Joanna Williams stepped into her role as Executive Director at the Kino Border Initiative on March 1st, 2021. Shortly after, she sat down with Sara Ritchie, our Director of Communications, to share about her journey at KBI, from immersion trip participant, to volunteer, to the Director of Education and Advocacy, to now the Executive Director. In this one-on-one conversation, Joanna describes her growing understanding of immigration issues, how she first connected with KBI, the professional trajectory and institutional support that has allowed her to rise to this new role, and her faith that has grounded every step of the way.
How did you develop an interest in working with migrants?
For me it really started when I was in middle school, where some of my friends were Mexican. I didn’t know what immigration status meant at the time. It’s more, looking back that I now understand and I think “oh that’s why it was so exciting when my friend’s mom got a green card” because this is what it means to be undocumented. For me, it was more an experience of just being with their families and learning a little bit of Spanish in that space.
Another piece of it for me was teaching English classes to refugees in Denver when I was in high school. That was the first time that I really heard about people’s journey to the United States, and this process of making a life here. Both of those experiences really shaped me as I went to college and continued to get to know immigrant communities. At the time I don’t think that I could articulate it as “oh I’m passionate about immigration.” It was more, I have these relationships with people and I want to be part of the change to make their experience better.
I remember one moment in particular when I was in this community in Northern Virginia when I was working in an after school kids program mostly with kids of immigrants or immigrants themselves. One kid, who I believe was in middle school at the time, had been brought across the border in a truck when he was in elementary school. He asked me, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and I remember answering, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll do something in immigration.” And, he said, “Oh! Like the DREAM Act or something that would help me?” And I said, “Yeah, something like that!” That was the first time that I articulated to myself that I wanted to work with immigrants.
How did you connect with KBI?
I felt really connected to the community when I was working with the kids after school program in Northern Virginia. I knew that people had different experiences in migration, and I wanted to understand the experience of the border. So many people had talked about it and it was at the forefront of people’s minds. I didn’t want to do a traditional study abroad and study at another university somewhere else.
It was at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in 2010 that I was in a workshop where there was a breakout session. There was a KBI volunteer who presented about his experience, and I felt such a strong sense of call in that breakout session. We all got back together as a group because there were several of us from Georgetown who had gone to the Teach-In–it was actually at Georgetown that year–and we were asking each other what we had learned from our breakout sessions. And I remember answering, “Well, I think I learned I’m going next fall!”
I had to call Sean and ask if I could be a volunteer, and send my resume, and do more of a formal process. But I just had so much clarity in that moment that this is where I want to be–along the border–for what I thought was going to just be the fall of 2011.
Describe the first sentiments and first impression you had of KBI.
Once I had basically made up my mind that I was going to KBI in the fall of 2011, I ended up participating in an immersion trip that Georgetown took to KBI in March of 2011. What I most remember from that experience was being in the women’s shelter. There was another student on the trip with me who was interpreting for the women who were sharing. And I remember the emotional intensity and the sense of community as we were all together in the shelter squeezed into that small space. Those were the first emotions I felt at KBI, and they are the ones I still feel.
What is your faith background and how have you been led to the faith you have now?
I didn’t grow up Catholic. My family was Christian–Presbyterian. I grew up with the sense that God and faith were an important part of my life, and that was partially why I went to Georgetown. It wasn’t all about academic success, but also being grounded spiritually. At the time that I went to Georgetown the only mass that I had been to was in Spanish with my friends from Mexico. I had never been to an English mass in a Catholic church. It was at Georgetown that I began to understand more about the Catholic Church, and it was my senior year that I joined the Catholic Church.
For me it was an experience of going deeper into my Christian faith. It was not a rejection of how I grew up in any way. It was more saying, “okay, if God is going to be the center of my life and I believe what I think I believe about Christ, then this is my opportunity to be part of a more universal church.
How has your Catholic faith led you to KBI?
I think that every decision that I have made along the way has been grounded by faith. So when I first went to KBI, I already had a strong feeling that God had called me to this space and to be present here. When I was a long term volunteer at KBI I spent a lot of time in prayer and trying to navigate the realities I was experiencing from a prayer perspective.
It was really devastating when I left KBI. That was the hardest moment because I thought when I left in 2011 that I would never be back. I thought, okay that was a chapter in my life and now I am moving on. I went on to spiritual exercises about two weeks after I left KBI and before I went back to Georgetown. During the week-long exercises, I remember this one moment when I was praying over the passage about Peter when Jesus walks on water. He calls Peter out of the boat and then Peter gets all worried and starts drowning. For me, praying over that passage, I was imagining myself as Peter. God was calling me out, and I was looking back at the boat thinking, “How am I going to get back to the boat?” And God responded, “Well you’re already several steps out of the boat, you might as well keep going.” That for me was a really clarifying moment of realizing that I am already on this journey and God has called me in a certain direction. If I’m already out of the boat, I might as well stay on the water.
I didn’t go straight back to KBI because I had other experiences. Now that I am on staff at KBI, my faith plays a role as a constant confirmation on a periodic basis–whether once a year during spiritual exercises or more often in prayer–I’m always bringing that to God, asking “am I still called here? Is it time for me to leave?” And He has always confirmed for me, “your place is here, your calling is here.”
What led you back to the borderlands?
When I was a volunteer in 2011, I met my now husband, Matt. At the time he was a volunteer with the University of Arizona Newman Center. Every other Saturday he would bring breakfast down to the comedor, and I totally ignored his existence because that was not my priority. He thought that I was smiling at him, and he didn’t realize that I generally smile at lots of people. I left in December of 2011 and we lost touch. Then, when I came back in March of 2012 to visit KBI, the day that I arrived happened to be the day that he was bringing breakfast down from the Newman center and he wasn’t going to let his opportunity slide by again! So, he worked up the courage to ask for my number. We dated long distance for at least two years while I finished at Georgetown and then when I was in Southern Mexico.
After I finished my Fulbright year in Guadalajara, Matt was clearly the more rooted of the two of us because I was hopping from place to place. I figured if we were going to put down roots somewhere and make a life together, then I thought I should probably move to where he was because I didn’t have a place for him to move towards. So, I moved to Tucson in the summer of 2014 and just found work opportunities. I started working at the ACLU and I was grateful for that introduction to Tucson because my role at the ACLU was more of a networking role while I was working on advocacy with other Arizona groups. I was also involved with Casa Mariposa which is a home for those being released from detention. I lived there for several months with several families who had been released from detention. These experiences really rooted me in the Tucson community, but my husband is the reason that I moved out here. We eventually got married in May of 2015 and I started working at KBI the week after!
How did you identify the opportunity to work at KBI?
KBI posted the position for a long time. I saw it in the fall of 2014, but I was really happy in my job at the ACLU. Then, over the winter, a friend of a friend was applying for the job and called me and asked me a bunch of questions about KBI and I was coaching her through things that she might want to consider in the interview, and then I thought, “wait a second, this sounds like a very interesting job!”
What was it like working with Father Sean and rising to this leadership position you now hold?
First off, I deeply respect Sean. He is very conscious of his role and the binationality of KBI. Even when he does it imperfectly, which all of us do our work imperfectly. His heart is really in the binational collaborative mission, and he didn’t want to be the one person that ran KBI. That is one thing that I really respect about Sean.
Over the course of six years, Sean put a lot of energy into mentoring me and helping me grow, and I am really thankful for his openness to allowing me to take risks and be creative in my role. I felt a lot of freedom and support at the same time. It wasn’t like he abandoned me, but he already really wanted to let me drive the agenda and decide what is education and advocacy, what are we doing strategically, and how can we work through problems when we come across them. In some ways I feel like he was pouring into me, mentoring me, and helping me grow with the sense that I could rise to other leadership.
What is something about KBI that the general public doesn’t readily see that you would like for them to be aware of?
There is a lot about the spirit of KBI that the public understands–our deep rootedness in migrants, our binationality, sense of community and hospitality, our existence as an organization that is a hopeful, faith-based organization. What I think people sometimes miss or is simply hard to see from a distance is our extraordinary creativity and our sense of openness to responding in new and different ways. I think all of our staff is pushing the envelope a little bit in thinking about what we can do differently that would be more humane and more just. That may be figuring out a different way to serve food or figuring out how to get food to those who live further away so they don’t have to come to the center every day, which we have done through the dispensas. It’s also in the origins of what’s now the legal defense partnership with the Florence Project. I just appreciate that spirit of creativity that we have as an organization, which is attached to Sean’s leadership and his openness to allowing us to be independent and encouraging our creativity because it’s allowed us to do the very best that we can do at the border.
Outside of your work at KBI, what activities bring you joy?
Soccer and my neighbors. I grew up in a neighborhood where I knew people and we would spend time together on each others’ porches and so that really matters to me. I like being able to take walks and stopping and chatting with people and–outside of a pandemic–visiting with them. I also really enjoy sailing, which I don’t think many people know about me, and that may have something to do with the fact that I don’t necessarily have access to enjoy that passion much anymore because I live in a desert. But, I really love sailing. I mean, one of the reasons I picked Georgetown was because they had a sailing team, but right now, my boat is in my parents’ garage and I haven’t taken it out in the past couple years, but it is something that brings me great joy.
How did you decide to apply to be KBI’s Executive Director?
Sean announced his resignation four days after my daughter was born. I remember people telling me and them saying, “Hey, are you interested in the position?” And, I said, “absolutely not!” I couldn’t even sleep at that point! I wasn’t thinking about that. Then, Lisa Grant, called me around October and said that the search committee was going to start looking for a new executive director and that I should reach out and let the firm know I was interested. It was then that I began entertaining the idea. There were several rounds of conversations, and over and over, I kept feeling that invitation.
Matt has been really supportive and it is truly because of him that I decided to apply for the position. He said to me, “Tell me what I need to do–short of quitting my job–to make this work because I think you would be a great ED.” It was him that said to me, “this is your mission and you can’t ignore that.”