Meet Julie Robinson, a community leader and outreach manager at Refugee & Immigrant Services & Empowerment (RISE) at the Kansas City Public Library. The organization connects immigrants and refugees in the area with educational opportunities, mentorship and other resources. Julie grew up in Northern California and currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri.
Julie started RISE five years ago, and has seen the organization, and the community it reaches, steadily grow. “Sixteen years ago, I started working with the Kansas City Public Library. I was asked to fill in at a branch for two months as an assistant branch manager. Five months later, I got the job. I was a manager at the Irene H. Ruiz Biblioteca de las Americas branch. Because of what I was doing with outreach, and my work with populations who were not from the U.S., I was asked to start RISE. Ten percent of the Kansas City Public Library service area, which is primarily the urban core of Kansas City, comes from another country, and speaks another language in their homes, other than English. We reach a lot of that population, though it fluctuates from event to event, day to day. We just finished a naturalization ceremony here, at the library, we hold about two of them per year. The library has been tremendously supportive.”
She designed the available services to include everything from an English for Citizenship class, which preps students for the U.S. naturalization exam, to financial literacy courses. “Almost all of our programs are staffed by volunteers, on any given month we have between 45 and 55 volunteers. We have almost 300 volunteers on the books, who are so excited by what we do. English in Action classes are usually one student for one tutor, so they get one-on-one help and they get prepared as soon as possible, without [the feeling that we are] rushing them out. We also do community events, we’re doing World Refugee Day this month. We just finished a documentary series through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. So I coordinate all of this. I write a lot of grants. I have a real passion for this job, it is a perfect job.”
Missouri, and the Kansas City metro area, have a small but growing immigrant community. Julie’s hope is to provide a welcoming place for those individuals and families. “We are of course getting fewer refugees, but we are an area that’s a hub for secondary immigration. As a result, we have a lot of people moving here who did not start here, so they’re not as familiar with what’s available. We hope that people who have never been in libraries will come to understand that we’re a place that can help people, we’re not a government entity that is scary. I had a woman who immigrated here from South Sudan tell me that in her home country, big buildings are government buildings, and people sometimes go in and don’t come out. The Central Library is an old bank, it’s full of marble and has big bronze doors, and it can be intimidating. We want to get them in the door, and make this place as friendly as possible for them. That’s our goal.”
Julie’s own immigrant heritage dates back to the time of the Mayflower. Her father’s ancestors fled religious persecution in Europe. On her mother’s side, the family left Norway due to poor economic conditions and widespread famine. To Julie, understanding her own immigrant story connects her to the past, and gives her context. The experiences of her relatives and their path to the U.S. echoes the strength and courage she sees in the immigrant and refugee population around her. “As a person, I think we could always do more to help [immigrants]. As a voter, as a U.S. citizen, I think we could always do more. We are extremely blessed in this country, and we don’t give back enough. I think we need to understand that people who are coming from other countries, particularly refugees, have been to places, have seen and done things, or had things done to them, that are atrocious. Things that we, U.S. citizens, never see or experience. We also need to understand that they just came here, this is a huge adjustment. Be understanding. They have just left everything behind. We need to be more empathetic, as a country, to others.”