The People and the Neighborhood

Laura Bond

When Lydia Dumam faced the first major change of her life-leaving her native Eritrea for a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia-she coped, in part, by helping others. 

"I had always dreamed of doing social work," she says. "In the camp, we would always wait. There were no resources. Thinking back, there were so many cases where I was doing community work, like with domestic violence and things between wife and husband. It helped me find my own place." 

After four years, Dumam resettled in Denver, where she has lived since 2011. She now serves as Co-Director of Programs at the Colorado African Organization, which helps people who come to Metro Denver as immigrants and refugees get settled. In spirit, her work is similar to what she did in the camp: She helps people move through and survive a new, foreign environment. 

"Myself, I came as a newcomer here, and  it was really hard when there was not someone there to help me," she says. "When you have someone new, you have to support them, to help them see how they are going to integrate into this system. When I see them walking in, I put myself in those shoes; when I see their problems, it's like my problem. It gives me peace of mind to help them." 

In Ethiopia, Dumam was known as a community leader. Today, she calls herself a community navigator (or "CN" for short). At the Colorado African Organization, she leads a team of seven navigators, men and women from around the world who speak more than 20 languages, collectively. They guide clients through the intersecting mazes of social services, health care, and immigration systems, and connect them to agencies that can help them learn English and train for jobs. They show newcomers how to take the bus and where to shop for groceries. And they listen. 

"Even if you are from the United States, you move to a new state, it's different," says Georgette Kapuki Mabi, a community navigator who went to work for Colorado African Organization soon after arriving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013. "Now imagine someone doesn't speak the language, how different it is for them. How difficult to understand education,job, housing, food, transportation. 

"I came here as a refugee as a single mom with a baby of five months," she continues. "You have to have empathy to help somebody. Today, I give back as a CN." 

If every community has its own energy-its own assets and challenges-navigators are its channelers. They are those who can almost instinctively draw lines of connection between people, tracking relationships and resources and drawing from their own experiences, earned wisdom, and skills to solve problems. 

For Reyna Zarate-Cruz, being a navigator means visiting schools and churches in her West Denver neighborhood, making herself available to families, especially women who may be experiencing domestic violence at home. She invites them on a path that may include legal interventions and support for trauma and depression. By coming to them, she puts help within their reach in a way that feels familiar. 

"I have credibility, a lot of trust within the community;' says Zarate-Cruz, founder of Camino a la Esperanza, a navigation-based referral agency. "The system is not necessarily comfortable for a lot of people. People are scared of it. So there are a lot of gaps. 

"A lot of times people come tell me what they feel, their deepest secrets, and soon I'm able to direct them to resources, like a psychologist or a lawyer. They need that intermediary, some help to get to a better point," she continues. ''When they start moving forward and doing well in the community, I feel happy, like I did my job."

Many people who practice navigation don't think of themselves as doing so. But in recent years, navigators' often invisible labor has come more clearly into the light. A growing number of nonprofit organizations and service agencies now employ navigators to help vulnerable people overcome obstacles-including language, culture, bureaucracy, transportation, and a lack of trust in institutions-that put resources out ofreach. As one high-profile example, the Denver Public Library now employs two peer navigators who, alongside four social workers, help people experiencing homelessness access low-income housing and other services

"It was very helpful to see other people like me who serve the community, that I'm not alone."

The Denver Foundation has long played an important role in building a field and support system for community navigators. For more than 20 years, the grassroots Strengthening Neighborhoods program has helped community leaders take action on issues and opportunities at the local level. Through relationships with these leaders, the Foundation has gained a deeper understanding of the vital role that navigators play in connecting people to resources that improve individual lives as well as communities. 

In 2014, the Foundation launched the Basic Human Needs Navigator Learning Community (NLC). Every month for five years, the NLC brought navigators who work independently in the community and those employed by nonprofit organizations together to share experiences and resources, build skills, and establish a network. 

When the NLC's pilot wrapped up last November, it had helped build the capacity of15 community members and 13 organizations, with a focus on those that help people of color, immigrants, and refugees access food, shelter, behavioral healthcare, and safety from domestic violence. 

"It was very helpful to see other people like me who serve the community, that I'm not alone," says Colorado African Organization's Dumam, who participated in the NLC alongside Kapuki Mabi. "You learn different things from group discussion and from others' work-what services they have, how they know the problems of the client. And they learned from us, culturally. 

"In some ways, I learned how to support a client through partnering with the other people," Dumam continues. "If the services are not here, I can bridge the gap, call somebody from the Learning Community, so that we can help." 

Rosa Marie Vergil Velasquez was part of the NLC from start to finish. As the co-founder of Una Mano Una Esperanza in Westwood, Vergil Velasquez works with men and women who have experienced domestic violence and a host of related stressors. She helps clients deal with some of the most trying, vulnerable moments of their lives with a level of personal attention that is unthinkable in traditional social-service systems. 

"We're talking about domestic violence, and they ask me things like, 'Why do I have to report it to the police? Why do I have to go to the court, which for an immigrant person is a scary thing? Who is going to help me to pass my next level in my life? Who is going to be my support when I need help? 

Who is going to help my family? Where I can get some food?'  You have to go to that level with them. 

"I just start with my heart. I have to see the person and try to find the right question. Sometimes I just have to say, 'Hi. How are you?' and the woman, that person I never met before, starts crying. I just say, 'How are you? I'm here to hear you and to help you."' 

Navigation is intense work that requires a level of trust that is earned through real, one-on-one relationships. Vergil Velasquez says that being part of the NLC helped her expand the resources she can now share with clients: new contacts, new friendly faces, new insights on which agencies treat non-English speakers well (and not so well). Trainings offered through the NLC helped her better understand how to help clients deal with trauma and to practice self-care, among other skills. They also inspired her to develop a training program for would­be navigators in Westwood. 

"Navigators have always been in the community, but they haven't been recognized, and they haven't been trained," she said. "If we have more navigators, we're going to have more 
people who are able to help and support families in their own  needs, especially people who are afraid to go to the systems to ask for help. We need this type of help in the community." 

Veronica Jimenez agrees that navigators can help people overcome the fears that prevent them from seeking help; she's seen it over and over again through her work with Latinxs, 
many of them Spanish speakers, who are in recovery from substance use disorders. 

"They told me, 'If you create a model that you think the community would benefit from, just do it, because you can have a great influence and help other people.'"

"A lot of people contact me, because they want to change their lives, but they don't yet know there is a different way of living," she says. "I go to them one by one. When I talk to them, I just listen, I don't judge them. I try to understand. I tell them, 'Yes, you can change. There is an opportunity."' 

As an independent navigator, Jimenez travels around the state, connecting people to 12-step recovery programs as well as a network of healthcare clinics and service providers. 

The Navigators Learning Community helped her believe in the value of her work and personal mission. Being a navigator is not just a calling, it's a profession, she says. 

"They told me, 'If you create a model that you think the community would benefit from, just do it, because you can have a great influence and help other people,"' she says. "They believed in me, that I could help a lot of people. And that helped me to find myself, my essence." 

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