Let’s Talk Race: Colombian native Francia Wisnewski speaks to ‘a different way of perceiving life’

  • Francia Wisnewski of Turners Falls says her minority status has, at different times, been either an asset or a barrier in her career and other endeavors. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Francia Wisnewski of Turners Falls says her early experience growing up in Colombia has continued to motivate her career in education and, more recently, in government. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2020 3:40:58 PM

Editor’s note: This week, the Greenfield Recorder has dedicated a series to sharing the stories of local people of color and their experiences with racism and prejudice. Look for additional stories throughout the week.

TURNERS FALLS — Francia Wisnewski recognized the value of education at a young age.

Growing up in Colombia, access to education was not guaranteed. Public schools had limited seats. So, most often, Wisnewski said, whether a child was educated — and the quality of the education — was determined by how much the family could afford to pay.

The memory of that early experience with basic inequality has continued to motivate her career in education and, more recently, in government and politics.

Wisnewski is the founder and one of the program directors of the Springfield branch of Raising a Reader, an organization that promotes early childhood literacy by providing parents with books and guidance for reading to their children.

The program is based on the theory, supported by statistical data, that children who are not read to early in life are unprepared to start kindergarten, and that this achievement gap tends to persist throughout the student’s educationAL and professional career.

The determining factors usually have to do with how much free time the parents have to spend with their children, Wisnewski said.

“It’s based on income, of course,” she said.

Wisnewski has been working in the field of education since her time as a university student in Colombia. She grew up in Cali, a city of about 2.2 million people, and studied at the local Universidad del Valle, a large and competitive public research university. She started teaching math and science to elementary and middle school classes while still studying for her bachelor’s degree.

She moved to Massachusetts in 2001, with the idea that she would explore a foreign culture while studying for her master’s degree, and then eventually return to Colombia, or another country in South America, to continue working in education there. The plans changed after she met the man she would later marry, and they decided to stay in this area and raise their children, rather than move, she said.

So, she has lived in Turners Falls as an immigrant, speaking a language she did not learn natively, always obviously identifiable by a strong Spanish accent.

Career-wise, she said, her minority status has, at different times, been either an asset or a barrier.

Because of her professional expertise and her sensitivity to issues of cultural diversity, she has become a popular choice to sit on committees that deal with diversity, she said. She gets enough requests that she can’t commit to all of them.

Discussing how her views are influenced by her social background, Wisnewski is quick to note that her experience as an immigrant does not exist in a vacuum — that it intersects with other aspects of life.

“I have a different way of perceiving life — as an immigrant, as a mother, as a woman. It’s not just the lens of the immigrant,” she said.

While serving on the Greenfield School Committee, for example, Wisnewski influenced the committee to make diversity a consideration in its policies on hiring. She was also involved in hiring current Superintendent Jordana Harper.

Yet, for each of those lenses, she said, each aspect of identity has also been a social disadvantage.

In 2018, shortly after moving to Turners Falls, she announced a campaign to run as a Democrat for the Massachusetts House of Representatives seat that would open with the retirement of 25-year incumbent Stephen Kulik.

Wisnewski had never run for a state government position before, but she bet that she would be distinguished by experience working in public education and social service agencies.

The campaign proved to be exhausting work. Wisnewski was one of seven candidates. The district covers 19 towns; so to be a viable candidate, she said, you need buy-in from all of them. Most often, she said, candidates already have relationships with influential people before they decide to run.

In the campaign, those lenses that most influence her perspective — an immigrant, a woman, a mother — became hurdles.

“I remember one woman who said, ‘You have a thick accent. I can’t vote for you because you won’t be respected,’” Wisnewski said. “Being here, in a less diverse community, it can be more of a barrier and a challenge. I still wonder ... would people want to be represented by a woman and an immigrant?”

The winner of that election was Natalie Blais.

Since the campaign, Wisnewski has begun working on the Montague Finance Committee, where she expects to advocate for the interests of the public schools and underserved populations, she said.

“A budget is a moral document,” she noted.

She has also become something of a mentor for people throughout Massachusetts running for state government offices. She likes to support women, people of color and LGBTQ people — people who would bring important perspectives to the state government, but who are facing uphill social situations, and who may lack the connections and community support that, Wisnewski found out, are crucial to running a viable campaign.

She mentioned she is now helping two people from other parts of the state who are running for state offices — one who is Black, and one who is LGBTQ. Wisnewski’s contributions can range from sharing insights she learned in her own campaign, to making calls and canvassing for votes.

The fact that neither of these people are directly connected to the upper Pioneer Valley is not an issue. The goal is to elevate the profile of social and political issues that may only be fully visible in certain lenses, Wisnewski said.

“I didn’t consider myself a leader. I don’t think many people consider themselves a leader,” she said. “Sometimes, people just need somebody who will put a bug in their ear and say, ‘Hey, you’ll be great at this.’”

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