Karina Kline-Gabel said her passion for Latino community outreach started from a young age, as she’s bicultural and her mother is Columbian. She said growing up Latina in the Harrisonburg area in the 1970s was “very rare.” This feeling of rarity is what she said drew her closer to the Latino community.
Kline-Gabel, who’s been teaching Spanish at JMU since 2003, was recently appointed for a second time to the Virginia Latino Advisory Board by Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The VLAB is a state board made up of individuals from different parts of Virginia who inform Northam of the Latino community’s needs and wants.
“We really serve as a very diverse and unique group of professionals that can represent different areas of the state and try to bring those messages together,” Kline-Gabel said.
After teaching the Spanish language, Kline-Gabel said she became interested in policy change. She didn’t want to change her career path to become a policymaker, so she decided advocacy work was the best option for her. So, she became involved with the Virginia Latino Higher Education Network and then the VLAB.
“When I started going to college and seeing that there was a community of many immigrants that really didn’t know the English language yet, I started volunteering and working a lot with those communities,” Kline-Gabel said. “So, it was easy for me to make those connections with people that needed some help assimilating into the community.”
She was initially appointed to the VLAB in 2017 to fulfill an “unexpired term,” which is when a previous board member steps down or is removed from office before their four-year term is up. In December 2019, Kline-Gabel was reappointed to complete a full term on the advisory board.
Kline-Gabel has held the position of vice-chair and said it position entails completing research, discussing with the community and bringing that information to executive committees. This gathered information and research eventually turns into a report that consists of an agenda in the interest of the Latino community, which they believe Northam will be interested in.
“It was a real honor to be selected as quickly as I was to be vice-chair,” Kline-Gabel said. “I always feel like it’s a very good position for me.”
Karina’s daughter, Nina Gabel, attends JMU and is a junior communications studies major. Nina said she sees her mom’s interest in the Latino community and culture every day.
“I think all my life, I’ve felt that my mom has always tried to do her best she can to communicate, to be a representative of the Latino community,” Nina said. “She definitely likes to be busy, and I know that she works to be a voice for the Latino population at JMU.”
Some policies Karina said she wants to enact while on the VLAB are the creation of inclusive education, allowing a driver’s license to be a universal right and affordable housing. Right now, allowing the “undocumented community” to get drivers licenses is something of great concern to the board’s agenda.
“This is a very important topic right now, and the governor has recently, I think, shown that he’s interested in pursuing that,” Karina said. “We have a lot of people that are working in our Latino community that are not allowed to get a driver’s license, which you can imagine creates a lot of issues for the children, parents and work-related issues and things.”
Director of appointments for advisory boards in Virginia and director of Latino outreach Maribel Castañeda oversaw both of Karina’s appointments to the VLAB. Castañeda graduated from JMU in 2015 and said JMU has created a special connection between her and Karina.
“We didn’t have any other applicants from that area, so really, reappointing her was an easy choice because she provides so much to the board, and we didn’t want to lose that connection and voice from Harrisonburg, JMU in that particular community,” Castañeda said.
Additionally, Castañeda said Karina is “well connected to the community” and represents the Shenandoah Valley well.
“We have these advisory boards for governors, and there’s so many ways that people can connect,” Karina said. “There are just hundreds and hundreds of topics, and I just always try to reach out to people, say, ‘Look, if you feel like you have leadership you can bring to a governor’s advisory board, don’t hesitate. That’s how we can all bring our voice to the table.”
CORRECTION (Feb. 2, 2:43 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Kline-Gabel taught Spanish literature at JMU and was immediately appointed to vice-chair. In actuality, she does not teach literature and began as a secretary prior to obtaining the position.
Contact Carley Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.