A foundation created by the descendants of Russian immigrants to the United States is taking the lead in fostering a transformation within Sussex County’s long-overlooked Latino community that comprises at least 9.2 percent of the county’s roughly 225,000 residents (plus hundreds, perhaps more, living in the U.S. without the required immigration documentation).
Since 2007, the Arsht-Cannon Fund, established from the estate of corporate lawyer S. Samuel Arsht and Roxana Cannon Arsht, the state’s first woman judge, has distributed more than $8 million in grants to Delaware Latino causes, mostly in Sussex County.
“Their parents were immigrants. They fled Russia. They came here for a better life, at the turn of the [20th] century. They needed to learn English… the same way the Hispanic wave is now,” says Christine Cannon, a retired nurse and University of Delaware nursing professor who married into the Cannon family and now serves as the fund’s executive director.
Supporting Latino causes wasn’t top of mind for the 70-year-old Hockessin resident before she embarked on her second career. But Roxana Cannon Arsht’s final wishes were quite broad—“to protect a civil society”—and Adrienne Arsht, Roxana’s daughter and Christine’s cousin—was a banker in Miami well known for supporting both the arts and immigration issues.
When the cousins decided to focus the fund’s efforts on the Latino community, Cannon immersed herself in learning the culture and the community’s needs.
“The fund is the most dedicated to the Latino community of any in Delaware,” says Patricia Rivera, board president at La Esperanza, the Georgetown-based bilingual social services agency. “Christine is dedicated and passionate. She thinks outside the box and is always looking for ways to get organizations to work together.”
“She leads with her heart,” adds Catherine Lindroth, a consultant who has worked with Cannon for several years. “She’s driven, she’s very connected, and she’s willing to take risks.”
Cannon quickly recognized both the sparse representation of Latinos on the boards of the state’s larger nonprofits, as well as the policies of some of the state’s larger banks to focus their philanthropy on areas where they have operations, inadvertently but effectively limiting support for communities with large Latino populations.
She identified nonprofits that had successful programs and offered grants to agencies that would expand those programs to serve Latinos. “We started with NAMI Delaware,” she says. “We funded them for their Sussex [mental health] services.” That initiative has grown to include families in Kent County, offering support groups, presentations and bilingual publications to improve awareness of mental illness.
The Arsht-Cannon Fund’s most ambitious initiative in Sussex County, launched in December 2017, is La Colectiva de Delaware, which aims to create a unified network that will make it easier for Spanish-speaking families to access educational, health and social services. About 50 agencies, both statewide and Sussex-based, are already participating in its planning sessions.
Sarah Moore, the new group’s project manager, spent the first half of last year interviewing Latinos “from age 7 to 80,” in all walks of life. Those interviews helped the group identify five key needs: bilingual support, access to information, transportation access, childcare and safety and family literacy. Work groups within La Colectiva are now brainstorming and prototyping solutions for those problems.
Kim Taylor, special outreach services coordinator for the Indian River School District, started attending La Colectiva meetings last spring. “We saw how [by working together] some of the dreams we’ve had for years could come true,” she says. One of those dreams, likely to become a reality this fall, is an after-school program for Latino students at Georgetown Middle School.
“It’s challenging,” Cannon says. The current anti-immigration social climate “creates a tremendous amount of fear.”
Nonetheless, she says, in five years “we hope to have more opportunities for Latinos to access services. The services will be high quality, linguistically appropriate and culturally responsive.” And, most importantly, she says, “we will keep on improving.”