and apartments, she explains.

Already, many of the families in her programs are moving to places such as La Vergne where the housing is cheaper, and which require them to travel farther to jobs.

“So it is a challenge, but I know our community is also the one building those high rises, so it would be great if we could also build stuff for our own families that we can afford,” she says.

Nashville political leaders agree Soto, Conexión Américas and Casa Azafrán are vital parts of the city’s growth and transformation.

“You can’t live in Nashville without recognizing the impact of Renata Soto’s work, even if you don’t know who she is,” says state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, who sponsored the legislative resolution honoring her.

“She is someone who has built an organization that is one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial nonprofits in the state, if not the country. And she’s done it in a way that’s done nothing but help people do exactly what we want them to do, learn English, learn how to pay taxes, get a job, advocate for their kids in school, recover from the national flood. She has been in the middle of so much that’s mattered to the life of the city.”

Metro City Councilman Colby Sledge echoes those sentiments, calling Soto a visionary and Casa Azafrán the “nexus” between the international community and new Americans and Nashvillians who’ve lived here for generations.

“So it’s a great mix there,” Sledge says, calling the Nolensville Road corridor a “true melting pot.”

Ever the optimist, instead of listening to anti-immigration voices, Soto focuses on the next project, whether it is expanding Casa Azafrán or finding a new outlet for Nashville’s immigrant population.

“I do feel that in Nashville we have more voices that say we want to continue to be welcoming, and we want to really become an inclusive city than the forces that push us back. And that’s what we fill up our hearts with,” she says. “Otherwise, we could get down.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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