Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) faces new direction and leadership for the upcoming election as the current directors step down for a new leader.
Co-Executive Directors Stephanie Teatro and Lindsey Harris recently announced their leave from TIRRC to make way for a new director, Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus.
Tennessee Lookout spoke with Teatro, Harris and Sherman- Nikolaus about their time at TIRRC and what future challenges the immigrant-rights organization faces.
Canadian by birth, Teatro grew up in Portland, Oregon and earned a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree in history from the University of Washington in Seattle. Before coming to Tennessee, Teatro was a union organizer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. She came to TIRRC in 2012 as the director of advocacy before becoming the co-executive director in 2014.
Teatro’s passion for immigration rights began when she migrated from Canada and immediately noticed how different and privileged the process was for her family versus other immigrants seeking the same opportunities in the U.S.
“The more I learned, the more outraged I became at how unjust the system was and I wanted to be a part of changing the system,” said Teatro.
While she was involved in other immigration organizations across the country, she became interested in Tennessee and the recent wave of immigrant families that were rapidly changing the demographics of the state population. Teatro became aware of the backlash against the new minority groups and saw the opportunity for cultural diversity.
“I think Tennessee and the South are such an important place for our country’s conversation about immigration. For many years our organization and the development of TIRRC has really been shaped by what happens when there’s rapidly shifting demographics – opportunistic politicians, rising tide of white nationalism, and xenophobia,” said Teatro.
In her nine years at TIRRC, Teatro faced many key events affecting immigrant communities, such as numerous ICE raids, most of which happened after Donald Trump took office. In 2012, for instance, she remembers seeing about 40 anti-immigrant bills in the Tennessee General Assembly. After Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was announced the same year, she turned her attention to advocating for the rights of DACA students, such as a bill allowing DACA recipients to attend Tennessee colleges with in-state tuition. That bill failed in 2015, by one vote. Teatro recalls this moment as one of her hardest.
“So many graduates’ lives would have been changed by that one, single vote,” said Teatro.
The organization has faced more challenges during the Trump administration’s last three years, but she believes TIRRC is well prepared. A lot has changed, she said, in terms of policies and attitudes, but the organization has learned the importance of having local minority leaders show how immigration can work in local communities and trained dozens of candidates.
TIRRC’s sister organization, TIRRC Votes, helped create the most progressive city councils in Nashville’s history, and afterward Sheriff Daron Hall terminated Davidson County’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that allowed jails to be used as detention facilities.
“Part of that was really seen last year when our members, partners and staff came together to cast a vision for what a more welcoming Nashville looks like,” said Teatro, adding that Nashville has the potential to be a model city for immigration rights in the south.
Teatro leaves TIRRC to become the director of the immigrant-rights campaign for the national organization Resilience Force, which works to organize and defend essential workers who help rebuild American after disaster.
“It’s been an honor to a part of the legacy and history of TIRRC’s members,” said Teatro.
Nashville-native Lindsey Harris grew up in Antioch on Nolensville Road and witnessed the rapid demographic changes in her community. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Lipscomb University and a Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Leadership from Belmont University before joining TIRRC.
Initially an intern, Harris became TIRRC’s project manager and helped build TIRRC’s fundraising and development program before becoming the operations director in 2013.
Over the last two years, Harris has overseen the development of TIRRC’s official headquarters, slated to open this fall. Having had five different offices in the past few years, Harris recalls the groundbreaking of TIRRC’s new location as one of her favorite memories. The new headquarters will not only serve as offices but also as a community hub with movie nights, community gardens, playgrounds, and a soccer field.
“It’s time for us to have a permanent home— have a place for the community to come to always know where to find TIRRC and to really send the message that the immigrant and refugee community is here to stay,” said Harris.
A lot has changed since she first started at TIRRC. Harris watched TIRRC’s numbers increase from nine to 25 employees, along with 700 volunteers and 1,000 members. There’s a need for a strong, and powerful movement to lead future changes, remarked Harris, and she has faith in their numerous members. Her earliest campaign through TIRRC was civic engagement for the 2008 elections, in which Harris helped educate the immigrant community about their voting rights and becoming citizens. Now, she’s come full circle: Her last work with TIRRC will be preparations for the upcoming presidential election.
“There’s still work to do but I know we’ve worked our hardest to get where we are,” said Harris.
Lindsey will continue to work in the Tennessee community with other nonprofits and will continue to finalize the move into the new headquarters through the end of the year.
Born in Nashville but raised in Guatemala, Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus witnessed the scars of her childhood country’s nearly 40-year civil war. Sherman-Nikolaus was 17 when her family decided to flee to Nashville in 2001 after a series of violent incidents, which culminated with the abduction and rescue of her younger sister. The experience, along with the culture shock that came with starting a new life in a foreign country, solidified her passion for justice and equality.
“Especially with the political climate, I do believe that immigrant and refugee rights is the defining issue of our time,” said Sherman-Nikolaus, recognizing the privileged experience of her family having easier access to escape war in contrast to many other immigrants.
Sherman-Nikolaus has a long career in immigration rights. She served as the advocacy officer at Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a network of human rights and humanitarian organizations; was a researcher in Senegal near West Africa at Amnesty International, where she was responsible for investigating, advocating and campaigning to end human rights violations in the region; and worked as a campaigner based in London at Amnesty International covering health and human rights issues. She holds a master’s degree in conflict, security and development.
She first came to work for TIRRC in 2015, and the subsequent election was one of her first challenges when the organization was forced to focus on defending the immigrant community.
“It became much more about defending immigrant and refugee families, defending our values, ensuring that families weren’t separated and ensuring refugees continued to feel welcome here,” said Sherman-Nikolaus.
She misses her home in Guatemala, but Nashville is where she will be raising her children and is “excited to be a part of shaping that future and casting a new vision for immigrant and refugee inclusion.”
“I really believe that if we can change Tennessee, we can change the whole country,” said Sherman-Nikolaus.
She sees the upcoming elections as an opportunity to push immigrant rights due to increased awareness and urgency. As the first Latina director at TIRRC, Sherman-Nikolaus brings her vast professional and personal skills into the fray.
“I’m really grateful to Lindsey and Stephanie for all the work they did ensuring the organization is on strong footing and for developing a really strong bunch of leaders,” said Sherman-Nikolaus.