Former immigration coordinator promotes worker justice

Matt Goodwin was recently named director of the Northwest Arkansas Interfaith Workers Justice Center in Springdale.
Matt Goodwin was recently named director of the Northwest Arkansas Interfaith Workers Justice Center in Springdale.

SPRINGDALE — Matt Goodwin didn’t necessarily plan a career leading non-profit organizations but somehow, he keeps finding himself doing that very kind of work.
That’s a good thing for the organizations and the people they help because this Arkansas native has both the experience and the knowledge — as well as a caring heart — needed to steer them successfully.
Goodwin was the first coordinator of Catholic Immigration Services Northwest and recently was named director of the Northwest Arkansas Interfaith Workers Justice Center.
“He just sort of was the perfect fit,” said Steve Striffler, noting Goodwin’s background in interfaith work, immigration issues and his fluency in Spanish.
Striffler, a University of Arkansas anthropology professor, serves on the workers’ center board and was one of the people instrumental in bringing the organization to northwest Arkansas.
Goodwin was somewhat more low-key in talking about his own qualifications to help the ever-growing immigrant population.
“I was between [jobs],” he said, preferring always to talk about the organization he’s leading rather than himself.
Goodwin grew up in Little Rock, graduated from Catholic High in 1991, and studied philosophy and comparative literature at the University of Arkansas, with the original intention of eventually ending up as a teacher.
“I love teaching,” Goodwin said. And he did teach, while studying social justice at the University of California at Berkley.
But he seems to be always learning, too, and lending a hand to others in less fortunate circumstances. He’s also traveled extensively and lived in Mexico and Central America, where, among other things, he found himself working at an orphanage.
Through his work, travels and studies, Goodwin has had many opportunities to learn about the differences in various Hispanic cultures and societies, making him an invaluable resource to the organizations that try to help immigrants in Arkansas.
“It gave me an opportunity to see why people were coming here,” Goodwin said. “I got a good sense of what [the Hispanic] society is like.”
He took to the interfaith workers justice center work immediately.
“When we treat workers poorly, the community suffers a lot,” Goodwin said.
The center’s director since October, Goodwin immediately set about finding offices (first, in a loaned basement office in the Presbyterian Church on the UA campus — reflecting the interfaith nature of the office — and, in recent weeks, in a building a block away from Catholic Immigration Services in Springdale, a more central location for the Hispanic populations of the area).
Frank Head, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services Northwest, worked with Goodwin through that office and has been asked by Goodwin to assist with the workers center.
“He does have a lot of energy,” Head said about Goodwin. “He’s a very intelligent guy, very thorough, and, of course … to do this job, he had to study immigration law and keep up with it, which is a full-time occupation. He’s just a very thorough, outgoing, very dedicated guy.”
Goodwin landed the position at Catholic Charities Immigration Services in 1997 on a referral from Father Rex Hayes, who lived in northwest Arkansas for several years as one of the Vincentian priests serving the Hispanic population. While Goodwin said he learned “a little Spanish” in school, he’s become fluent through his work and travels.
Striffler said similar centers are often located in poultry-producing areas and in the South, both of which tend to attract Hispanic workers. Goodwin is the center’s second director but he’s hoping to attract enough money through grants and donations to assure it a future.
“The need is so great,” Goodwin said. “Immigrant workers are, a lot of times, put into positions where their rights are easily violated.” He noted examples of workers not being paid fair wages — or sometimes not being paid at all — or being discriminated against in some way. He also cited examples of workers being injured on the job, perhaps losing a finger through an on-the-job accident, and then being fired rather than compensated for permanent injuries.
That could happen to anyone, but Goodwin said the workers center does help more immigrants than native-born workers simply because of its focus.
“Our purpose is to help all workers but particularly the most vulnerable and most in need.”
“When workers feel safe, they will be more productive,” he added.

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