Profile: He’s Helping People Rebuild Their Lives After Sandy – in Newark

Scott Gurian | March 5, 2014 | Profiles, Sandy
Community advocate Diego Arias notes that the mega-storm’s impact – including flooding and building damage -- was not confined to Jersey Shore

Diego Arias
Name: Diego Arias

Job: Disaster Relief Program Manager at the Ironbound Community Corporation.

Age: 29

Hometown: Arias was born in Colombia, but grew up in Linden, where he still lives and serves on the city’s zoning board.

What he does: The Ironbound Community Corporation has long been a fixture in Newark, offering a variety of services for underserved residents, including daycare and after school programs, healthcare services, tax preparation, and affordable-housing advocacy.

In the aftermath of Sandy, the organization has also helped hundreds of people secure disaster aid and offered them counseling and legal guidance, rental assistance, and help with utility payments and repairs. Arias was hired three months ago to oversee those efforts.

“There are many people that are dealing with damages in their homes, and they’re either being turned away or they’re confused,” he explains. “Some of them don’t speak English very well. Some of them have already struggled with social services before. There are limits. Some programs have different eligibility requirements,” he continues, “So to a homeowner or a renter that is already facing adversity, having to navigate so many programs available or not available to them can be difficult.”

Arias gives his personal cell phone number to all his clients, so his work never really ends. “If I have to go down to a meeting in Trenton, it’s not fair for them not to have access to me,” he says. “It’s very nonstop. Definitely, multitasking is a virtue.”

How he arrived in his current position: Having gone to Rutgers Law School, Arias says he’s always had an affinity for Newark. After graduating in 2012, he took some time off to travel in South America, and returned to the States shortly before Sandy, which actually hit on his birthday.

He did some volunteer disaster relief work in Union County after the storm, and he really enjoyed it. Arias then went on to become a health policy advocate with NJ Citizen Action, where he helped teach people about the Affordable Care Act. But when he heard a few months later that there was an opportunity with ICC to work with Newark residents affected by the storm, he jumped at the chance.

Though Arias doesn’t practice law, his legal expertise has come in handy helping his clients.

Who he services: Many people just think of the Ironbound as the lively, ethnically diverse neighborhood to go to in Newark when you want to get good Spanish or Portuguese food. But like many communities, its demographic makeup has changed over the years, Arias says, with recent waves of immigrants coming from places like Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and Cape Verde. This influx of new arrivals means the neighborhood has also had its share of language and socio-economic challenges. A significant portion of residents live below the poverty line, and the area’s industrial past means it’s also dealing with problems stemming from lingering contamination.

These problems came to a head during Sandy, when water from the lower Passaic River – an EPA Superfund site – flooded into parts of the community, bringing with it a toxic mix of oil, sewage, dioxins and PCBs. Many residents are still struggling to repair their damages.

“People think, ‘Essex County? How was Essex County affected by the storm?’” says Arias, noting that most of the recovery’s focus has been on the Jersey Shore. But his daily work in the Ironbound has shown him that Sandy “has been a significant challenge for a community that I think many people don’t realize exists or was that affected.”

Thanks to grants from the Red Cross and the New Jersey Sandy Relief Fund, the group has now also expanded its focus to include all of Essex County.

Upcoming projects: Arias is currently helping a group of Ironbound residents whose homes were flooded during Sandy apply for buyouts through the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s Blue Acres program. His organization is also working with city officials on a plan to make the neighborhood more prepared for future storms. And they’re working on reconstructing six homes that were damaged by Sandy.

Challenges of his work: “Since I’ve been here, I’ve realized that despite there being so much money available, there’s still a lot of need,” Arias says. “I feel a very grave sense of responsibility, because these are people’s lives. It’s not just my job. It’s people. And they are counting on you to help them get out of a situation that they didn’t ask to be in.”

It’s hard work, for sure, but he has no qualms about it. “I have friends that I graduated (law school) with who have been practicing law,” he says, “and I don’t envy them as all. This is the most satisfying job I have ever had. I really, really enjoy it.”