NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Michael Gilbert has worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years, but he’s only had his own business for about a year.
The South Carolina native turned to Conexión Américas for help in getting his food truck off the ground. He is a member of the nonprofit’s culinary entrepreneurship program that offers people like him training in marketing and other skills they will need. Most importantly, it offers them use of a commercial kitchen.
Gilbert said he values the chance to interact with other chefs in the program.
“It’s a good learning experience,” he said Friday as he served breakfast fare from his City Kitchen food truck parked outside Casa Azafrán, where Conexión Américas held an Independence Day celebration.
While Gilbert is an American citizen, the help he has received has come from an organization that promotes relief programs for illegal immigrants and provides services for them, as well as for legal immigrants. Conexión Américas co-founder Renata Soto is chair of National Council of La Raza, a national organization that has protested counterterrorism measures on grounds they violate immigrants’ rights.
Conexión Américas’ progressive stances have created a problem for Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd, who last year donated $250,000 to help expand the culinary incubator entrepreneurship program of which Gilbert is a part. His donation was the single largest individual gift since the nonprofit launched in 2002. The expansion was also funded by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and others.
Conexión Américas does not screen for immigration status on applications for the program, but is not required to do so by law since they are not employing the entrepreneurs. The program is open to all, regardless of background, as long as the applicants have taken steps to start a food-related business or have a solid business plan to start one.
Boyd, a wealthy businessman and Gov. Haslam’s former economic development commissioner, is known for his philanthropy. While his donation to Conexión Américas was huge from their standpoint, he has given far greater amounts to other causes. In March, he donated $5 million to Zoo Knoxville in his hometown. It is the largest private gift in the park’s history.
Friday’s event at Casa Azafrán, held indoors and in the parking lot out front, was called “Indivisible, with Biscuits and Tacos for All,” the biscuits being a nod to one of the staples on Gilbert’s menu.
The celebration featured a storyteller’s booth where people could share their thoughts about what it means to be an American and get a handheld American flag.
But also on display was Conexión Américas’ progressive activism, especially in a room devoted to civic engagement. Event goers were invited to write letters to Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and Rep. Jim Cooper advocating for liberal positions on immigration policy and health care.
The word “Indivisible” in the title of Friday’s event was not only a reference to its use in the pledge of allegiance, but also to an activist movement that is countering President Trump’s agenda.
Clad in Indivisible t-shirts, Conexión Américas leaders were on hand to help people with their letter writing and had a prompt available for them to copy from. While the goals are similar to the national Indivisible movement, the Indivisible campaign launched by Conexión Américas has no formal connection to the national movement and receives no funding from it, leaders claim.
“It’s something we decided internally,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and strategic growth for Conexión Américas. “We didn’t know there would be other groups using the same word.”
However, the political messaging in the talking points for the letters virtually mirror the talking points found in the national Indivisible Guide, published by several former Democratic congressional staffers in December 2016 and widely discussed in the media. That same month, Soto announced the local Indivisible campaign.
The talking points on display at Conexión Américas on Friday were decidedly anti-Trump.
“N0 Travel Ban,” said one talking point. Another blasted Tennesee’s Republican attorney general for requesting that the federal government end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and also demanded “comprehensive immigration reform.”
The nonprofit is open about its advocacy and that of the organizations that pay rent to Conexión Américas to share the Casa Azafrán building on Nolensville Road south of downtown. The building, which opened to great fanfare in 2012, also houses an early learning center for Metro Nashville Public Schools, whose leaders have similarly endorsed progressive immigration policies, mostly recently with the school board showing support for the now withdrawn “sanctuary city” bills being considered by Metro Council.
The culinary entrepreneurship program began in 2013 but needed more kitchen space. Boyd’s donation helped Conexión Américas double the size of the kitchen, adding storage space and a walk-in freezer. In a letter to supporters last year, Soto said the investment would also support adding office equipment and a conference room for participating entrepreneurs.
Soto told The Tennessee Star on Friday that Boyd’s donation went entirely to capital investments and that no part of it was used for other program costs.
His name and that of his wife now adorn the display of the kitchen’s name, Mesa Komal, which comes from the Spanish word for table followed by the Kurdish word for community, which happens to be similar to a Spanish word for griddle. Kitchen space is also used for cooking classes open to the public and other food-related events.
There are currently 30 businesses in the entrepreneurship program, with six more about to join. Participants have access to the kitchen at all hours. Many have other jobs and responsibilities, so they come and go during the day and night as their schedules allow. There is no set limit on how long they can be in the program. Some leave when their business has grown to the point where they open a restaurant – a sign that the entrepreneurship program has worked as intended.
“While we hate to see them go, it’s what we’re here for,” said Andres Martinez, director of communications for Conexión Américas, in describing the push to move on to something bigger and better.
Casa Azafrán, whose tenants include the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, has benefited from generous funding from corporations as well as government, making it difficult for conservative immigrants to launch programs offering another perspective on public policy.
Begun several years ago, the conservative group Latinos For Tennessee has ambitious plans for advocacy and community involvement but is lacking in resources.
“Conservatives need to fund organizations like ours,” executive director Raul Lopez told The Star in an interview earlier this year.