One of my favorite poems is Denise Levertov’s “Annunciation.” Levertov writes about those moments, “when roads of light and storm/open from darkness in a man or woman.” I think those moments are the ones inviting us to take a leap of faith, to lean in and open ourselves up to unknown and beautiful possibilities.
I always knew that I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector, and 11 years ago I started volunteering at an emergency shelter for men and women diagnosed with mental illness, first in the soup kitchen and then as a coordinator of a weekly talent show for the residents. After meeting immigrants and refugees in this shelter, I started researching the intersection between our immigration laws and homelessness. I took a fellowship position with Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program, where I worked primarily with women who were refugees from the Liberian Civil War.
As the daughter of an immigrant, I fell in love with this work. I was inspired and energized by these women who had experienced hell on earth—women who had watched their children die in their arms, lost communication with their husbands, and walked for weeks barefoot to flee persecution. Despite the sorrow they experienced—sorrow I could hardly imagine—these women were full of hope and radiated strength and beauty.
Since then, I have met dozens of women who have fled persecution or have been trafficked into the United States. However, instead of receiving protection and resettlement support from the U.S. government, they have been held captive in county jails and for-profit prisons as part of our nation’s immigration detention system. Their stories moved me to start a program during my second year of law school to help end their isolation and abuse in immigration detention in Northern California. Along with my colleague and friend, Christina Mansfield, I started a visitation program that connects people in immigration detention to a community of support on the outside through volunteer visitors.
Over the next two years, we worked with colleagues across the country who were starting similar volunteer programs in places like Lumpkin, Georgia and Ramsey County, Minnesota. As I prepared for graduation from law school last year, I began applying for grants and fellowships to create a nonprofit to support what was quickly becoming a national grassroots network of immigration detention visitation programs.
In my final semester, I was offered an amazing position as a legislative assistant on immigration for a congresswoman I highly respect. At the same time, Christina and I were in the final interview stage for the Echoing Green Fellowship, which would allow us to launch our nonprofit. For a few days, I felt paralyzed and was unable to decide what path to take. Both opportunities would allow me to serve immigrants, but one position was far more stable than the other.
I decided to lean in, which meant taking a leap of faith. As my mentor explained, “the world will care more about your impact than your bank account or personal balance sheet.” The possibility of a fellowship to start a nonprofit that had the potential to reach so many isolated people in immigration detention was worth taking a leap. I am thankful for the entrepreneurial spirit my immigrant father instilled in me, for my supportive husband and for the guidance of remarkable mentors. Without this encouragement, it would have been much easier to turn away, as Levertov explains, “in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair/and with relief.”
Social entrepreneurship is unstable, but it allows me to advocate for those who are isolated and deprived of the opportunity to choose their own futures. I can’t imagine making a better choice.