Unidos Then: Seeing the Writing on the Wall

Interview with Board Chairman Kelly Kirschner

by Sandy Chase

¡Feliz cumpleaños!  Congratulations, as UnidosNow celebrates 10 years of empowering the Hispanic/Latino community—strengthening Sarasota and Manatee counties. 

A role model for other nonprofits, UnidosNow continues to excel, offering such diverse, crucial programs as Future Leaders Academy Barancik Scholars (FLA), Future Leaders Academy for Girls (FLAG), Future Leaders Academy for Middle School (FLAM), Parent Leadership Program, Mi Voto, Mi Futuro Campaign.

The insightful, untiring, professional Dream Team staff; community partnerships; and dedicated volunteers, including board members and FLA alumni, have enabled UnidosNow to promote its mission of educating, elevating, and integrating the region’s LatinX and immigrant community.

Kelly Kirschner, first Executive Director of UnidosNow and current Board Chairman.

We know about the exceptional progress Unidos has achieved over the last 10 years, as local media continues to publicize how UnidosNow makes a difference.

But what was UnidosNow like THEN, when former Sarasota City Mayor Kelly Kirschner, local Spanish-language media publisher Luis Eduardo, and Honduran-American attorney Christopher John (CJ) Czaia mounted a campaign to ensure that the Hispanic/Latino population—the fastest growing segment of our population—was represented?

Kelly set aside time from his schedule as Vice President and Dean of Eckerd College’s Division of Executive and Continuing Education, Board Chair of UnidosNow, and Trustee of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to reflect about UnidosNow’s beginnings.

Why was there a need in our community for an organization like UnidosNow? 

I was serving as the Mayor of Sarasota in 2010 and, among others in the community – including particularly local Luis Eduardo Baron and CJ Czaia, we were horrified by the 2010 state of Florida election cycle and its results. The winning gubernatorial candidate prior to announcing his candidacy had zero name recognition anywhere outside of Naples. No political pundit gave him any chance of winning. However he invested over $12M in TV, radio and print advertising focusing squarely on a xenophobic, anti-immigrant message that laid the blame for Florida’s deep recession on the immigrant community and promised to remove them all once he was elected, following the lead of Arizona and their recently-passed “Show Me Your Papers” law.

In spite of such rhetoric in 2010, primarily vilifying the Latin American immigrant community, LatinX voters did not participate or show up to vote – particularly in the City of Sarasota where I was serving as Mayor. My recollection is that of our 20% LatinX population, only 2% were registered and only a fraction of that percentage (maybe 30%) participated in the 2010 election. It was a depressing moment for a number of reasons, the biggest being that if you have such a large and growing segment of your population that is not engaging in the most fundamental civic process, then it is a red-flag indicator of an unraveling of capital “C” Community.

When we looked at other areas of civic integration and asked the question:

UnidosNow founders, CJ Czaia (left) and Kelly Kirschner (right) in 2011.

What is the composition of X and is it reflective of this growing minority-majority community? Our local judiciary, are we seeing proportionate numbers of LatinX Sarasota/Manatee County judges? No. How about policing? No. Local civic and corporate leadership? No; utilization of banking services (no); attending cultural arts performances in the region (no); teachers and school administrators (no) – the list would go on and on, being abundantly clear that this was a marginalized and isolated community. Something needed to be done and greater attention had to be focused on integrating the region’s LatinX and immigrant population into the full cultural, economic, educational and civic weave of the Community. 

How did you get involved?  How does your background/career lend itself to the founding of UnidosNow?

As Mayor from 2010-11, I had made it a focus of my period to celebrate our immigrant community and seek to draw a greater percentage of the population into civic conversations with their City government – in particular as it related to policing.

There was a natural evolution then in working with individuals like Luis Eduardo and CJ to encaminar (guide) the creation of UnidosNow. Having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Guatemala where I lived and worked for close to four years; a Masters degree in Latin American Studies and a significant amount of time studying and working in Latin America, it was natural for me to work with this population. 

What did UnidosNow look like when it opened its doors?

For starters there were no doors. But let’s take a step back…If it weren’t for the initial vision and philanthropic support of CJ, UnidosNow would have never been created. CJ was the catalyst amongst our triumvirate to do something. I had started a non-profit in Guatemala but never in the US. Individually the three of us had understood for a number of years that something needed to be done to draw this community into greater civic conversations, but it was CJ that put up the dollars for many months to get it going.

What was the first UnidosNow project?

When I stepped down as Mayor, I took the lead as the first Executive Director and just as with the Peace Corps, it was an incredibly hard, but equally rewarding job. Our ‘offices’ were local coffee shops with free WiFi. I had a volunteer intern -Victor Yengle, a Dreamer who grew up in Sarasota and had to drop out of UF because they revoked his scholarship and in-state tuition the day he arrived to move in as a freshman and couldn’t prove his citizenship. (I’m proud to say that Victor is now a US citizen, a UF graduate and is in graduate school at Cornell University currently.)

Future Leaders Academy Class of 2015

The two of us were probably in a state of complete disorder trying to address as many issues in the region as we could at once, coupled with great energy and an unspoken understanding of the late John Lewis’ call for all of us to find the spaces in life where we are obligated to start “good trouble”. The biggest issue in our first year was addressing that “Show Me Your Papers” bill that the Governor promised he would make law in Florida when elected.

UnidosNow worked with a number of other immigrant/Latino-support organizations, Spanish-language media outlets, University of South Florida and its Institute for Public Policy and Leadership, New College, and southwest Florida faith-leaders for more than seven months, awakening the conscience of the state’s Hispanic/Latino community.

Through organized advocacy that led multiple groups to Tallahassee as well as local protests, the proposal never made it to the floor nor has it been brought up again since then. A number of individuals and groups throughout the state point to the work of Unidos in being critical to help stop that. 

UnidosNow at a community event providing books for children and information.

After defeating the “Show Me Your Papers” bill, what were your next steps?

Our vision has always been that UnidosNow would be a large-tent, immigrant-integration organization—working across the spectrum of education, culture, civics, and economics to better integrate this community into the full fabric of our larger Community.

After our first year, education emerged as our primary focus.  We were fortunate to partner with the former Sarasota YMCA Hispanic Achievers Program Director Estela Curiel on building the first cohort of our college-prep program:  FLA, which has evolved over time, particularly with the involvement of Hector Tejeda, and continues helping phenomenal students attend some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in this country. We hope and expect that these students will one-day return to their home in SW Florida and be these eponymous leaders of our region. 

How did you decide on the name UnidosNow?

Our current Executive Director, Luz Corcuera, has told me since I first met her over a decade ago that this concept of a melting pot in the United States is terribly flawed. There is no melting. What makes the US such a brilliant country is its diversity and the maintenance of customs and traditions from around the world that not only brings the world to a nation, but brings the enterprising, risk-taking spirit of an immigrant who leaves all that is loved and familiar to travel to our distant land to make a new life.

As such, Luz said the US has the most brilliant, complimentary fruit salad – where all immigrants represent their own, ripe, delicious, unique fruit and flavor profile – and together they make a perfect dessert. The creation of our name then sought to reflect that respect of richness, diversity; that multilingual is actually better than monolingual. It is also a play on words in that the United States in Spanish is “Estados Unidos” – so the fusion of Unidos with the urgent “Now” for an immigrant integration organization focusing on the LatinX community seemed to be about perfect. Uniting the community now – for the greater good of the United States is embodied in the name and our red, white and blue color palette. 

What challenges did you have to overcome in achieving your goals? How have you overcome these challenges?

When we first started, I think we confused many people. Some thought we were nothing more than a “flash-in-the-pan” political noise that would soon pass and fold.

Luz Corcuera, current UnidosNow Executive Director and fearless leader.

As a result, it was very hard to fundraise for our core programs, like FLA, with institutional funders. At some point in our second year, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation was the first large area foundation that felt they had done their due diligence on us and could invest in our work.

I’m proud to say that we have done everything we have said we would do not only for our friends with Gulf Coast, but all of our other funding partners, private donors and volunteers. That has grown the trust and level of credibility in the organization in the region and something we are very jealous of maintaining. 

Luz Corcuera’s leadership is foundational to this respect and credibility and we cannot begin to give her enough credit for how she has grown Unidos and our impact to levels that the three founders only dreamed of accomplishing in 2010.