San Diego Theatres’ New Leading Role in Immigration - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture

San Diego Theatres’ New Leading Role in Immigration

Elizabeth Doran, president of San Diego Theatres, is spearheading an effort to help employees of arts organizations and other local businesses gain U.S. citizenship.

Rosina Navarrete knows it’s a little awkward, but she leads me into the bathroom of the Balboa Theatre anyway.

It’s clean. Super clean.

She also points out the freshly vacuumed carpets in the lobby.

Navarrete’s proud of her work cleaning the historic 1,339-seat theater. She’s been with San Diego Theatres Inc., the nonprofit that operates the city-owned Balboa Theatre and Civic Theatre, since it was formed in 2003, and she was with the group’s predecessor for 13 years before that. At the start of her career, she was commuting from Tijuana while raising two kids. She said juggling the hours-long trips to and from work with the responsibilities of motherhood wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t sleep during that time,” she said. “No, really, I just didn’t sleep much at all.”

Navarrete eventually immigrated to San Diego and became a legal permanent resident, or green card holder. Her kids are grown now, so these days she gets a lot more rest. She also has more time to pay attention to politics. She’s interested in local and national issues, but can’t vote because of her immigration status.

She hopes that’s about to change.

Monday evening, instead of an arts event filling the Civic Theatre, the organization New American Workforce was there outlining how legal permanent residents like Navarrete can become full-blown American citizens. The group offered up free legal services, help with citizenship testing and application assistance. The audience was made up of San Diego Theatres’ employees and other folks with immigration questions.

The event was the brainchild of Elizabeth Doran, who stepped in as the new president and CEO of San Diego Theatres a little over a year ago. Doran has quickly branded herself as a leader who wants to change the face of San Diego Theatres, an organization that has been a giant in the San Diego arts scene even though most people don’t know it exists. Most San Diego Theatres’ work is behind the scenes; it facilitates performances for other arts groups in need of venues.

Doran said her organization will rebrand soon, and San Diegans should expect to hear more about it in coming years.

But before she spearheads that, she wanted to look inward.

At a recent meeting with the folks who run the New Americans Museum, a gallery in Liberty Station that focuses on the immigration experience, Doran said a lightbulb went off. She realized several of her 200-plus staff members weren’t U.S. citizens, and she was in a unique position to help.

“Our arts community is really great at outreach, could we also be great at in-reach?” she said. “So I thought, even if only four people come forward and take advantage of this workshop, I would feel great about that.”

She quickly got to work organizing, with the help of New American Workforce and others, and sent out dozens of emails to arts groups around town. She asked the Gaslamp Quarter Association if downtown restaurants and other businesses would want to help their employees, too.

In the nonprofit world, there’s something known as mission drift, the tendency to shift focus and programs so much so that, over time, a group can lose sight of its founding goals and principals.

Doran said she isn’t concerned about that happening.

She said the immigration workshop fits perfectly into San Diego Theatres’ mission, which includes fostering collaboration in the arts community. Plus, she said, she looks at it as offering good human resources services for her employees and other people working in the arts in San Diego.

Alan Ziter, executive director of the NTC Foundation and a longtime arts leader, said he sees Doran’s immigration initiative as a smart business move.

“Like any business, the most valuable resource for arts and culture organizations to assure success are our employees and contractors,” he wrote in an email. “Our location in San Diego, so close to the border, means that our HR issues and opportunities can also include assisting employees and contractors beyond health care and 401ks.”

Doran said Monday’s event was an information session that will lead to one-on-one meetings for those who decide to move forward. She said San Diego Theatres will offer a $680 micro loan to its employees to help cover the costs of applying for citizenship.

“Citizenship offers great benefits to immigrants, but there are great benefits to us and it’s really proving that you embrace your diverse workforce,” she said. “And it’s taking an action, however small or large it ends up being.”

Navarrete, meanwhile, can’t wait to vote. She took one of her sisters with her to the event.

“When our CEO Elizabeth told us about this program, I was jumping for joy,” she said. “Because it’s a good opportunity to become a citizen so we cannot only talk, but we can participate in everything and have a say.”

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