Empowerment and Access to Resources for Chattanooga's Latino Population
by Hayden Meredith
Not being able to go to the doctor when you need to, or not having access to an attorney when having a family issue, sounds like an unimaginable situation for many Americans. However, this is the reality for most Latino families in Chattanooga. Tennessee census data from 2019 shows that the highest percentage of uninsured people fall under the categories of Hispanic, unemployed, and less educated people with a lower income (Pellegrin). The Latino population in the United States suffers daily from having limited access to social and professional services within the community.
Stacy Johnson, the current director of LaPaz, a non-profit in Chattanooga, feels it is her responsibility to make sure that everyone in the community has a voice that is being heard. Surrounded by windows looking out into Johnson’s forested backyard, she goes into detail about when she was first exposed to the Latino culture. Johnson was offered a spot on a mission trip to Guatemala when she was eighteen years old, and after returning from the trip she knew she wanted to continue to help with the issues she had learned about.
In today’s world, one of the main issues Latinos face is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since foreign-born Hispanics predominantly speak Spanish and less than one-fourth even report speaking English well (Escarce), it is hard for the Latino community in Chattanooga to get information regarding the pandemic. Johnson responds to this by saying, “There are a lot of barriers for the community to get access to things and recently with COVID-19, for example. People don't know where to get vaccinated, they don't know what it even means, and there's a lot of information out there in English but if you don’t speak or read English it’s hard to find the information.” At LaPaz, their mission statement is to empower and engage Chattanooga’s Latinx population. Johnson, who joined LaPaz as a board member in 2004, says, “I feel a sense of justice really just wanting to make sure that people have a fair chance and everybody has the equal access that you and I have. I really want to make sure everyone has a voice and everyone is being seen in the community.”
Sitting on the corner of her sectional couch with photos of her children in the background, Johnson states that immigration status is a huge barrier for Latino people. She remarks, “Immigration status is a huge barrier, so if someone is undocumented or someone in their family is undocumented, that is a barrier to access and could prevent someone from going to college or getting a better job or a house.” An article from the Immigration Policy Institute explains that almost half of all immigrants are uninsured meaning they will encounter many medical-related barriers. The article’s author, Leighton Ku, writes, “unresolved health problems can limit immigrants' ability to maintain productive employment, particularly given that many work in physically strenuous jobs or in jobs in which there is a high incidence of occupational injuries.” Johnson adds to this topic by saying, “We can’t always help people, like with immigration status, for instance, we can't give them legal status, but I think what we do well is we are client lead so we ask the client what they need or want.” These are important issues affecting the Latino community which the LaPaz team works tirelessly to resolve.
In an effort to lend a helping hand to the Latino community, Johnson uses her position at LaPaz to find ways to connect people to services within the community. In an average work week, Johnson spends her time managing her team, overseeing the general operation of the company, and speaking with contractors for the nonprofit’s new South Willow Street building. When asked how people know to come to LaPaz for help, Johnson shares that the resources LaPaz has to offer are mostly spread by word of mouth. They also speak on the Spanish radio once a week and frequently post on their social media accounts. Johnson says, “When someone comes to our office and our case manager works with them we really try to figure out what they want, so if they are coming to ask a simple question such as ‘I need a doctor for my child’ or ‘I need an attorney for a family issue’ or ‘I need to report this crime to the police,’ we do that, and then they may come back.” Through offering helpful materials, Johnson and LaPaz are able to help many families year after year.
Because of Johnson’s early exposure to the many struggles Latino people face in Chattanooga and across the United States daily, she chose to work in a community she felt passionate about. She has dedicated most of her professional career to finding ways to connect with the community and offer help to those who need it. LaPaz sees the issues that are being faced within the Latino community and they do their best to provide aid. By understanding the drawbacks that people within our community face, we can learn ways to get involved and how to offer help.