Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski was recently awarded the Ohtli Award, which is considered the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a leader outside of Mexico by the Mexican government.
The award acknowledges an individual that has been an advocate to the Mexican community and for Mexican immigrants living outside of the country.
“In our opinion, it is a culmination of all the work he’s done not only as a councilman, but with his work with the Cesar Chavez Foundation,” said Rodrigo Navarro García, consul of community affairs with the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix. “Nowakowski has helped the Mexican community in different fields, including politics, economics and cultural activities. He is also part of the group promoting the opening of an Arizona office in Mexico City to foster business and investment.”
Nowakowski accepted the award from the from the Mexican Consulate at City Hall during a ceremony on Sept. 15 with more than 400 people in attendance, including the Council General of Mexico, Mayor Greg Stanton and business and community leaders.
“I think that I’m able to sit down and look at what brings people together,” Nowakowski said. “What separates us a lot of times is the color of our skin and the language that we speak. If you can bring people together to talk about what they have in common, you start talking about common grounds.”
District 7 encompasses an area of Phoenix where, according to the United States Census, 40.8 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino.
Nowakowski is the vice president of communications of Radio Campesina, a network of 10 nonprofit Spanish-language radio stations, and also serves as executive vice president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation Communication Fund.
As vice president, Nowakowski oversees nine radio stations that the foundation owns. Phoenix has the number one radio station, reaching more than 180,000 people.
When Arizona was in the process of passing Senate Bill 1070, the radio station was a way for people to communicate. Nowakowski said that the stations were used to tell people what their rights are, the importance of voting, and the importance of getting involved.
“We got the message out there,” Nowakowski said. “We educated people, we organized people. I think that’s one of the tools that Cesar Chavez talked about was that a radio station isn’t just a radio station. It’s a community center on cyberspace. We’ve taken that to the fullest.”
Ruben Gallego, a current candidate for Congressional District 7, was once Nowakowski’s campaign manager and then his chief of staff. He said that as issues pop up, the radio station is used to communicate with a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t hear the news.
“Many (Latinos) that don’t have access to the Internet, or who don’t have time to sit down and read the newspaper, this is the only time they get their news, when they’re driving to work,” Gallego said.
During a lot of the SB1070 fights, Nowakowski organized marches of thousands of people to protest against the bill, Gallego said. He used the radio station to explain to people their rights as citizens and immigrants in the country.
“When health care enrollment was happening with the Affordable Care Act, he was able to use the radio station to explain to people about the act and encourage them to sign up, something that was very important to the Latino community,” Gallego said.
Nowakowski said the biggest issue he has noticed with the Latino community is obtaining a good-paying job.
“During those hard times, I was able to continue the relationship with Mexico by attracting businesses to Arizona despite the social conditions,” Nowakowski said.
He also emphasized the importance of education and the value that many Latino families place on it. He said he has been a prominent advocate for the DREAM Act and, through his position with the Cesar Chavez Foundation, has ensured secure scholarship funding for DREAM Act students.
“(Latino families) want to have the best education for their kids,” Nowakowski said. “They want to make sure that their kids are going to be able to go to school to begin with.”
In the last five years, the Cesar Chavez Foundation has helped provide $100,000 in funding for in-state university and community college students, Nowakowski said.
Nowakowski comes from a bicultural family, with his father being Polish and his mother born in Mexico. His background helps him connect to the Latino community, he said.
“You get to see that there’s so many things in common with the Polish community and the Mexican community,” Nowakowski said. “The same struggles that the Polish community had back in the early 40s are the same struggles that the Mexican community is having now.”
Gallego said that Nowakowski is a key leader to help those struggles by getting resources to the Latino community. He added that people can call and talk to Nowakowski whenever they need to.
“He’s the only city councilman that even speaks Spanish, so he really is the council member for the Spanish-speaking community in all of Phoenix, not just his city council district,” Gallego said.
Contact the reporter at Rebecca.Brisley@asu.edu