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What I’m Taking With Me: Gratitude, Vision, and a Method for the Madness 

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity.

By Jessica Santos, PhD ’15, Director of the Leah Zallman Center for Immigrant Health Research* 

A few years before I came to the Heller School as a PhD student to study social policy, I worked with newly arrived refugees. My job was to drive around Manchester, New Hampshire, and connect with hiring managers at hotels, cleaning companies, and industrial production facilities to “develop jobs” for new arrivals. I had the most fascinating conversations with these folks, some NH-born and others immigrants themselves, about the value of hiring newly arrived refugees. Hiring managers wanted to know if my clients would show up and understand the job.  The answer was yes—refugees repeatedly demonstrated their strong work ethic, and soon I had employers calling me to ask if I had anyone else that they could hire. However, I wanted to know how a company could possibly ask someone to stand for 10 hours a day with few breaks, operating a machine with hot steam billowing out, for $7.25 per hour and zero benefits.   

We both cried when I “offered” her the job. 

I will never forget the first job I secured for a client. It was for a very kind and vibrant young woman—a survivor of torture and mother of three children under the age of five who had lived in a refugee camp for many years. She was to work the early morning shift at a laundry shop, starting at 4 am. The city bus didn’t run at that time, so she would have to walk over a mile from her apartment in the dark. She didn’t yet have any money to pay the additional fee that voucher-accepting childcare centers charged, so an elderly relative planned to stay with the young kids while she was at work. After work, she planned to return home and immediately resume caretaking responsibilities for the family.   

We both cried when I “offered” her the job. She said (through an interpreter) that she was so grateful to be in this country where she and her children were safe and where she had the opportunity to work to provide for her family. She was especially thrilled to be considered for the job because she spoke only a few words of English. Hers were tears of gratitude and relief.   

My tears were from frustration. Having spent time in some of the poorest parts of the world, I understood why families were migrating here, some by choice, others through forced migration. I was still becoming oriented to refugee resettlement policies that required new arrivals to take the first job offered to them, pay back their loan to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and become “self-sufficient” within 90 or 120 days. Not to mention the social welfare policies that required us to fill out form after form and fax paystubs around the city just so that my clients could pay all of their bills, even after they found full-time jobs. Or the fact that most of the Americans I spoke to were completely unaware of the vital contributions that immigrants made—and continue to make—to our society. My tears reflected the madness of being unable to make a dent in the economic and racial injustices around us. I knew we could do better, but I didn’t know how. 

Fast forward approximately 15 years, and after my time as student, researcher, and faculty member at Heller, I am starting a new chapter as inaugural Director of the Leah Zallman Center for Immigrant Health Research at the Institute for Community Health (ICH). Now I get to build a new center that conducts rigorous, mixed-methods research to: 

  • improve access to care and health outcomes for immigrants; 
  • examine the impact of policies and narratives on the health and well-being of new Americans and all Americans; 
  • evaluate innovative policies and practices that enhance integration and well-being for refugees and immigrants; and 
  • understand and illuminate the contributions of immigrants to health care, labor markets, and other systems in the United States. 

By working with partners across the country and teaching hundreds of students, I developed a vision for how we can do better. 

The Center’s first project is a partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) that will evaluate the impact of New American Cities, an initiative aimed at moving refugees along career pathways to quality jobs. I had the opportunity to contribute to the design of this program, drawing on findings from 10 years of research that I led at Heller focused on racial inequities in career pathways, workforce systems, and quality jobs. By working with partners across the country and teaching hundreds of students, I developed a vision for how we can do better. We do not have to resign ourselves to labor markets that keep entry-level workers—who are disproportionately people of color and immigrants—trapped in low-wage, low-quality jobs. I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and bring that vision closer to reality.   

My team at the Leah Zallman Center and I will gather evidence on the benefits that accrue to individuals, households, and communities when newcomers move beyond basic survival and achieve economic well-being. We will investigate community power dynamics around racism, ethnocentrism, and welcoming. We will estimate the social return on investment to cities that invest in newcomers and supply that evidence directly to advocates and policymakers. Our nation is artificially polarized by misguided ideas about race, wealth, and poverty, so large-scale policy change may take some time. However, at the community level we can make some real, more immediate progress.   

I found evidence of that in a five-year research portfolio focused on community wealth and well-being that I had the privilege to co-create, called Empowerment Economics. I led an amazing team of researchers and partnered with brilliant Native, immigrant, AAPI, and other leaders of color around the U.S. to co-develop an anti-racist, anti-assimilationist framework to build community wealth and power. At the Leah Zallman Center, I will build on this foundation and lead narrative change and policy change work to enhance equity and well-being at the community level.   

I seem to have developed a method for the madness—a pedagogy of sorts—that keeps me grounded in hope and action. 

There are still days when I get frustrated, even devastated, by the extent of economic and racial injustices around us, and I will never be done learning. But I seem to have developed a method for the madness—a pedagogy of sorts—that keeps me grounded in hope and action. It includes mutual teaching and learning; participatory inquiry; a network of peers, students, and mentors who challenge me; strong partnerships with community partners; and dedicated time and resources for dissemination and policy impact. Thank you, Heller—all this is what I’m taking with me!   

* Jessica Santos is the outgoing IERE Director of Community-Engaged Research.