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Cardenas builds new communities


Max Cardenas came to the United States from Lima, Perú, to get a college education. Now he works to help other immigrants integrate into Iowa’s businesses and communities. Cardenas spent his first year in the United States in New Jersey, living with his sister and brother-in-law and working to earn money for tuition. His brother-in-law, a native Iowan, encouraged Cardenas to apply at Grinnell College.

He was accepted, and while attending Grinnell he co-founded the Latino Leadership Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping immigrant populations develop as a community and gain access to higher education. Cardenas graduated in 2001 with a degree in philosophy and international development studies.

His first job after graduation was with the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines, where he worked as a research assistant. He also developed and coordinated a coalition of agencies dedicated to helping young people create solutions problems affecting their neighborhoods and families. He then worked for the Iowa Council for International Understanding as an international programs manager. His job included writing grant proposals, promoting the organization and its programs, and fundraising. He then went to work for the Center for New Community as the Iowa Project Director.

The Center for New Community is a Chicago-based organization that recently received a grant from the Ford Foundation to focus on building welcoming and sustainable communities for people new to the nation and the state.

“We’re not promoting immigration as good or bad,” Cardenas said. “It’s a mixed bag of challenges or opportunities, and everyone benefits when it is dealt with properly.”

Cardenas decided to stay in Iowa after graduation because “the changing demographics bring a lot of opportunities for community development, entrepreneurship and revitalization.” He says his job allows him to further those possibilities.   Cardenas is working to organize a statewide coalition of Iowans representing a multitude of businesses, communities, faith organizations and ethnic groups to promote social and economic equality for newcomers and to fight anti-immigrant stereotypes. A large part of his job is compiling data on the socioeconomic impact of immigrants coming to Iowa, and educating people about his findings.

“These newcomers work hard, pay their taxes and open businesses,” Cardenas said. “They share Iowa values of faith, hard work and family.”  

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