A group of interns from CREW (Career Readiness and Empowerment of Women).

Photo by Cristina Garza

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Life and Work on the Border: Redefining Narratives and Creating Opportunity

Next City talks to Cristina Garza, director of social impact for Mission Economic Development Corporation, about diversity in tech, female-centric mentorship models, and the fluid local reality vs. alarmist national perception of life in a border town.

Story by Cristina GarzaTwitter

Published on Dec 24, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Wednesday, December 19, Next City welcomed Vanguard alumna Cristina Garza to our latest online seminar. Garza is director of social impact for Mission Economic Development Corporation, based in the border town of Mission, Texas. Her presentation, “Redefining Border Narratives,” details the forward-thinking initiatives she has tackled to redress diversity in tech and empower women of the Rio Grande Valley to further their education and careers. After the seminar, she continued the conversation with Editorial Director Kelly Regan about those efforts, as well as about rhetoric vs. reality along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cristina, thank you for continuing our conversation. One thing we didn’t touch on during the seminar is the current, shall we say, heated and alarmist national conversation regarding border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico. You are someone who is from Mission, a border town, and who now has deep professional ties in this community. How have you observed this rhetoric unfold?

The best word to describe it is ‘surreal.’ The contrast between the national rhetoric and the reality of living in a border town couldn’t be starker. While political fights erupt on Twitter and on TV, those of us living at the border continue to lead quiet lives in the kind of town that compels teens to complain, “Nothing exciting ever happens here.”

The concept of migration or border crossings isn’t new to us. We are a port of entry, and the movement of people, whether documented or not, from one country to another, shapes our environment. What has changed in the past few years has been the increasingly incendiary and, as you said, alarmist nature of the conversation. Anyone with access to a computer can easily obtain the Border Security Reports put out by U.S. Customs and Border Protection every year and discover, as NPR did in this article, that the number of border crossings has fallen over the past few decades.

Perhaps the most unsettling part of seeing this rhetoric unfold pertains to the continued exclusion of local expertise from the national conversation. The Rio Grande Valley is home to countless experts on this subject — among them border-patrol agents, religious leaders, social-justice activists, environmentalists, landowners and elected officials. How many of those border natives inform policy that directly affects the border?

It is my opinion that one of the things most residents agree on, regardless of political affiliation, is that our cities are harmed when they are painted as war zones. A divisive political ideology that revolves around fear of the border ultimately hurts the 1.2 million Americans living here, in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The Rio Grande Valley has belonged to the countries of Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and now the United States, but many of us Valley natives will tell you that we’re ni de aqui ni de alla (neither here nor there), but from a beautiful and unique place that’s unlike anywhere else in the U.S.”

As I mentioned in my presentation, the violent crime rate in Mission is lower than the state and national average. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the Rio Grande Valley is extremely safe. The majority of the crimes committed in this area are robberies — crimes typically associated with systemic poverty. The best way for us to minimize those crimes is by leveraging economic development practices to provide more and better-paying jobs for our community. But how can we convince industry partners to move here and provide jobs to our residents if they think we’re under attack or that we’re being invaded?

Following on that, The reason you named the seminar “Redefining Border Narratives” was precisely to encourage people to tune out the rhetoric and see what was actually happening on a day-to-day basis. For people who aren’t local and who are only familiar with the hysteria that has dominated social media and cable news feeds, what do you want them to know about the reality of living across a river from a town in Mexico — in this case, Reynosa?

Those of us who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley have always lived in a binational, bilingual, multicultural community. When I was in middle school, I lived in Brownsville, Texas but attended school in Matamoros, Mexico. The drive from my house to my school was 15 minutes. When I attended private high school in Brownsville, many of my classmates drove in from Matamoros every morning. On weekends we hung out on either country. Towards the end of our senior year, we attended your average American prom but the following month, we had our black-tie graduation party in Mexico. To this day, most of us have family, friends, and professional relationships on both sides of the river.

Like most civilizations in history, our community naturally flourished around a river…borders and citizenships came later. The Rio Grande Valley has belonged to the countries of Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and now the United States, but many of us Valley natives will tell you that we’re ni de aqui ni de alla (neither here nor there), but from a beautiful and unique place that’s unlike anywhere else in the U.S.

One of the takeaways from your presentation was that diversity in tech is everyone’s problem. The Big 3 and other firms struggle with the best way to recruit and retain people of color, and especially women of color. Yet at the same time, you say, “The network of people who want to help you is bigger than you think.” So for people who do want to help, who are in a position to be a mentor or advisor, but who don’t know where to go… where do you suggest they start to find opportunities to donate time and expertise?

Well, they can contact me, because I’m currently building a database of people who want to become online mentors to teens living in areas that lack access to tech industries. The goal is to share this network not just with my own interns; in the near future, I intend to share it with great people from other rural areas that struggle with the same issue. I recently talked with folks from a STEM education nonprofit in Johnson City, Texas, a town of 2,000 in central Texas. Because they are located between Austin and San Antonio, people assume they have access to industry professionals, but the reality is far from the truth. The need to share our social capital with small communities is greater than ever and I’ll be happy to help connect as many mentors to small STEM organizations as possible.

“Invite educators to tech conferences. While [I have heard] many panelists talk about ‘fixing the pipeline’ in order to get more diversity in tech, I didn’t see any public-school teachers or administrators in the audience. Conversations about diversity are useless if they are confined to the private sector.”

My other recommendation for those of you who want to donate your time and expertise is to reach out to public schools, particularly Title 1 schools. Companies tend to first reach out to “gifted” schools that already have a lot of resources. “Reaching out” can be as simple as calling the school, and letting them know you do X for Y company and want to know if there are any students who would be interested in learning about what you do for a living. Most schools today are struggling to find job shadowing opportunities and I’m sure your call will be a welcomed one.

Also, attend a school board meeting. Most public schools post their board meeting schedule on their website. Meetings are open to the public. Make a resolution that in 2019, you and your work colleagues will attend ONE board meeting instead of going to happy hour after work. Introduce yourself to the board or the principal and simply let them know that you work in tech and would be happy to talk to any teacher or student interested in your field.

Many tech companies allow their employees to join inclusion-driven groups of associations such as support groups for LGBT or minority employees. Talk to your company and create a group for people in your office who want to be mentors and ask them to give you time during your work week for outreach initiatives. Advocate for your company to create, even for as little as half a day out of the year, an open house where they invite educators and students to come and see what your company does.

If you have the power to do this, invite educators to tech conferences. I had the pleasure of going to the Grace Hopper Conference this year and while many panelists talked about “fixing the pipeline” in order to get more diversity in tech, I didn’t see any public school teachers or administrators in the audience. Conversations about diversity are useless if they are confined to the private sector.

Invite a teacher to come and shadow you for one day. Educators need to understand what it takes to have a career in these fields. If you befriend one teacher who wants to make life better for their students, they will help send mentees your way.

I thought one of the fascinating points you made was that in some ways, these types of training programs upend traditional cultural norms in the region, in which young girls are expected to stay close to home even as they are continuing their education to get a college degree. How have you worked within those norms, and to what extent have you had to convince families of the kids in your program that this is valuable and worthy of support?

The best way to get [a family’s] support is to get the support of school administrators first. Once the schools regarded CREW program as an exclusive and worthy opportunity, the parents followed. Another crucial aspect of this internship is that it takes place during regular school hours and the school districts pay for the transportation to and from our office. Internships can be incredibly classist because they are often pursued by people who can afford to not get paid or to get paid little. Many of my interns have part-time jobs at local fast-food restaurants or retail shops, so having CREW during school hours does not disrupt their work schedules.

In terms of working within norms, I’ve found that the best way for me to help is to empower every intern to make a case for themselves, to make a choice that makes them happy, and to feel confident enough to persuade their family to support them. Many of my interns are currently getting college acceptance letters in the mail and are facing this issue as we speak. At times, I’ve offered to speak to their parents myself, but I’ve never had to. On Day One of the internship, I tell all participants that while they are with me, I will treat them as independent adults and I expect them to behave as such. Behaving like adults also requires confronting difficult situations, so the internship prepares them to have the emotional maturity to have hard conversations with their families.

“My duty is to create better opportunities for those who choose to stay and to create a peer-support network for those who choose to leave and will, inevitably, be confronted with culture shock and homesickness.”

Another lesson I’ve learned is that I cannot dictate a young woman’s life choices, even if they do not align with my own views. There is nothing inherently wrong with living at home or staying close to family. In the end, these decisions are personal. My duty is not to force people to leave this city, but rather to create better opportunities for those who choose to stay and to create a peer-support network for those who choose to leave and will, inevitably, be confronted with culture shock and homesickness.

You mentioned that one of the initiatives the EDC was working on was Professional Development for Artists. Can you talk more about that? What form does this take? What do you hope they will get out of participating?

We have an entrepreneurship program for artists who sell their work online, which provides artists with business management and e-commerce education. We noticed that local artists have sold their work way below market price; so this class gives them the tools to learn how to price their labor, to provide customer service, and to sell their work on the internet to people outside of Texas.

Last year, we created the Expert-in-Residence program and chose Jackie Neale, a brilliant street photographer and professor from New York City, to spend three months living in Mission in order to collaborate with our community. She held an intensive portfolio class for 15 talented aspiring photographers and held “office hours” for anyone who was interested in learning from her. Moreover, she collaborated with residents on an oral history art project that is currently touring in the U.S. and Italy. The greatest part of working with Neale was that she shared our desire to start a program in which artists worked alongside the community instead of objectifying it as a muse. While her tenure ended last year, she remains in touch with her students and we will always consider her one of our residents.

We have also commissioned several mural projects for the CEED building. When we first started doing this, there were limited places in the city for artists to create monumental pieces, let alone patrons willing to pay for them. By commissioning these murals, we are helping build the portfolio of local artists. And, most importantly, it sets the standard for how much these artists should be paid. Locally, many people expect artists to give away their work for peanuts. Creating a piece for Mission EDC allows an artist not just to get paid fairly, but to establish a point of comparison when pricing their work for future patrons.

While I’m proud of these initiatives, I think the programs for artists still need a lot of development. The are some cities in the Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville for example, that have upped their investment in public art in the past few years. I hope other cities, including ours, follow suit so we can create a collective consciousness of the value of art in the intellectual, financial and emotional wellness of our community.

You touched on the fact that you were inspired to start these programs because when you were growing up in the Rio Grande Valley you didn’t have this kind of support, or mentorship, or preparation for how to pursue a career. Once you entered the workforce and started to find your footing, did you have mentors? Who helped to shape your approach and outlook?

I will always be grateful to my first supervisor, Keara Duggan, for setting an example of what compassionate and creative leadership should be. When we met, we both worked for a problematic nonprofit that would give “Insecure’s” fictional “We Got Y’all” a run for its money. Although we weren’t far apart in age, her confidence, wisdom, and sense of social justice surpassed that of people twice her age. She taught me that being a leader means creating a safe environment for supervisors and staff to learn from each other and grow professionally. She valiantly stood up to executive leadership against burnout and low wages. She called out racist comments when she heard them. In sum, she showed me what it looks like to maintain one’s morality and personal values at the office. From her, I learned that all work should be compensated and that people, particularly women, do not owe their free time and mental health to their employer. She continues to be a stabilizing force in my life. A true mentor, she’s the type of person who asks questions, forcing you to think through difficult problems, instead of telling you what to do. These days, she works in EdTech and builds cultures of innovation in large companies. Since I’m not that selfish, you too can absorb some of her wisdom on leadership and workplace culture by reading her blog/newsletter.

“Have you ever seen a Fortune 500 company run by a woman who leaves its command to another woman once she retires? ​If we want to tackle the gender pay gap, we must reinvent the model that has kept so many people out of the leadership ‘lineage.’”

What I have learned about mentorship throughout my professional life, and what I want to pass on to my own CREW interns, is that the traditional mentorship model is outdated and doesn’t always benefit women and gender-nonconforming people. In essence, mentorship is a distillation of the ancient, patriarchal master-apprentice model. In early-modern Italy, for example, a man would give his son to another man who would become his master, essentially supplanting the biological father, becoming responsible for the boy’s upbringing. The boy would learn to replicate the work of his master until he became a carbon copy. Once this happened, the master could feel comfortable handing over the workshop to his apprentice, who in turn would get apprentices of his own, creating a workplace bloodline.

You still see that model today. How many men take other men under their wings with the intention of creating “mini-me”s so they can pass their business ventures on to them? Have you ever seen a Fortune 500 company run by a woman who leaves its command to another woman once she retires? When does that ever happen? If we want to tackle the gender pay gap, we must reinvent the model that has kept so many people out of that leadership “lineage.”

Keara Duggan was barely a few years older than me. I received a lot of help not just from her, but from many equally burnt-out colleagues and equally disillusioned college classmates. It was clear from the beginning: the women around me were not my competition. They rescued me in times of need, they proofread my emails, edited my resume, listened to my complaints about work, pep-talked me into applying for a job I didn’t think I could get. Today, I have an ample network of friends always willing to share their expertise with me. Thanks to them I have learned about Smart Cities, tech, teaching, writing (shout out to Kelly Regan for proofreading this!), economic development, workplace culture, and so on. Thanks to the generosity of my peers, I now have a mentor-friend for every interest in my life. This is what non-patriarchal mentorship looks like. It’s a peer-support network that sprawls horizontally instead of vertically. This same model applies to the CREW internship. I make it clear from the beginning when I say, “Everyone in this room is each other’s mentor.”

Imagine what the workforce would look like if we supplanted the old apprentice-master model with that type of peer mentorship?

Photo credits for this story, from top: Cristina Garza, The Monitor, Cristina Garza, Shaine Mata, Cristina Garza.

Cristina Garza is the director of social impact for the Mission Economic Development Corporation. She’s based in Mission, Texas, a town in the Rio Grande Valley on the U.S.-Mexico border. She curates and leads all STEAM and entrepreneurship initiatives for this EDC, and through this work commits herself improving the financial mobility of area residents, and fostering community and economic development through technology and art. Among the programs she founded are Web of Women, an initiative to teach technical skills to women professionals, and Career Readiness and Empowerment of Women (CREW), a multidisciplinary internship that trains young high-school women to serve as leaders in STEM and entrepreneurship. She is also a 2017 Next City Vanguard.

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