16: Anti-Bullying: The Fight Against Hate

As Sandow likes to say, the Hagedorn Foundation has done philanthropy differently on Long Island. One very human, truly remarkable illustration of that is the hiring, development, and work of Joselo Lucero. It’s simply not the sort of thing that foundations typically do.

In the months after seven teenagers killed his brother Marcelo in 2008, life changed drastically for the younger Lucero. At the time of the crime, Joselo was working as a welder, with a limited ability to speak English. But as he attended a variety of public events, from rallies to court appearances by the seven boys accused of killing his brother, then their trial, Lucero had to take on a much different role. He had to represent his family. He had to speak up for the immigrant community in Patchogue and all over Long Island. He had to answer questions from reporters about the case, often standing in front of television cameras, grappling with the English questions coming at him, then struggling to answer them in a language not his own.

“Literally, I had to think twice,” Lucero said. “First I had to think in Spanish, then translate into English. By the time I say what I have to say, it maybe come out wrong or right. At that moment, I don’t have no idea. But my mentality was, I had to be brave, and I had to care less what people think about my broken English.”

His first contact with the Hagedorn Foundation was through Susan Hagedorn, Horace’s daughter, who was producing a documentary about the crime, called Deputized. “We had several conversations,” Lucero recalled. “She said she was going to speak with Amy and Darren.” At the time, Lucero had no idea what the foundation was all about. But Amy Hagedorn and Darren Sandow were following Lucero’s new life closely.

“I was personally intimidated by Joselo,” Sandow recalled. “The first time I saw him speak, I was just enamored with the man.” What Sandow saw was a young Ecuadorian immigrant, a welder by trade, with no previous experience in public speaking, suddenly thrust into the role of answering questions from large numbers of reporters. It was a daunting challenge that he handled passionately and well, in his second language.

Sandow had read about Lucero, had watched him on News12, the local television news station, and had seen him in person at a vigil for Lucero’s brother. “I was there, just as Joe Citizen,” Sandow said. “I was actually nervous to go talk to Joselo.” But Amy really wanted a conversation with him. “I said, ‘Whoa! That would be great,’ ” Sandow said. “She really wanted to hire Joselo to do something at the foundation. I said, ‘Sure. Do you think he’ll take the meeting?’ Because at that time, Joselo was everywhere. And she said, ‘I’ll get the meeting.’ ” Through a mutual friend, Regina Casale, an immigrant advocate and junior high school Spanish teacher, they set up a meeting at a little Italian restaurant in Port Washington, a favorite of Horace.

At that initial meeting in the Italian restaurant, Sandow recalled blurting: “ ‘I don’t know if you remember, but I shook your hand.’ I was star-struck.” Joselo remembered that conversation with Amy and Sandow as pleasant and welcoming, but without much clarity about the work they expected him to do. “We met, and they offered me a job.” But at that moment they didn’t have a job title. “It was nothing, other than ‘We like you, and we want you to work for us,’ ” Lucero recalled.

The title that the foundation ultimately created for Lucero was “outreach coordinator.” The job description involved reaching out to students and community groups, to share his personal story and educate them about the dangers of intolerance toward immigrants, hate crimes, and bullying. A tall order.

Lucero still has vivid memories of his first day in the foundation’s office in Port Washington. “Remember, I was a regular guy, doing welding for 12 years, not involved with public speaking, not involved in sitting behind a desk or anything like that,” he said. He wasn’t necessarily intimidated, but he remembers feeling weird, not quite knowing how to get started.

As he began his work, Lucero felt lucky to have Amy as a mentor. “The best part of it was Amy was an activist,” Lucero said. “She was a role model. She was a teacher. She was involved in education. So, in some way, she knew what I’m trying to do. And she was really patient.”

To work with Lucero on day-to-day details, Sandow gave the foundation’s office manager, Joe Page, the task of helping him get grounded and set goals. “He was going to be in charge, to in some way guide me to go to the right path, my English and stuff like that,” Lucero recalled. He also had help from two of the foundation’s key consultants, Arda Nazerian and Henry Fernandez.

Nazerian had long worked in government, in the press office of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and later as a top aide to Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who later ran unsuccessfully for governor and ultimately won a seat in Congress. In addition to her work for the foundation, she had an array of business clients and strong communication skills.

Fernandez is the CEO of Fernandez Advisors, a Connecticut consulting firm that helps clients with management, planning, project development, and political strategy. His national experience included work as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and service on the transition staff of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, focusing on the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“He had a real sense of what the skills were that he thought he needed, and we kind of talked through those, and then we laid out a bit of a strategy around how he could accomplish that,” Fernandez said. “That then focused around communications and English language skill development, group presentation, time management, and then specifically around anti-hate curriculum and how to present that.” They looked into classes and trainings that could help him, and they discussed existing anti-hate curricula.

Nazerian worked with Lucero on sharpening and shortening the presentation that he was developing, so that it could be customized for different audiences, and on ways of arranging speaking dates. “Depending on who you’re talking to, you’re going to have a little bit different take on what you’re talking about,” she said. “So I worked with him on both creating the opportunities, and then, once the opportunities started coming in…having the right thing to say.”

Though he had a steep learning curve to climb, especially on language, Lucero brought to the task an indispensable, innate quality. “At the beginning, it was all emotion,” Nazerian said. “It was like raw emotion.” It was emotion flowing from genuine life experience, and the task was to turn that passion into something he could pass on to the young people he was addressing.

“In his case, it was a heart-wrenching experience, but it was all authentic,” Nazerian said. “So that’s the best substance you can ever work with, something that’s truly real, which in his case was because of tragedy, which you don’t want to have happen. But if it does, and you decide to do something positive with it, which is what Joselo did and what the Hagedorn Foundation was willing to support, then you want to use it the right way. So it was just sort of packaging something that was already there.”

Fernandez and Nazerian were the strategists, and Page was the day-to-day coach-colleague, implementing the strategies. To that assignment, Page brought the Spanish he had learned at Clark University, where he had to pass several courses taught only in Spanish, plus an understanding of Latin America that he gained from his government and international relations studies. It was also helpful that he had a background on stage in both high school and college. In the foundation’s conference room, they worked together at honing Lucero’s presentation skills.

“I tried to let him do as much as he could, without me being too much of an authority or a corrective,” Page said. “You kind of get happy feet sometimes. So you don’t realize you’re shifting around on your feet a lot. Sometimes your hands are in your pockets, and your body language isn’t too welcoming, especially when you’re giving a presentation like this, too. So a lot of it was really body language and cues.”

Page also helped Lucero arrange ESL classes and connected him with an accent-reduction specialist. Together, they began reaching out to people who could invite him to give his presentations. Lucero had some contacts on his own, such as Gilda Ramos of the Patchogue-Medford Library, in the village where his brother died, and Regina Casale. Page helped him to broaden the network of people likely to extend to him speaking invitations.

“From there, our goal was to have that process be reversed,” Page said. “We wanted to have teachers and community leaders reaching out to Joselo. A lot of it was getting people’s email addresses, or even talking with staff, like, ‘Hey, do you know a teacher? Do you know an administrator? Do you know anyone?’ And the staff at the Hagedorn Foundation are very well connected. Amy Hagedorn, very well connected. And some of our grantees and funding partners are very well connected.”

Over time, the problem morphed from finding Lucero invitations to finding the time for him to keep up with all the invitations. “When I started doing presentations, I could be doing two presentations a month or three presentations a month,” Lucero said. “But now I am invited to speak, maybe in one week I can speak four times, three times a week.”

Since Lucero first joined the foundation in 2010, Page has noticed dramatic improvements in his language and presentation abilities. “One thing that hasn’t changed, has always been constant, is Joselo’s attitude, even when he’s struggling,” Page said. “He’s just an incredible human being. He’s always got a joke or two. He tries to make you smile and bring your day up a little bit, even if he’s having a real crappy day. There continues to be something very special about him that you can’t quite put your finger on sometimes.”

That feeling of admiration and loyalty to Lucero, for what he has overcome and what he has achieved, is universal at the foundation. “I can’t say enough about this man,” Sandow told a gathering of funders in January 2017. “He lost his brother in a hate crime….This man, every time he walks into our office, lights it up. Everybody wants him back. He’s had to tell them, I’ve got to get to other schools.”

In the story of the foundation’s commitment to doing philanthropy differently, Joselo Lucero is a shining example.

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