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A bridge to everywhere: Cecilia Nadal sees many sides and works to help them see each other

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 13, 2009 - Cecilia Nadal stands in line for a few minutes waiting to order coffee and a wrap. She's already made a friend.

The competing clatter of music and busy baristas fills the crowded front room at Coffee Cartel in the Central West End, but by the time Nadal pays, she's gotten contact information of a young woman who, it turns out, is an expert on Middle Eastern history.

"And that's perfect because we're doing a lot of things on the Middle East," Nadal says, excited, as she sits down.

She does this all the time, says Nadal, executive director of Gitana, a local arts and education non-profit that uses music, dance and drama to promote diversity and global healing.

"I'm a networker."

And, her friends say, her network is basically the whole world.

"She loves people, absolutely loves people," says playwright and director Lee Patton Chiles. "I don't know that she's ever met a stranger. Cecilia's world just encompasses everyone she runs into."

Nadal, whose mother was black and father was a black Puerto Rican, thinks of herself as a bit of a gypsy, gathering strands of this culture and that as she moves through the world. Actually, the word gitana means gypsy. But through her work in St. Louis, from college on, Nadal's done one thing quite consistently.

"I became a strategist," she says. "A bridge."

That bridge started out linking black to white, but now, its reach is much farther.

A TALE OF TWO HIGH SCHOOLS

From the very beginning, Nadal's life offered her more than one view of things. Her mother, a black St. Louis native with French, Cherokee and Irish roots, was a rocking Baptist who loved singing and jumping and shouting her praise. Her father, a Puerto Rican in the Air Force, was a Catholic who developed an affinity for many religions.

As she grew, Nadal, 59, traveled with her family around the world, attending Air Force base schools, meeting all kinds of people.

Nadal spent her first two years of high school at a base school in Puerto Rico. It was the '60s. The civil rights movement raged in the U.S., but Nadal felt totally unaware, concerned with surfing, visiting the islands, and hanging out with friends, who, like her, were from many cultures.

The issues of race that heated the rest of the country didn't feel real to her until her junior year. Nadal's family moved to Rome, N.Y., where Nadal started attending the public school.

"And then it became very tangible," she says.

Suddenly, Nadal was a minority in a mostly white school. She realized people saw her identity based on the color of her skin.

Nadal attended St. Louis University, and though she was around many more black students, she began to notice economic differences and the backgrounds of people who hadn't seen the world she had. She found herself the minority in a minority.

"I began to see the layers of things that make us different," Nadal says. "Instead of it bothering me, it compelled me to try to get past those barriers and look at a more universal view of everything."

She joined the Association of Black Collegians. There, she found a group of black students who fought for civil rights but hadn't seen much beyond their own city. She also joined Students for a Democratic Society, a group of mostly white students who wanted the same change as ABC. But while the two groups often tried to work together, Nadal found they couldn't connect.

So she began the work of connecting them, meeting with people in the groups and helping them see where the other group came from.

Soon, Nadal switched her major from psychology to sociology, wanting to work with a broader context toward social change.

As time went on and she graduated, she found the same schism that she'd found between ABC and SDS -- educated whites and educated blacks who wanted the same things but couldn't find common ground.

So, like in college, Nadal became the bridge.

PRODUCTIVE PROVIDENCE

Vanetta Rogers met Nadal in the early '80s. Then, Rogers was the executive director with the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment and Nadal was the executive director with Providence Educational Center, an alternative school for juveniles who often had behavioral disorders.

No one expected any organizations in the city to do well, but Rogers says thanks to Nadal, Providence always did. During this time, Nadal raised her daughter, often taking her to connect with their Puerto Rican culture in Puerto Rico. (Today, Nadal’s daughter, Maria Chappelle-Nadal, serves University City as a state representative.)

Through Providence, Rogers says Nadal helped kids turn themselves around and learn to cope and contribute. There was something special about her way of respecting wherever a person was, of getting to know them, valuing who they were, and helping them succeed.

"She probably could have stayed there for a lifetime," Rogers says.

Instead, in 1984, Nadal took a risk, Rogers says, and started a social entrepreneurship when the term wasn't even really a term.

Productive Futures, a for-profit organization, worked with both job placement and helping people keep those jobs, Rogers says. And it was important to Nadal that the business be a real business.

"I didn't want them to look at it as just another program."

Productive Futures sought to match organizations and jobs not just to people's skill sets, but to environments that would be supportive of those people. And, Rogers says, Nadal continued evolving with the city, bringing in immigrants, working with different ethnic communities.

In 2007, Nadal sold the business to care for her mother, who had Alzheimer's. But her work didn't stop. Instead, a group she'd started in 1996, Gitana, soon became her main way of linking people. (The story continues below this photo by  Wesley Law at the recent World Music Festival.)

PEOPLE, NOT STATISTICS

Sunita Manu grew up in the Ivory Coast, her mother's Liberian and her father Ghanian. When she came to St. Louis, her freshman year at Roosevelt High School was tough. Kids made fun of her. She didn't fit.

Then, her junior year, Manu joined Global Education, a 16-week project run by Gitana which joins social change and diversity awareness with the arts.

The program began to work with kids in south St. Louis, where Nadal noticed black kids, immigrant kids and white kids clashing.

"Art is magical," Nadal says. "It really is."

That's been true for both students and adults. Over the years, Gitana has put on many productions, including those that bring world music, dance and theater to St. Louis. In 2007, Gitana staged "Complacency of Silence: Darfur," which told the story of a family in Darfur.

"We were able to identify with Darfurian people as people, not statistics," Nadal says. That year, the production got five nominations from the Kevin Kline awards.

Now, Global Education seeks to link high school kids -- helping immigrants new to St. Louis get past stereotypes about black people, and helping those black teenagers get past accents and cultural differences.

The 16-week sessions include an average of 25 kids. Twelve to 18 of those kids who excel in drama, dance and cultural training earn the right to be a part of Gitana's main stage professional productions.

During her time with the program, Manu saw not only changes in herself, but in other kids, too.

One boy, whom Manu knew, was in the program and into some trouble and got expelled from school. Nadal didn't mess around with him. She told him he could stay and act right or go, Manu says.

"It's tough love and it works," she says.

The boy straightened up, and when a social worker from the school caught the group's performance, she wrote the boy's high school a letter recommending that he be readmitted.

"She's amazing," Manu says. "She is. She's one of the reasons why I'm in college today."

Nadal's work is the quiet, often unrecognized kind, Rogers thinks.

"I know it has meant probably more to St. Louis than St. Louis has realized."

Chiles agrees. Nadal, who's forever losing her keys and gets so wrapped up in conversation that she misses her exits while driving, doesn't miss a chance to connect with someone and make that connection matter.

"Cecilia's the kind of person who doesn't let us settle for the status quo," Chiles says. "Who doesn't let us not open a door and look and see what's behind it."

"We've crossed the universe through her," says Rogers, who's on Gitana's board of directors. "And that's been fascinating."

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