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Naida Elena Montes is one of the 2022 AL DÍA 40 Under Forty honorees. Graphic: Maybeth Peralta/AL DÍA News.
Naida Elena Montes is one of the 2022 AL DÍA 40 Under Forty honorees. Graphic: Maybeth Peralta/AL DÍA News.

2022 AL DÍA 40 Under Forty Honoree: Naida Elena Montes

Naida Elena Montes, Community Engagement Practitioner and PhD Candidate at Temple University's Geography & Urban Studies, will be honored during the 2022 AL DÍA

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The third annual AL DÍA 40 Under Forty event serves to highlight and showcase some of the most diverse and impactful young professionals across the Philadelphia region. 

At this year's event, taking place Friday, Aug. 26, Naida Elena Montes will be one of the 40 honorees. 

Biography

Naida Elena Montes is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. An experienced community engagement practitioner working in the field of Community Development and with Out of School Time (OST) youth programs, her passion for community work was developed early on as she tutored and volunteered with the New Jerusalem Project Inc., during her high school years. She soon became involved in the Aspira club initiatives and he Talent Search college readiness program. 

Throughout her career, Montes has led outreach initiatives addressing issues pertaining to neighborhood stability, zoning, greening, nutrition and health, resident engagement, education and employment access, housing development and community revitalization. 

Her years working at the Community Economic Development office at the Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) motivated her to seek more expertise and advance her knowledge as it relates to a wide range of housing, environmental, economic, and social issues resulting from social and political challenges in the urban landscape. 

Ultimately, Montes' goal is to elevate resident voice and engage in intersectional community-based work to address the needs of vulnerable and marginalized communities around the city, and one day, around the globe.

As part of the lead-up to the AL DÍA 40 Under Forty event, AL DÍA asked each of the honorees a set of identical questions and collected their responses. 

Here are Naida Elena Montes' responses: 

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your professional career? 

The biggest challenge I faced in my professional career is grief. Admittedly, I have had challenges internally doubting my qualification for a certain position or opportunity or even experiences of disillusionment within the work setting. Yet,, I don’t think that could compare to the personal challenges that occurred alongside the path of career growth. The internal struggle to keep moving forward when it felt like my world as I knew it was falling apart was truly real and at times devastating. I know what it is to drink your tears in front of a screen and to keep showing up to work with the full intention of giving it your best, hoping that the quality of your work wouldn’t suffer.

I have experienced different types of grief throughout my professional career, one of which included the actual passing of my sister, Judy. I had to learn to sit with those feelings, to not drown them out and to take periods for self-care and reflection to then reengage with the work at hand. During these times, I was also amid new career moves and growing work responsibilities. I learned the importance of resilience and pushing forward, but also how necessary opening up to a support system is. Throughout my career, this was essential for me to continue doing my work effectively but also to be mentally present enough to see and take advantage of the new opportunities that came throughout these periods. Several of my career changes, promotions and educational opportunity were also forged during the hardest periods of my personal life. As they say, “the world doesn’t stop for your grief” but there is a time for everything. Dealing with the grief and personal challenges as well as holding on to a mentality of perseverance actually enhanced my outlook on my career, refocused my priorities, and heightened my pursuit for working with intentionality for the causes that are truly fulfilling.

All in all, God’s grace has sustained me!

What are steps that can be taken to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in your industry? Why is it important to do so?

The first step is understanding some of the root causes of the lack of representation in certain fields. I have seen that there is a lack of educated and trained individuals from diverse backgrounds in specific fields because of the lack of awareness of employment opportunities in these specific fields. For example, in areas such as Geographic Information Systems, Environmental Justice, Climate Science, Bioethics or even within the planning field for equitable community development, there is a gap in awareness and cultivation of young diverse professionals for these specific fields. We need to create pipelines in primary education and academia to enhance awareness about certain careers in new, quickly changing, and upcoming fields. In many cases, these fields are requiring graduate level education and that creates a barrier for many who are already working and/or cannot afford to attend graduate school. Either more organizations should incentivize working experience, include onsite training as part of their commitment to diversity and inclusion, or provide financial incentive to support those with a commitment to growing in these fields.

Academic institutions with a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion could build tighter partnerships with corporate and non-profit institutions as well as with local school districts to create early mentorship and internship opportunities. In the long term, you can’t fill the positions with highly qualified diverse individuals if in general there are few to no “diverse” candidates within certain hiring pools to begin with.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves, how do we improve diversity, equity, and inclusion when we haven’t focused on the means to implement early recruitment and haven’t secured the additional means needed to train a potential workforce that has been excluded for so long, discriminated against, and systematically disregarded? For many local families, (of diverse races and ethnicities) generations have lacked certain opportunities because of a long history of disinvestment in many of our metropolitan communities. We must consider the context and the specific requirements for diversity and inclusion that each individual entity is aiming to reach.

For example, if the mission is solely getting racial diversity, companies often pull from outside of the city and even the state to meet that inclusion criteria, which in itself is good. If the mission is growing a diverse workforce from within the Philadelphia region or targeted communities, we need to work harder at early engagement and recruitment. When we assess firsthand the drastic disparities in the education and exposure of our Philadelphia students, many who were born, raised, and/or educated here and come from some of the poorest neighborhoods, we have to do more to make sure that we build academic and employment pipelines to ensure a diverse representation of local long-time residents, as well. It’s going to take a long and sustained commitment to equity through the outpouring of financial resources, additional educational programming, training, and mentorship opportunities.

What does being a leader mean to you? 

A leader guides a group towards a common mission and advances the efforts by understanding all the moving parts of an organizational system. A leader also understands the importance of working with a team and as a part of a team because one never accomplishes a level of success single handedly without the effort of those under that covenant of leadership. A distinguished leader to me is one who understands how to strategically implement shared responsibility in a way that considers the tangible human needs, assets, individual skillsets, programmatic roles, and team capacity to establish the provisions necessary that through supportive practice can efficiently sustain the group. Personally, being a leader to me also means that I accept my responsibility to others and commitment to guiding while constantly listening and learning from those I work with, refocusing and engaging in the work with renewed perspectives.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I am not exactly sure where I see myself in five years because I have varying interest related to community development, youth work, education, health, environmental justice, and even international work. Although I see many of these areas as very intersectional, it’s hard to know where I will land. I do hope to have finished my doctoral degree by then and I would enjoy future work that allows me the flexibility to teach while working in community and with youth in some capacity. I am open to the possibilities!

The 2022 AL DÍA 40 Under Forty event will take place Friday, Aug. 26 at The Vie at Cescaphe. To learn more or purchase your ticket, click here

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