Adriana Isaza Dawson

If you have looked through this website, you should be familiar with Pedro Cano, Sr., who arrived in Rhode Island in October of 1964 to work in the textile mills in Central Falls. Don Pedro was Adriana’s grandfather and her mother, Olga, was one of his 13 children. With all of that family history, Adriana Isaza Dawson continues to make history, but this time, in her own right.
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My mother came to Rhode Island in 1971, and my father followed shortly thereafter. I was born here, and I am an only child.

Because my family was one of the first arrivals, they really cast a wide net for other families that were arriving. What I witnessed growing up was the ability for my family to reach out and help these other families have safe landings; later helping them secure jobs, secure housing, trying to figure out how to navigate them. Back then in the 70s and early 80s, we didn't have the abundance of community-based organizations and resource providers that we do now. It was a strong community effort that came together to figure out how to support each other.

Having been raised in that environment, at a very tender age I became activated as a navigator, and was often activated as a translator. I translated for my parents because they were not English speaking – whether that was reading mail that come to the house, whether that was going with them to doctor’s appointments or going with them to the unemployment office, at a very tender age, I was exposed and introduced to the ability of language and voice and the power of communication.

At eight, nine, ten years old, I found myself stepping into very adult conversations, or my parents and my mother specifically coming home and saying, “You know, Adriana, I work with this amazing woman and she like a bundle of mail that she has at home. She doesn't understand what any of it says. We're going to get a quick bite to eat. We're getting in the car and we're going to go to her house, because she really needs help with translation.” And for me, it was like, “okay,” and my reward was getting, you know, a Happy Meal [laughs]. But again, in my mind, it was normalized. Using the abilities and some of the gifts that I had of language, of translation, I saw the intersectionality of both worlds and I was able to bring both of those worlds together, really became the catalyst for how I saw my career unfolding.

And that's the foundation for how I launched my career. I recognized that my voice was powerful. I saw that I had the ability to help people.

From Feeling Powerful to Feeling Less-Than

Despite feeling in control during those times, ingrained in my mind are the times when I felt helpless. At nine, ten, 11 years old, I would often accompany either my parents or another family to help with translation. As I stepped into an office, I would find myself in front of folks whose job is “to help” only to hear and witness these individuals in positions and in offices that are public facing, that are meant to support the public, belittling my parents or the families that I am translating for. I would hear them speaking about my family members as if they're less-than, commenting about their “inability,” saying things like, “These people … I can't even stand the number of times I have to deal with these people. They don't speak English." Now, they’re saying all this forgetting that I speak English, that I understand what they're saying. And at that point, I realize that I don't want to share this story with the adults I'm translating for. In my very young mind, I'm trying to quickly figure out how do I present this message because I have this family or individual asking me "Que están diciendo? – What are they saying? What are they saying?” And I just know I cannot tell them or I don't want to tell them what's being said.

Needless-to-say, I was put in very challenging situations where society right in front of me was telling me that we're not worthy. They were attempting to strip us of our dignity, making us feel less-than. That memory doesn't go away and that kind of situation has a tremendous impact on a young person who's forming their identity, and who is a part of the community that's being demonized by this group of people. To me, their sole job was to support the public, they're public servants, yet they’re telling us that we don't count. Those were very unpleasant experiences, very racist experiences, discriminatory experiences that I still carry. I also believe that those instances today continue to fuel and offer a framework for my path, and show why the work that I started doing and continue to do is so important.

Interestingly, today I continue to see micro-aggressions such as those I experienced as a child all the time. I think micro-aggressions have been quelled a bit, and it's not as overt as it used to be. When back 30 or 40 years ago, we weren't having the conversations that we're having now. Even when I started my career 25 years ago, we weren't talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. The landscape has changed, but I still detect these micro-aggressions. When I step into spaces the language that's used to talk about people of color or new arrivals or particular communities does not come from an asset-based perspective, so I'm just very keenly aware of all that, and because of my experience, I feel like I am hypersensitive to how people use language to describe or talk about certain populations or communities.

Education | I didn't have a lot to pull from or aspire from because that just wasn't my reality

I received my undergraduate degree from Northeastern University and my graduate degree from Emerson College, and I am a communications major, both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Both of my parents were factory workers, so I didn't know what I didn't know while growing up in a household where it was not normal for me to come home and my parents saying I have to prepare for this presentation tomorrow or I'm going on a business trip. That wasn't my reality. Many of the families and the community that I was part of, most of them all worked in the textile mills. That's what we knew. So, thinking about a “career,” I didn't have a lot to pull from or aspire from because that just wasn't my reality, and what I saw on TV, the “professionals” on television, they didn't represent me, it felt very foreign to me when I would see people in professions on TV. But I think what when I had to make a decision on what I was going to pursue and study in college, I gravitated towards my formative experience as a youth. What am I good at? I'm good at talking, I'm good at speaking in front of people. And so that's what I ended up pursuing, not realizing where that would lead me. I just knew I was a good writer. I knew that I was an effective communicator. And somehow that was the one thing that I feel extremely confident about. And I just I took a leap of faith and that's what brought me here.
Higher education wasn’t something that others in my family had experience so in that sense, I did not have those role models.

One thing people don’t know is that I went to [the University of Rhode Island] URI for a semester and I dropped out. That's another huge life experience for me that helped shape who I became. I failed out of college. I'm a college dropout, but I figured out how to reframe and refresh my priorities and my perspective. And I reached back out to the colleges that had accepted me and Northeastern took a chance on me. And I enrolled as a transfer student and I was the part of first cohort of four of us who received the first LACLA scholarship – La Comunicad en Acción Scholarship. I received the full tuition scholarship at Northeastern for the following four years.

So, I went from College Dropout to full tuition scholarship recipient.

Role Models

There were a number of people who inspired me for a number of different reasons. I think first and foremost in my own household, it was my parents, and my mother in particular. My mother only had a fifth-grade education, so she didn't have an educational foundation even in Colombia because she was one of the oldest of the children, and they were very, very poor. She dropped out of school to work so she could help take care of her younger siblings. But my mother had grit and tenacity and what I call “boss vibes” – there was just something about how she lent support and how I just watched her move and navigate even working in a factory. She always had this very positive outlook and would say things like: “Even though we don't have much, other people have less, so you need to come from a place of abundance and count your blessings.” She was always so encouraging and never gave me of the impression that I couldn't do anything.

But then in addition to my mom, Patricia Martinez and people at Progreso Latino, were instrumental in pushing me forward. At the time, Progreso had a youth program called LIFE – Latinos in Full Effect. It was for young people between the ages of 13 to 18, and we would get together on Friday nights and sometimes on weekends, and they would have different speakers come in and talk to us. We'd have health educators and others who spoke about career options, about the trades. Progreso Latino was really good because the staff were aware of the households that we were coming from. Progreso for me was a safe haven that helped open my eyes to lots of other opportunities and possibilities.

I never knew any Latinos that worked in government

In 1997, I had the opportunity to work in state government in Massachusetts, and the thing that struck me most about working there is that there was no diversity, there was no representation. The way the government talked about communities of color was so impersonal, there was no authentic element about it. I felt that in order for the government to speak about communities of color – Latinos, blacks, others – they had to research us in order for them to talk about us; we were just numbers and there weren't many of us in the room at all.

While there, I was part of a supplier diversity program that was designed to support minority and women owned businesses, to help get them involved in the state contracting process. I was the externally facing representative of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in these flavorful spaces, and I was trying to encourage Latinos and Latinas to get certified, get their minority or woman owned certification so they could do business with the state because the state procures a lot of goods and services. So here I was doing the work externally, and then when I would bring these businesses back to state government, they were confused. They felt the disconnect right away.

So, my first entree into state government was figuring out how to fit in, figuring out how to help older white men feel comfortable with me and the people that I represented. I just made so many people so uncomfortable because here I was, this young 24-year-old woman now sitting at this table with people who were not used to having people that look like me at the table. And they didn’t know what to do with me or my boss.

But the fact is that those in state government who I worked for couldn't ignore us. They couldn't ignore the changing demographics. They couldn't ignore that the people were saying, we need more people like Adriana to be the externally facing folks that work with us because they have a similar lived experience. It was a very challenging experience and moment for me, but I'm just happy to have been a a contributor to how potentially folks started thinking and talking and looking at our small business communities of color very differently, because my direct line of sight for many years was the small business community.

How I got there happened while I was at a networking event and I saw Antonia Jiménez, a petite Latina walk into the room. She was a special assistant to the governor, and the governor had just signed an executive order to launch this this supplier diversity program because the state had just received funding.

She and I connected that night and what should have been a five-minute conversation turned into about an hour and a half. I believe she saw something in me and before the conversation ended, she turned to me and said “I need you to be a part of my team. I've been watching you work this room. You're the youngest person here, and you just seem very seasoned and very comfortable in this space. I'm looking for a Communications and Training Coordinator for this program we're about to launch because we need to engage in this outreach campaign to inform these minority owned businesses about these funds and these opportunities.”

That was a turning point, transformational for me because no one had ever really talked to me like that. And particularly in a professional setting and on top of that, to work at the State House! That was affirmation that I was on the right track. And to have another woman of color see me and for me to see her in that position was very enlightening for me.

I moved back to Rhode Island in 2002 when I joined the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and that was the beginning of a 13-year career for me. Through the SBDC, we had so much impact on the Latino business community in Rhode Island to the extent that we were recognized nationally for the work that we did.

Circling Back Home

I'm still very connected still to my community here in Pawtucket and Central Falls, and we are all still very connected to Progreso Latino. So fun fact, my aunt's husband started Progreso Latino. Mario Peña was the first Executive Director and Patricia Martinez worked for him. That's my family.

Pedro Cano Jr., who was very instrumental there and who was a community advocate and a periodista, was my uncle. Further, my daughter, who is now 16, attended Progreso Latino’s preschool when she was two and a half, three and she was there for 2 to 3 years. My mother is now part of Progreso’s La Terced Edad program. And now, I'm a funder to Progreso through the Verizon Foundation.

At one point because of the relationship that the SBDC had with Progreso, I had an office there on the second floor, my daughter was on the first floor in the preschool program and my mother was in La Tercer Edad program. So there were three of us, in the building, at the same time, at one point.

A Legacy

Today and every day since I stepped into the world to work, I believe that sometimes my actions and words were a detriment to my career because I didn't follow the status quo and I didn't sit there quietly and perpetuate the untruths and the other narratives.

I almost feel that there were instances where had I not been an advocate and leveraged the privilege that I had sitting in that boardroom to advocate for these communities, and to identify injustice, that my career would be further along. But because I was always covering blind spots in business plans and just checking people, gut checking people in in a very professional way, saying things like “No, you really shouldn't say that! No, that is inappropriate language! That because I would call people out, that that somehow impacted my career along the way.

Especially during times and decades ago where we didn't have conversations that are more open. I was doing all this was at a time 20 years ago where people were telling people like me that, "no your voice doesn't matter and you need to stop doing that in these meetings because you're wasting everybody's time. And that's not where the funds are being directed. And that's not part of our strategy."

And I do recognize that. Yes, I have absolutely at every instance of my career leveraged the position I was in. But I also recognize that to some degree it was a detriment to my own career. And I'm okay with that. I am absolutely okay with that.

And now? I feel that I've been an industry contributor and contributed across six different sectors very successfully. But where I feel like I've had the most impact, quite frankly, in a very humble way, I feel like I was one of those pioneers 20 years ago that launched the wave of support for Latino owned businesses when there was no support.

I am very proud of the work that I launched and then others came shortly after. But I honestly believe that there wouldn't be the wave of the people that we're seeing now, such as the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, all these other organizations that are offering Spanish language workshops and training programs for Latino owned businesses, had it not been for the work that we did and that I led with the Small Business Development Center that started in 2002, which we led very successfully until 2013. We held the state's first Latino Business Expo in 2014 and we held that successfully for six years. I was invited to speak in front of Congress. I was invited by Congressman Cicilline to speak before the Small Business Committee there.

The national SBA office was recognizing that we were doing things that nobody else was doing.
“What is happening in Rhode Island? What are you guys doing? How are you supporting the Latino-owned small businesses in the way that you have? Nobody else in the country is doing what you're doing in language services and language support. You're doing it in a culturally contextualized way. You're working with the banks to help them gain access to capital. You're getting banks to agree to offer flexible terms!”

Needless-to-say, where I feel I had the most profound impact and where we’re still seeing the impact is with the Latino business community in Rhode Island. With the surge of Latino-owned businesses in Rhode Island and their success, I think the SBDC was a big part of that.

Interview by Marta V. Martínez, Community Oral Historian and
Sacha Sloan, Brown University Student and RILA Intern
December 12, 2022

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