Carson-Newman student receives prestigious award

Rita Castañon recently was awarded $5,000 from the Margeurite Casey Foundation in Seattle. From left to right, Michelle Mitrik, associate professor of Spanish at Walters State Community College, Castanon and Alpha Alexander.

A Carson-Newman student from Morristown is receiving a $5,000 award from the Marguerite Casey Foundation in Seattle for her efforts in justice for immigrants in the Lakeway Area.

Rita Castañon is dedicated to justice for immigrants and to her hometown community in Morristown. She also attended Walters State Community College through the Walters Foundation.

She was among 20 change makers representing low-income communities around the country who went to Seattle last weekend to be honored by the Marguerite Casey Foundation with the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. The awardees, some as young as 16 years of age, are young leaders dedicated to improving lives of families in their community.

Originally from Mexico City, Castañon is a youth leader and an anchor for the work Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition does in her community to support youth and adult immigrant rights. She has a personal history witnessing how deportation and family separation affect lives. Coming to the United States with her parents when she was six years old, she is classified as a “dreamer,” or one who comes to this country not of their own will. She is one of 800,000 DAKA residents in the U.S., and one of 8,000 in Tennessee.

Castañon’s experience as a first responder during the 2017 Southeastern Provision immigrant raids in Bean Station and her knowledge of Know Your Rights has proved invaluable in her community and within TIRRC.

“The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition nominated me,” Castañon said. “My first involvement with TIRRC was when I found out about their tuition equality campaign. I’m a DACA recipient. I was paying out of state tuition, $2,000 for one class at WSCC.”

After getting involved in that campaign, she was hooked.

“I started getting involved,” she said. “I was unaware of what was going on the state level. They were the ones that opened my eyes. After that I started getting involved in the tuition equality campaign. I started getting to know more about immigrants’ rights and started doing presentations in East Tennessee.”

After learning about TIRRC’s tuition equity campaign, Rita organized a youth committee to start conversations around access to higher education for undocumented students. Afterwards, Rita became a leading voice within the organization. She represented TIRRC at the United We Dream National Congress in Houston, Texas, and has become a recognized leader and resource in her community.

She plans to pursue her degree while continuing to advocate for tuition equality and sharing helpful information in immigrant and non-immigrant communities, such as ‘Know Your Rights’ insights and information to counter immigrant myths.

Castañon didn’t realize that her involvement in the tuition equality campaign was preparing her for a much bigger stage, last year’s Southeastern Provision raid in Bean Station. When chaos ensued, Castañon provided much needed guidance to many whose world was turned upside down.

“I was able to point them in the right direction,” she said. “The raid (may have) happened in Bean Station, but most of families affected lived in Morristown. In the East Tennessee area, we are so connected and people don’t realize that we’re so connected. We’re a rural community.”

Last year, with the help of Walters State professors Michelle Mitrik and Steve Lawrence, both started the Recruiting Hispanics to Achieve program. The acronym came was formed in tribute to Castañon. It is known as RHiTA in her honor.

They nominated me because of that. I was very honored an excited

“The goal is to increase number of Hispanic students in higher education,” Castañon said. “It’s a great thing, needs to happen in rural areas. People aren’t often shown the resources that are out there for them. I’m really happy that we’re starting to change that in the way.”

The grant money will be used in East Tennessee rural communities to providing resources for Hispanic families or outreach work, including RHiTA.

“I’m excited to see what will be done with that money. It’s going to be big. I can’t wait,” she said. “I definitely think the rural communities are often overlooked on the national level. That needs to change.”

Luz Vega-Marquis, CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation spoke very highly of Castañon.

“Rita is an example a youth with a passion, leadership skills and commitment to addressing the issues in the community,” Marquis said. “She spent this past weekend in Seattle with the other 19 Shriver fellows. They spent time being trained in additional leadership skills. Spent time sharing their stories of what is going on in the community. It’s tremendously gratifying and uplifting to see people like Rita know how to apply the knowledge she attained to help her community.”

According to Marquis, every 18 months, one of the Shriver honorees gets an opportunity to become a fellow to the Marguerite Casey Foundation to the Patricia Schroeder Board fellowship.

Three persons with TIRRC, all from the Nashville area, have served on the Schroeder fellowship.

For Castañon, despite her successes, she worries about the future, but has faith that things will work out.

“It’s hard and difficult to think what’s in the future for me, as soon as my work permit expires, everything goes away. The Supreme Court will rule on the DACA case in January. If the court rules against it, I won’t be able to renew my permit. (When it expires) I will lose my work permit and driver’s license. I’ll have to decide if I go back to my old country, finish my education here, what do I do, right?

“We are a small fraction in Tennessee, but I have faith,” Castañon said.