Stefanie Nolli Gaspar, an incoming M.S.W. student at the Graduate School of Social Service, didn’t wait until pursuing her master’s degree to get involved and help her community. In fact, she’s already started her own grassroots organization.
Launched in late March as a response to the COVID-19 crisis, White Plains Still Dreaming aims to assist those most vulnerable during the pandemic – immigrants, BIPOC – marginalized communities Nolli Gaspar felt needed it most.
“When I was going through this whole process of creating the group,” Nolli Gaspar said, “I had that inspiration of, ‘OK I need to do something, and I don’t know how, but I have to figure it out.’”
When the virus received national attention in early March, Nolli Gaspar had pneumonia. The whole situation terrified her. So, she took to the internet for resources.
She wasn’t happy with what she found.
“I’m sitting at home and freaking out and go online to the CDC website to see what sources I can find,” she said. “I realized a lot of the resources were in English, and they didn’t have the resources in Spanish.”
This led Nolli Gaspar to construct her own efforts. She created two resources lists for her community – one English and one Spanish. However, it wasn’t enough.
“I went a step further connecting with other friends who lead organizations that work particularly with the undocumented population,” she said. “I saw there was this huge gap of resources that wasn’t being provided, especially for folks who are more vulnerable to this pandemic.”
From Founding to Fundraising
The resources lists helped, but Nolli Gaspar wanted to do more. Her community needed it. After discovering that undocumented people, even if they’re from a “mixed status family,” did not get stimulus checks, Nolli Gaspar made her own resource through a fundraiser.
She reached out to a teacher from her high school and connected with nine alumni who shared her goals. They didn’t waste any time.
“We planned everything within a week or so,” she said.
Since then, White Plains Still Dreaming has raised over 20 thousand dollars, and has helped 114 families in the White Plains area with a mutual aid fund. They’ve also been in contact with other organizations from Yonkers to California, all that have come together to raise money for their local communities.
“I desperately wanted to do something,” Nolli Gaspar said. “I think the fact that I noticed that there was such a big gap in resources, let alone to find out that folks during this pandemic were not working, were close to being evicted, did not have food, did not have rent, and this is just what people could assume, but it’s not until you do the work do you see how urgent the situation is.”
Rosy V Orzuna is a member of White Plains Still Dreaming and knows what it’s like to experience life in America as a Mexican immigrant. She signed up to join the organization because of how difficult that life experience is.
“We don’t get the resources; we don’t get the help, and I’m a DACA recipient so you’re always afraid of, ‘when am I going to go back to being fully illegal and not have any paperwork authorization?’” Orzuna said. “I need to help because I’ve been there. I know how it feels to not have a status and work extra hard and always be afraid. This organization is amazing and everyone has been very helpful and focused on helping the community.”
Finding Passion in Activism
Nolli Gaspar has participated in activism since high school, and continued that work throughout college. At Lehman College, she double-majored in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and anthropology, with a minor in Mexican and Mexican American Studies. This interest in her culture and community eventually led to a Fulbright scholarship to Mexico after her senior year.
Nolli Gaspar left for Zacapoaxtla, a city in the Mexican state of Puebla, the summer after she graduated. She spent three months there, but something wasn’t right.
“Some advice I got from an advisor in Mexico was ‘go with what your heart wants you to do,’” she said. “’This experience doesn’t define you, but what you do when you get home.’ It wasn’t the direction I felt my life needed to go.”
Her true calling was back in the States. So, she headed back home.
When Nolli Gaspar returned from Mexico, she began to see social work and activism as a career she was ready to take on. She attended an information session at Fordham GSS’s Westchester campus and applied to the program that day.
“In my own personal life, I’ve been surrounded by social workers. Some of my biggest mentors have been women who are social workers who’ve guided me,” she said. “To look back and see it come full circle, social work felt right. I’m incredibly passionate about it. I know I’ve done the work already, and to be able to continue to do this work in the field in such a way, I knew this was where I needed to be.”
She hopes to bring this passion to Fordham, where she plans to work with children and families. Nolli Gaspar said once she got accepted into the program at GSS, it was clear that this was the right choice.
“It comes down to always being there for the people, and showing up for people in ways they showed up for me in my teenage years especially,” she said. “It’s something I really look forward to, especially working with children and families.”
As the COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in parts of the country, White Plains Still Dreaming continues to bring the necessities to their community. With DACA renewals coming up, they chose to focus their efforts there — by planning a fund and raising money for DACA recipients.
In addition, Nolli Gaspar organized the group to take a stance on the systematic racism of American society. For White Plains Still Dreaming, step one was holding themselves accountable.
“For many of us it was educating ourselves, holding ourselves accountable,” Nolli Gaspar said. “We’re in a place where we needed to educate our community.”
And although White Plains Still Dreaming has both a Facebook and an Instagram account, Nolli Gaspar said the effort needs to be more than just a social media post or comment. While social media can certainly be a tool for promoting and educating, there is action that needs to be taken.
“We can’t just watch or post or comment; now we have to go a step further,” she said. “Whether that be educating ourselves or others, showing up to protests, or connecting with other activists who work within the Black community who are directly impacted. We couldn’t cross out the fact that our community isn’t or doesn’t uphold racist stereotypes of the Black community, so we had to put ourselves in a position that defied that.”
As a Latinx person, Nolli Gaspar knows that the only way to fight an oppressive system is to join together for change.
“A friend told me as a word of advice that you have to take care of yourself, and I think it really hit a lot more when she said, ‘you know that they could also take you, too, because you’re brown,’” Nolli Gaspar said. “A lot of folks don’t get it and a lot of people do, but it’s that constant effort and knowing this isn’t just a one-time thing. I’m fortunate to have a group who constantly wants to learn and educate themselves, and that’s really where you should start.”
Nolli Gaspar hasn’t decided whether or not she’ll be a macro or micro focus at Fordham. However, whichever path she chooses, she wants to make an impact on her community.
“Any route that I do take, I’m going to be very unapologetic and really just be present for my community,” she said. “That’s my goal. It’s an honest passion. Always for the community. For the people, by the people – I hold this to a high standard.”
White Plains Still Dreaming Information
Want to help Stefanie and her organization? Here are a few ways you can start:
- Follow them on social media for updates and resources: @wpstilldreaming on Instagram, “White Plains Still Dreaming” on Facebook
- Donate to their Venmo: @wpstilldreaming
- Contact their email: firstname.lastname@example.org
White Plains Still Dreaming consists of ten members:
Stefanie Nolli Gaspar
Evelyn Lopez Rodriguez
Rosy V Orzuna
Alejandro Velasquez Blas