WORTHINGTON — Ivan Parga was a Worthington High School student when a WHS alumna effectively changed his life.

Parga was in between his junior and senior years when he heard about Be the Change: Leadership On Purpose, a Nobles County Integration Collaborative program that taught young adults how to lead from within. While he’d participated in the WHS theater program and later took part in a play at Minnesota West Community & Technical College, it was “Be the Change” that sparked something new in him — involvement and activism.

“There were some different things going on in high school, but I think the major catalyst for my getting involved was Nicole Ektnitphong,” Parga said. “She was a junior at Gustavus (Adolphus College in St. Peter) at the time and a Worthington graduate, and she was the one who originally created Be the Change: Leadership on Purpose through a grant.

“She recruited some of my friends and people that she knew, and did a little bit of outreach through the Collaborative. A friend of mine, Elyzabeth Coriolan, told me, ‘let’s go.’”

Expanding involvement

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What was first a summer project for Parga became a program he helped build upon as he — along with fellow WHS students Adyiam Kimbrough and Christopher Mayorga — led a second “Be the Change” incarnation the following summer and recruited others.

“It was kind of a curriculum of different things we learned about, like social change and the process of social change,” he said. “It also got us involved with other things we really identified with.”

For Parga, those “other things” have been plentiful in number.

Among the initial beneficiaries of his energy was the Nobles County DFL, an involvement that resulted from a connection he made with Debra Hogenson, who has since relocated. He became a regular delegate as well as an outreach officer.

That led to his participation in Camp Wellstone, a program that provides political and civic engagement training, in which he participated in the “campaign staffer” track. Soon afterward, he became involved in the campaign of Worthington High School graduate Cheniqua Johnson, the DFL’s candidate for Minnesota House District 22B in 2018; he also became part of a transition team for state Attorney General Keith Ellison.

Parga was also involved with the local chapter of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) as well as Unidos MN (formerly Navigate MN), a grassroots organization that paid for Parga to attend the re:power training. He is active in both Voices for Racial Justice and Seeds of Justice.

“There’s a lot of us with a lot of different hats,” Parga explained. “Voices for Racial Justice — they were the organization that worked with me the most as far as trainings, workshops, things like that. Maybe a year or two later was when we started building Seeds of Justice, which is kind of an offshoot with local organizers advocating for change.”

According to its website, seedsofjustice.org, “Seeds of Justice is a group of Worthington leaders who are committed to make all communities in Worthington stronger by pushing for equal representation in local decision making, and creating spaces for Worthington community members to create and advocate for the solutions they need.”

Parga noted that Voice of Racial Justice ultimately became the 501c3 organization for Be the Change: Leadership on Purpose, while also providing both training and mentorship.

Additionally, Parga began volunteering with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and had the opportunity to travel to New Hampshire for a “Rights for All” campaign launch.

“They were different organizers from the four corners of the U.S.” Parga recalled. “We were pushing a lot of candidates at the time. … We were pushing to ask Elizabeth Warren, ask (Joe) Biden, ask Bernie (Sanders) to match some of the policies adopted by the ACLU. I actually shared my family’s story on immigration, alongside an ACLU team member that spoke on immigration policy.”

The subject of immigration is of paramount importance to Parga. While he was born in Worthington, his mom, Maria Guadalupe Parga, came to the U.S. from Mexico and is now an American citizen.

“Immigration is one of the biggest pieces that I focus my work on,” he said. “My whole family, I really keep them close to my heart when I think of the work that I’m doing. I don’t want to just walk around out there gallivanting. I want to help make things better for my family and better for my community members, only because I’ve seen how it (immigration) has affected them in the first place.”

Making connections

Parga’s mother — who now owns and operates Lupita’s Restaurant on Worthington’s Oxford Street — as well as his father worked on the line at Worthington’s pork processing plant upon coming to Worthington. A couple of his aunts, not to mention his grandmother, were also employed there, and Parga’s sister, Elizabeth Briones, is the plant’s HR manager.

Now, in a full-circle sort of way, Parga is also employed at JBS.

After restarting Be The Change: Leadership on Purpose in Worthington, Parga began seeking financial contributions and secured a meeting at JBS. That ended up leading to an unexpected opportunity.

“I think their situation was that they were already thinking of creating a community liaison position” Parga remembered. “I got there and presented to the HR director (at the time, Len Bakken) about my work and about the students, and I guess he just thought it was cool. He decided that the community liaison position that he was building was a good fit for me.

“I connect the employees to resources and services that they might need in the community — education, housing, health care or anything that they may be looking for,” he continued, adding that he joined JBS in February 2018. “Besides that, I provide support to the main branches of the human resources department and help keep people updated through newsletters, videos, fliers and things like that.”

Parga’s position is not a full-time one, and that gives him the opportunity to continue his community involvement. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed efforts, but he plans to once again relaunch Be the Change once larger gatherings are permissible and deemed safe. He intends to subsequently find one or more people he can mentor who may be interested in leading future iterations of the program.

“When we’re first talking about Be the Change … I let the students know that the reason we chose ‘Be the Change’ is because we want the organization to be a catalyst for them to enact and be change in the community — not to impact organizations or other people, but to impact themselves and show themselves as a source of positive change in the community,” he said. “It’s about you doing what you can with the resources you’re given, as well as working collectively.”

Parga has done plenty of “working collectively,” helping to coordinate such events as a rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that took place in Worthington in October 2017. Aida Simon, a bilingual program aide at Nobles County Integration Collaborative, also helped organize that event.

“There’s been a lot of collaborative work on a slew of things,” Parga said. “Aida Simon has helped me out on a lot of stuff. … None of my work would be possible if several people hadn’t been there at the right time that they needed to be. People like Fayise Abrahim (co-executive director, Voices for Racial Justice) and Vina Kay (a former executive director at Voices for Racial Justice) have definitely been big parts of my work.”

Parga expects he will continue to undertake such work in his hometown for years to come.

“As a ninth- and 10th-grader, I was one of those kids who wanted to get out of Worthington,” he said. “To some extent, I’m not opposed to leaving, but I think there’s so much work to be done here and my family is here. It’s a good place with lots of good things to do.”