Your presence and support today help us pursue our mission of building a welcoming community, and creating opportunities where Latino families can belong, contribute and succeed. Each year, Conexión Américas assists more than 8,000 individuals and their families in their desire to start businesses, buy homes, improve their English, help their children succeed in school and go to college, and become an integral part of Nashville and Tennessee’s social, cultural and economic vitality.

Conexión Américas is also the lead partner of Casa Azafrán, a nonprofit collaborative on Nolensville Pike at the gateway to Nashville’s International District that is home to Conexión Américas and nine partners.

Look around you. All of us are here today because we share a connection. A connection with each other, a connection with Conexión Américas and a connection with the place we call home, Nashville and Tennessee. In many ways, our gathering here this morning is like any gathering with friends and family at our own kitchen table. Just think about being at a kitchen table and having a cup of coffee and a great breakfast, but this morning it’s for a cause. We’re making a difference right here in this moment. You make very important decisions at your kitchen table. I pay my bills at my kitchen table, I think about and pray for my family at my kitchen table.

This breakfast is very much like our kitchen tables: it helps us reflect upon the priorities we set for ourselves and our community.

My kitchen table is old. After my father died suddenly in 2009, my mother came to live with my family here in Nashville. It was a traumatic time for us. We weren’t expecting it; my father was young after all, only 69 years old.  When my mother moved here, she moved with a very large moving truck with all of her belongings. She is here with me today. At one point, as we were blending furniture, my husband asked, “do we really have to keep that old kitchen table?” which had been in my family for over 30 years. He was right, the kitchen table was old. But, looking at it, all I could see was my father sitting in his chair at the table. So, I said “yes, we’re keeping the table.” The table looks worn out, but everybody loves it. It helps me feel connected to my father even now.

Whether it’s a church, a community center, a park or even our kitchen tables, physical space connects us to each other and brings us here this morning. It’s what helps build our community. Cafecito brings everyone to recommit to our shared ideals of a welcoming community.

When I moved to this city in 1990, I was struck by the closeness of Nashville and its people. As the saying goes, it’s a big city with a small town feel. I sensed immediately the growth this city was bound to experience. But I was also struck by its growing diversity, an issue that wasn’t being talked about at the time. Even though I connected quickly through my church and my job, I was concerned that others weren’t experiencing that feeling as I was.

I’ve made it my life’s mission to think about how we as individuals relate to each other. In my role as vice president for cultural development and inclusion at HCA Healthcare, it’s my job to make sure we are understanding each other’s stories. I use the word “Ubuntu” quite a bit. It’s a word often translated as “I am because we are” or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.” It’s about connectivity. It’s about not ignoring the fact that even though we may speak different languages or come from different places, we are woven together.

It takes work to recognize that. To accept that. To make sure everyone is included in the conversation.

As diversity and inclusion expert Vernā Meyers puts it: “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” What my focus is, whether it’s on the board of Conexión Américas or in my professional career, is making sure we’re all dancing.

Conexión Américas keeps us dancing.

I remember quite vividly my board orientation in 2015, which was unlike any nonprofit group orientation I’d experienced before. Conexión Américas organized a “Tour of Latino Nashville.” First, we visited La Michoacana, a successful Mexican ice cream shop on Nolensville Pike whose owners graduated from the microenterprise development program at Conexión Américas, where budding Latino and Latina entrepreneurs learn how to launch, and grow, a small business in this country. With their entrepreneurial spirit, the Alonso family brought the art of traditional Mexican popsicles to Nashville.

After the ice cream shop, we met José and Mercedes Almaraz, an immigrant couple from Mexico prospering in our city. José and Mercedes opened their beautiful home to us, a home they were able to purchase after lots of hard work and disciplined savings through Conexión Americas’ homeownership program.

We sat around their kitchen table and shared our stories.

It was Jose, Mercedes, me and my fellow incoming board members: former Mayor Karl Dean and Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nick Zeppos. Can you imagine? At that kitchen table, we were dancing.

My own journey to Nashville was not easy, but not even close to what José and Mercedes must have endured. At least I’d lived in this country my whole life, and spoke the language. When my husband and I moved here almost 30 years ago we had two young kids and no idea where to live.

We chose an apartment in a complex within walking distance to Centennial Park – that way, at least, the kids would have a place to play when our small space became too claustrophobic. I have so many memories of my children on the slides and the monkey bars.

Gosh, I wish I had had a cell phone with a camera back then.

The friendships that I made talking with the other moms. My children meeting other kids, discovering they went to the same schools. Figuring out our families had similar challenges and preoccupations. Sitting at the picnic table out there, it was the equivalent of my kitchen table.

I’m amazed by the unifying power of the physical space, the table that brings us all together, that invites us to dance. And that’s the power of Conexión Américas, too. Conexión Américas challenges us to our part in building a welcoming community.

I am so proud HCA Healthcare has been there for Conexión Américas every step of the way. Sixteen years ago, HCA Healthcare provided start-up funding to launch the organization. Ten years later, when Conexión Américas had the vision of creating Casa Azafrán, HCA Healthcare was proud to be one of the largest contributors to help turn that dream into reality.

Now, HCA Healthcare is excited to be one of the largest funders of the soon-to-be ready Azafrán Park, Conexión Américas’ latest project. Azafrán Park illustrates so well Conexión Américas’ knack for bringing people and partners together to create, in this case, a beautiful shared public space and legacy for all Nashvillians.

For me, it’s personal. Just as Centennial Park served as the much needed space for my children to play in, families in south Nashville and across the city will now have another place to get some fresh air and make new friends. And I can’t wait to take my granddaughters.

Remarks for Cafecito 2018, by Sherri Neal.