In the fall of 2011, Joanna Williams took a semester off from college to work as a long-term volunteer at the Kino Border Initiative (KBI). KBI is a Catholic binational organization working in the neighboring cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to support migrants on both sides of the border.
Soon after Joanna arrived, she met a father and his 16-year-old son, Johan, who had just crossed the Mexican desert together in pursuit of a better life in the United States. Johan was dehydrated, so the KBI team got an IV drip for him. His father had been working in a Seattle restaurant and had returned to Mexico to pick up Johan so they could both work jobs to support the rest of their family back home.
Joanna noticed that Johan’s name was like her own — just a couple letters off. “We were pretty close in age, pretty close in our name,” Joanna remembers. “And then there were also the experiences that divided us and the political structures that divided us because he was born on one side of the border and I was born on another.” They were so similar and yet a world apart — there’s no chance Joanna would find herself dehydrated in the desert trying to reach America.
Today, at age 30, Joanna is the executive director of KBI. She has spent most of her adult life at the border, working to close harmful gaps like the ones she found between herself and Johan.
Talking to Joanna is an inspirational experience. She radiates authenticity, compassion, and intelligence in every sentence of our recent conversation. But her witness is also a challenge. Ever since I interviewed her, I have been asking myself questions like, What exactly am I doing to make the world a better place? Why aren’t I living in solidarity with those on the margins with as much devotion as she is?
Joanna’s story will make you think about your priorities and your choices. Maybe my status quo needs some shaking up. Joanna is risky person to encounter if you’re feeling chill and comfortable.
Like a lot of high school students, Joanna had mandatory community service hours as a graduation requirement. She responded to an ad in the newspaper to teach English to refugee women.
Women from places like Iraq, Somalia, the Congo, and Myanmar would gather in the basement of an apartment complex for lessons on Saturday mornings. One day, one of the women from Iraq felt moved to give a speech to the group. She talked about how the American invasion of her country had destroyed her way of life. But her experience with those women and Joanna showed how Americans could be hospitable and help newcomers build community. Joanna remembers the Iraqi woman saying something to the effect of, “Americans don’t just show up in tanks, but are here in the basement with me.”
That experience, along with coming to know migrants in the families of friends she knew from school, set her life on a different course. At one time, she thought she would become a civil engineer, but “it was those women who pushed me to think about what it would look like to continue to be a good neighbor to these folks who have arrived,” Joanna says. “So that’s what drew me in this direction that I’m still going in.”
During her sophomore year at Georgetown, Joanna was contemplating a nontraditional semester abroad experience that could allow her to continue accompanying migrants in a new setting. She found herself at a huge gathering in Washington, D.C. called the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, which brings together a couple thousand students from predominantly Jesuit high schools and colleges around the country.
When she dropped in on a breakout session about KBI, “it was so clear to me in the moment that this was what God was calling me to do,” Joanna remembers. From her high school experiences, Joanna felt that she was being called to share her talents with immigrants, but in that instant, she realized that she didn’t understand dynamics at our own southern border — a place that is so important in people’s lives, yet so filled with “fear and rawness.” So she called KBI’s then-director and asked if she could come the following fall. He agreed, and Joanna has been connected to KBI ever since.
Supported by faith
It was just a couple years later — toward the end of her time at Georgetown — when Joanna decided to enter the Catholic Church. She had been a committed Christian her whole life, but she experienced “such a richness” as she got to know the Catholic Church around the world.
“Sometimes, when I was more involved in evangelical Christianity, it felt like it’s you and God figuring things out together. And in the Catholic Church it feels like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” Joanna says. “When I sit down to prayer, I don’t have to think of what I am going to invent right now to try to feel connected. I can say, ‘Okay, let me get out my St. Clare book and just let her guide me into prayer.’”
Joanna’s faith roots her in the work at KBI, which can be emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausting. The word she uses more than any other to describe life at the border for migrants on the move is “raw.” Joanna takes retreat days interspersed throughout the year, a benefit available to every team member at KBI. She prays the daily examen each evening with her husband and pre-schooler, noting where they saw God at work in their lives.
“God gives us the graces that we need for this work. We don’t just grit our teeth and become hopeful or become joyful,” Joanna says. “God gives us the hope and the joy and the patience and the peace that we need because he’s called us to this work. So this belongs to him and not to us.”
Called to something bigger
A couple years after college graduation, Joanna returned to KBI as their director of education and advocacy, a position she held for nearly six years before being promoted to executive director. KBI’s mission of responding to the ever-changing realities for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border means she has no typical workday. She leads a team that does everything from legislative advocacy to responding to immediate needs of people who arrive with only the clothes on their back and a small plastic bag of belongings.
At the heart of KBI’s mission is the conviction that every person matters, and abstract debates about immigration miss the human stories their team hears every day. “People are more than their migration experience,” Joanna says. “Every individual has their uniqueness as a human being. Migration is something that happens to them or something they’ve experienced, but it doesn’t define their existence. What defines their existence is that they’re created in the image and likeness of God and that they have dignity.”
Joanna and the KBI team also welcome and teach visiting school and church groups from around the country. But whether or not you’re able to visit KBI, Joanna says there are so many “really small, accessible steps of solidarity” people can take in our daily lives — things like getting to know migrants who live in your own community and hearing their stories. Or donating money to an organization like KBI, or contacting lawmakers in support of more just immigration policies.
But maybe you’re being called to something bigger. “There are a lot of ways that you can take action in everyday life, but as you’re doing that, be open to an invitation also that would take you out of your everyday life — if that’s what God’s calling you to,” she said.
All the photos from the border are from Julius Scholosburg, courtesy Kino Border Initiative.