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September 23 2019

Helena Ramirez Richardson

by Charlotte Hays

When Helena Ramírez Richardson, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program, brings together every new class she tells them a story. If you know this story, you know what makes Helena tick, and why she does what she does.

Helena (the h is silent) was born in Puerto Rico, but the story starts in Cuba, before Helena was born. Fidel Castro had installed his dictatorship a few years earlier, and by 1962, Helena’s widowed grandmother was determined to get her children out. Helena’s father was 19, and his sister was 15.

Pretending she was taking the children on a routine holiday off the island, Helena’s grandmother made the necessary arrangements.Her two older children had already left the country. “They went to the airport in June in 1962 and the police pulled my grandmother off the plane saying her papers were invalid, but the children were fine.” Helena recalls. “My grandmother insisted it was a normal weekend trip and that they shouldn’t be separated. You have to remember that Cuba back in the day was the Las Vegas of America. The United States was seen as a vacation site for Cubans, and vice-versa.  When Fidel Castro came to power, a lot of things changed. The military police basically said to my grandmother, ‘We’re not allowing this,’ but she continued, insisting ‘Look, this is really a weekend trip. We’re going to come right back.’ She said goodbye to her children, not knowing if or when she would see them again.

“When I speak to young people at Heritage, I say that my belief in liberty is very personal.” Helena explains.  “And then I share my story. This is not something I read about in a history book. This is a story that shows why my parents love America. It explains their love of civil society, their love of freedom and liberty. This is in my blood.”

After the goodbye, she watched the plane to make sure the children weren’t taken off and interrogated. She walked back to her house in Havana, to find a seal over the door that said “Property of the State.” “And it was clear,” says Helena, “that an inventory of all of her belongings had been taken and it would have been considered a crime if she had entered her own home.  That night she slept in the backyard of a neighbor’s house, and she said ‘Don’t ask me any questions.’”

“And it would take them eight months, eight months of my grandmother walking the streets of Havana, Cuba, for her to get out,” Helena says. “It was eight months of her avoiding any type of government official, eight months of her just staying out of anyone’s way, eight months of my dad worrying every single day hoping to see his mother[RH2] .” 

A godson assisted with the paperwork filing and helped her escape. The cousin said she could throw off the police by using her middle name as her surname. The name under which Helena’s grandmother escaped a dictatorship: Elena Ramírez.  “And so I’m named after her.  Imagine that legacy,” says Helena. “I asked my grandmother before she died, tell me what was going through your mind when you put your children on that plane in Cuba, and she said it was the easiest decision she ever made.  She did it to ensure liberty and freedom for her children. And so, imagine being named after my grandmother who, in that way put her family first, put her children first. She wanted a better life for her children and for her family.  And she is one of the reasons that I am so blessed today. To continue that legacy in everything that I do and in my personal and professional career is my goal.”

“When I speak to young people at Heritage, I say that my belief in liberty is very personal.” Helena explains.  “And then I share my story. This is not something I read about in a history book. This is a story that shows why my parents love America. It explains their love of civil society, their love of freedom and liberty. This is in my blood.”

“For far too long Republicans and conservatives have not been showing up to naturalization ceremonies,” she says. “The only ones showing up to say welcome are the liberals. And I think that’s why we have a bad rap and are perceived as unwelcoming. The first thing we say to newly arrived Hispanics is that they must follow the rules. Right?  Those being naturalized citizens are following the rules. We can reach new audiences if we become more welcoming.”

Richardson’s father originally came to Miami but moved to Puerto Rico, and Helena was born in San Juan, where she visits regularly to keep in touch with relatives. Her father became a successful entrepreneur, and her mother was a school teacher.

The family moved to the U.S. when Helena was a baby to seek medical attention for her brother, who has a rare heart condition. They lived in California before settling in Miami, making their home in the Cuban exile community. Helena excelled in school, both academically and athletically, playing four sports and being nominated for a prestigious Silver Knight award, given by the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald for outstanding high school seniors.  

After high school, Helena enrolled in Florida International University, a large public research university, which was near home. She majored in political science and in addition to her B.A. was granted Certificates in Law, Ethics and Society; and Leadership. She was elected president of the student government association. That automatically made her a university trustee with a vote in university affairs and a voice in the allocation of millions of dollars. She even met with the governor of Florida to discuss the university’s budget. She also pledged a social sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma, and graduated from FIU in 2011.

After graduation, she wanted to work in Washington, D.C. Her first interview was for an internship in a federal affairs office for a Florida county. The job was offered on the spot, but Helena, who didn’t understand how rare paid internship were, wanted to hold off for something better.  She recounts, “I told them, ‘Look, my Dad would not understand unpaid work. Did the job pay?’ It didn’t. From there I went to another office, which was the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute.  And I said to myself, ‘Let me try a different approach. Why don’t I approach this as if I’m applying for a job instead of an internship?’  And a week later they called me, and they said ‘We don’t want to offer you the internship. We want to offer you a full-time job as a programs manager here.’ I went to my parents that night saying, ‘Mom, Dad, I got a job in Washington D.C.,’ and of course my mom reacted “Big Fat Greek Wedding” style of ‘why would you leave me?  Like what are you doing?’ And my Dad asked ‘What’s the business plan?’ My dad was always very methodical in regard to business strategy. But now I’ve been in D.C. for eight years, and I love it.

Helena met her husband in Washington D.C. when they both participated in  the Koch Associate Program.” Her husband, Jordan Richardson, is a Washington lawyer who is currently a policy advisor at the Department of Labor, handling workforce development for prisoners returning to society and an expert on criminal justice reform. Both Helena and Jordan were named to Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” list of outstanding young people in law and policy, Helena in 2015 and Jordan in 2018. They have been married three years and live in Virginia.

Although Helena is very much on the Beltway’s fast track, immersed in the ideas and arguments of Washington today, she recognizes that it’s essential to keep in the touch with those outside the world of think tanks and policy papers. “I try to read my parents’ newspaper to still be in touch with what’s going on in their community,” she says. “I don’t think people do that enough in Washington, D.C..”

Helena has a special way of keeping a window on the world beyond the Beltway. “Something that I love about Miami is that drinking coffee is very social there,” she says, “and there is something called la ventanita,  which means is little window. There are small restaurants with portholes, where you can get good Cuban coffee and pastries. You are there to have conversation with people around you.  You are solving Cuba’s problems, which is probably the most common topic, or also just talking about whatever is going on in the community. And I can tell you that whenever I go to Miami, I go to la ventanita.  And I engage in conversations. What’s happening?  No one’s talking about what bill is on the floor or philosophical debates, you have to realize that real America is concerned about their families and other issues they see in their daily lives.”

Although Helena is very much on the Beltway’s fast track, immersed in the ideas and arguments of Washington today, she recognizes that it’s essential to keep in the touch with those outside the world of think tanks and policy papers. “I try to read my parents’ newspaper to still be in touch with what’s going on in their community,” she says. “I don’t think people do that enough in Washington, D.C..”

Before being hired by Heritage, Richardson worked for The LIBRE Initiative, which promotes free-market ideas in the Hispanic community. She was in charge of building coalitions in North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. “What I ended up doing at LIBRE, when I was advancing free market principles and talking about the American dream, was laying out values. Being pro-faith, being pro-business, being pro-life.  At the end of the day I would say that these are conservative values. Do you see yourself in these values? And many would realize I was describing them.”

Richardson has been described as “passionate about Hispanic outreach,” and that fits: Hispanic voters overwhelmingly vote for liberal candidates, but Richardson thinks this could change if conservatives made more of an effort. “For far too long Republicans and conservatives have not been showing up to naturalization ceremonies,” she says. “The only ones showing up to say welcome are the liberals. And I think that’s why we have a bad rap and are perceived as unwelcoming. The first thing we say to newly arrived Hispanics is that they must follow the rules. Right?  Those being naturalized citizens are following the rules. We can reach new audiences if we become more welcoming.”

As Director of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation, Helena helps to develop the next generation of conservative leaders. The program brings promising college and graduate students to D.C. to work in internships at Heritage, at the same time participating in lectures and seminars. There is a weekly series on First Principles and classes teaching such skills as writing op-eds and blogging. There is even training in the all-too-often-overlooked arena of etiquette. There are three semesters a year and trains around 200 young people. “One of the things that we do at the Young Leaders Program is highlight opportunities for them to be grounded in political philosophy so they can understand the principles on which the country was founded,” Helena says. “We also do policy briefings. We talk about building an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. Civil society is really important. What does that mean?  Why is that important? Helena recounts a partnership opportunity where they wanted to work with another non-partisan organization, I was actually proceeding forward with a collaboration on promoting civil dialogue and civil discourse in the United States with the interns visiting DC from various programs. And about two months before we were good to go with the event, the organization called saying it didn’t want anything to do with the project, that the higher ups didn’t want anything to do with a conservative organization. And so it is a difficult battle, especially now when things are so divisive.”

For Helena Ramirez Richardson, freedom, civil society and the free market are not academic or dry concepts—she knows the bravery and sacrifice required to preserve them. For her, it’s all in a name—the name that she shares with a brave woman who recognized tyranny for what it was and risked it all to give her children liberty and freedom.

Have some of the young leaders experienced discrimination, or worse, on campus because of their conservative views? “Oh 100% they suffer,” she replies. “It’s nice to work with young people because they come in bright-eyed, and ready to tackle the world.  And that definitely inspires me. But at the same time, they say, ‘I have been ridiculed. I have been ostracized by professors for speaking out, for asking them follow-up questions about what they meant.’ Some silence themselves, especially at some state schools. 

She sees opportunity, though, in how these young people are so open and willing to work together:  “Just last semester alone we had seventy students from 50-plus colleges. We have geographical diversity.  We have some from the smallest schools of 350-person student bodies all the way to U.C. Berkeley. And they were able to get along and to say ‘Wow, we really need to talk about solutions moving forward while focused on individual freedom, limited government, free enterprise, traditional values and a strong national defense.”

For Helena Ramírez Richardson, none of these issues are academic or dry—she knows the bravery and sacrifice required to preserve them. For her, it’s all in a name—the name that she shares with a brave woman who recognized tyranny for what it was and risked it all to give her children liberty and freedom.

 




Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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