ALEXANDRIA, VA – Evelin Urrutia is the executive director of Tenants and Workers United, a nonprofit organization that fights for the social justice for people of color, low-income workers, and immigrants.
You’re a get-things-done kinda person.
Definitely! I like to move fast and get things done. When we all agree there’s an issue I like to move forward and get to a solution rather than just talk about it. I don’t give up that easily when I want something. I push, like pushing to get driver’s licenses for everyone in Virginia. I get frustrated when we don’t take the next step. I don’t like to waste my time I guess.
You’ve got an incredibly challenging job. What do you like the most about it?
Working with people and the community who need help the most.
What are you most proud of?
I am really proud of working for an organization that “made” me. I just got there when I was 16 from El Salvador. I went to their community service program and I loved it. I’m proud of myself to hold on to this job for 20 years. I was part of their energy and vision. And that doesn’t even include all of the volunteer work I did for free.
What is your dream job?
When I was growing up it was to become a teacher. Now, I want to support small business, like being an accountant for them. I was a manager at the Popeye’s in Arlandria when I was 18 and stayed until I was 22 or 23. I was a good manager and we always got our bonuses but the bosses weren’t happy with me. I would be sent to different stores and I would always help the employees ask for vacation and insurance and help them with their benefits paperwork. I cost them money!
Speaking of food, what’s in your refrigerator right now?
Broccoli, beans, rice, milk, eggs, and apple juice. I am very Salvadorian. And I don’t want to cook!
So if you won $10 million in the lottery, would you hire a chef for yourself?
I would buy a house in Alexandria and get away from that I-95 traffic. I live 45 minutes away.
Ugh. You must hate that. What else do you hate doing?
Being on camera. I have an expression on my face when I don’t like something and I can’t control it. It’s the same thing when I like something too. A face expression. I can’t control it.
Who inspires you?
My mom. She left El Salvador during the civil war when I was 12 and immigrated here for a better life. She worked for $4.75 an hour cleaning hotels, offices, and weekend work to send for my five sisters and me. We arrived one by one. I was the youngest and I got here when I was 16. There were seven of us in a one-bedroom apartment in Arlandria. We had to wait in line and coordinate for the shower and bathroom. I don’t know how I did it.
My mom taught me that you have to work really hard to change things you don’t like. So when I was at TC Williams High School there were 350 ESL students and no services for us, so I worked to get us a bilingual counselor.
You said on ACT Now Tuesday Talks that local government has to be open to new ways to see things. What did you mean by that?
We talk about issues and recognize what needs effort, but we need to do more than talk. We need to change policies that don’t help poor people.
Two examples. First, we are really behind on affordable housing. We are gentrifying Alexandria and not setting aside enough housing for people who make 60 percent or less of the median income. So we need to change the policy. It’s harder to actually implement it.
Second, education. We talk a lot about changing the school to prison pipeline but we don’t do enough. Policing in schools and suspensions for kids disproportionately affects students of color, LGBTQ, and those with disabilities. Communication works so much better. We were part of the restorative justice project for the Alexandria schools to help combat punitive punishment in the schools but we need to implement it better.
You also said that local government needs to listen to people of color in the community and give them a seat at the table. What did you mean by that?
I mean in the policy decision process. They ask for our input but they don’t change their practices. We want outcomes. Sometimes they ask what we think and say they want to hear our thoughts and ideas, but they have already posted the outcome on their website. So sometimes when they ask me to be on a committee I’m not sure it will help. They need to be bold and creative. We’re not living the way we did 30 years ago.
If you could have one superpower what would it be?
Ensure now that no one gets evicted during this time. As soon as Virginia opens up completely I anticipate people will get eviction notices.
How can people help your work?