Location: Charlotte, North Carolina
William and Foster Harris, twins who are seniors at Charlotte Country Day School, are busy. They are in the throes of college applications and are both involved in fall sports. William is the number one boys runner on Country Day’s Varsity Cross-Country Team and is chair of Country Day’s student-led Honor Council. Foster is a member of the Varsity Soccer Team, the editor of the school’s newspaper, and is active in the Interact Club (a service-based youth club sponsored by Rotary International). Both boys are leaders of the school’s Model United Nations Club, where they compete in simulations and learn about pressing global issues. “We became passionate about these issues,” William says, “and we were always looking for a way to address them in a real-world way.”
Recently the Harris boys launched a new initiative to do just that. They combined their passion for making a difference on issues of global importance with their technical skills (Foster is well versed in web development and William has experience building iPhone apps) to launch the www.naturalizecharlotte.orgwebsite.
The boys credit Paty Prieto, a teacher at the school who was Foster’s tenth grade Spanish teacher, with inspiring the initiative. Both boys also knew her from her involvement with Model UN and school trips she had chaperoned. “She dedicates a lot of time outside of school to supporting students in extracurriculars,” Foster says. One day, Prieto, who moved to the United States from Mexico well over a decade ago, addressed Foster’s class with tears in her eyes and told them that she had just become a U.S. citizen. “She was wearing an American flag lapel pin,” Foster says, “and she shared what it meant to her and the pride she felt in the ceremony and in saying the Oath of Allegiance.”
Foster was moved. He talked about it with William and both boys discussed the naturalization process with Prieto outside of class. “We had no idea how daunting and overwhelming the process is,” William says. They started brainstorming how they could use their web development skills and experience to make the naturalization process easier for Charlotte’s residents. After considerable research and meetings with local nonprofits and governmental organizations that focus on naturalization, the Harris boys decided to build a website that would help those seeking naturalization and simultaneously raise awareness about the process.
The central goal of the website is to connect Charlotte’s lawful permanent residents (people who are eligible for citizenship) with the agencies and nonprofits that can help them gain citizenship. “Full civicabilities like being able to vote and hold a U.S. passport are closed off to you until you complete the naturalization process,” William says. There are over 21,000 individuals in Charlotte-Mecklenburg who qualify for citizenship, but many are either unaware of the process or find it too challenging to pursue. “We provide information about the process and a walk-through on the website ofservices that can help them,” Foster says.
The first hurdle to citizenship is determining eligibility. As is clearly noted on their website, you must either be a refugee or a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) who has been in the country for five years. Once eligible, applicants need to complete lots of paperwork, all of which William and Foster guide them through. They also provide links for fee waivers (the $700 fee often serves as a deterrent to applicants) and referrals to legal clinics who can help them properly fill out the forms since a failure to do so can result in delays and otherwise impede the process. After successfully submitting their paperwork, applicants must complete a citizenship interview and test. “The USCIS officers have a lot of discretion,” William says. “They are assessing your ability to communicate with them in English and there is a civic knowledge component.” Applicants need to know answers to well over 100 questions. During the interview, they will be asked ten questions and must answer six of them correctly in order to pass the citizenship test. “Our website helps prepare you for the interview,” Foster says, “by connecting you to classes, workshops, study guides and tips for getting started.”
Another mission of the website is to connect those who are already citizens with volunteering opportunities to help those seeking citizenship. William and Foster partnered with SHARE Charlotte, a nonprofit that specializes in connecting volunteers to nonprofits. They visited all ten of the organizations that do work in this arena to learn more about what they do and expand on the role volunteers can play in their respective missions. For instance, the boys discovered that Charlotte’s Refugee Support Services has a help team that they found important to highlight on the volunteering page of the Naturalize Charlotte website. A professional in the medical field, housing, the financial industry, law, social services, or childcare can now find unique opportunities to provide assistance through this help team network.
And mirroring their own journey of discovery about a process that they had not given much thought to prior to Prieto sharing her own naturalization experience, the boys are also using their website and advocacy to spread awareness about what naturalization is. “Everyone knows there’s a pathway to citizenship,” William says, “but not everyone knows what it is called and why it is so important.” To that end, they hosted a lunchtime presentation on the naturalization process as a part of their school’s Diversity Awareness Forum program. They had their peers take a mock citizenship test and explained some of what they had learned about what becoming a citizen entails. “We had a really great turnout,” Foster says, noting that their classmates were “really surprised at the complexity of the process, and how much it means emotionally and in terms of expanded rights and abilities.” Both boys were also touched by how many students stepped forward to help them. Classmates with a fluency in another language devoted many hours to translating the website into Spanish, Arabic, German, French, Hindi, Russian, Swahili, Vietnamese and Chinese.
Last week, Charlotte Country Day school hosted a launch of the website. The evening featured a guest speaker from Bhutan who spent almost two decades in a refugee camp before making it to the United States and now works at the Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency. The boys were also able to honor Ms. Prieto. Both of their parents are teachers, so they know how meaningful it can be to learn how much of an impact you have had on a student. “She was very moved and emotional,” Foster says. They also credit David Lynn, Director of International Studies at Charlotte Country Day School, with “being an excellent mentor throughout the process.”
William says that he and Foster are even more aware now of how lucky they are to have been born in the United States and have parents and grandparents who were citizens from birth as well. “This has changed how we think about something that we have never had to worry about,” he says.
What moves me is that these boys, with so much on their plate already, took on an issue that has no direct impact on them or their lives. I appreciate that they have forged an easier path for those seeking citizenship in Charlotte. But I appreciate even more that they represent what gives me hope whenever I despair about displays of selfishness and bigotry defining our country. Young people like this, who want to make a difference, are making the world a better place. Let their passion, global awareness and activism lead the way!
To check out the website, visit www.naturalizecharlotte.org