Story by Roselle Tenorio. Photos courtesy of Neena Wiora.
Neena Wiora, immigration lawyer, mother, community leader is a woman of many passions including education, performing arts, mental health, and equity. However, out of a deep care for the community, she manages to juggle advocating, helping and leading, even during a pandemic.
Neena comes from an Indian family; her parents immigrated to the United States in the 1950s. Her father finished his electrical engineering schooling at UC-Berkeley in California before her family eventually settled in Richardson, Texas, when Neena was just a year old. Neena admits, “I was not born in Dallas but since moving here at such a young age it is all I have known; I am from Dallas.” Neena shared a picture of what Richardson used to look like, which was very different than it is now; “it was considered rural” she says. Her father, who passed away in 2017, was a professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU), giving Neena access to performances and athletic events. Neena described herself as an “SMU kid” always attending the various programs on campus with her family. In fact, she eventually attended the school herself and went on to obtain her law degree from SMU in the 90s.
After finishing law school graduation, Neena began working as a trial attorney for the justice department. She described the training and work as, “fast paced and high stress but rewarding” in that she learned so much about how to actually be a lawyer. In 1994 Neena gave birth to her first child and changed pace by joining her sister’s practice in immigration law. Her two children, Brian and Megan attended the Greenhill School, where she gained her first experience as a community leader. It was at Greenhill, Neena shares that, “I learned a lot about the education system there through my role as a parent, in the parents association and then as a trustee; it was very eye opening.” While education was central to her family, Neena shares her perspective, “as immigrants from a country where not everyone has the bare minimum of access to education, my parents modeled kitchen table tutoring of us and neighborhood kids and I followed their lead with my children and education here, which while it may be more accessible is by no means equitable.”
Another valuable experience for Neena has been joining Attorneys Serving the Community, a group of female lawyers, many with families and busy lives, as you can imagine. Each year the group votes on a beneficiary, narrowing to three organizations and then making the final selection and supporting them financially for a whole year through events and other initiatives. Neena is fond of the group because of their “impressive efficiency” because they are lawyers, have families, or maybe just because they are busy. There is a group necessity for effectiveness and swiftness. In other words, they do not mess around.
It was through Attorneys Serving the Community, that Neena discovered a new passion, the performing arts via a beneficiary that was selected, Junior Players. She shared in excitement, “One thing I really liked about Junior Players was that the kids were able to come to so many of our events and perform and their happiness and excitement was contagious. We had one of the Hamilton performers, Christopher Jackson, at one of the events and the kids were thrilled to have a session with him.” Junior Players recognized Neena’s enthusiasm and asked her to be on the advisory board, which she said it was “a no brainer.”
Like many community leaders, she felt it was a good time to take the next step in leadership given her kids finishing up school and seeing a spot for her to bring a different skill set to a very diverse Junior Players board. Like all of us, Neena could not have anticipated the pandemic and all of its effects, including on the performing arts and nonprofits. She admits “it’s a BIG change. We have been explaining to the public that we are being safe and are still reaching youth with performance workshops via virtual programming, which is so important for families with kids who would be stir crazy at home otherwise.”
As a parent herself, Neena is vulnerable in sharing her initial skepticism. “I didn’t know if it was going to be effective because teachers have seen a drop off in learning since school has been taken online but performing is made for the virtual world think about youtube, tik tok, etc. I have seen videos from the workshops and it is incredible,” Neena says. “We have tools we can use in these challenging times and we need to continue to use those tools and not just go back to what we were doing because those without access will benefit. Before kids struggled obtaining transportation to attend workshops and Junior Players was limited geographically in the talent they could bring into speak with students. Now, Junior Players has brought William Jackson Harper, from The Good Place and James Rodriguez, from Psych to participate in the virtual sessions.” William shared at the recent Future Stars Virtual Event. “Admittedly, actors have more time on their hands right now and are willing to give their time and share their experience,” Neena says.
Another timely passion that came up for Neena is mental health. “Mental health has been discussed a lot during the pandemic because after nine months of social distancing, our society has developed a worsening mental health crisis,” Neena says. Over the last decade, mental health has become more widely discussed but like many things the pandemic has sped up the conversation. “When you have children, it is hard for the child to get social interaction because they do not always have as much interest in engaging virtually or the skills to do so,” she says. “However, I have seen how Junior Players has reached kids virtually and see what kids can perform in their own home; it is a creative way to obtain social interaction and encourage both mental and physical health for kids.”
Neena can clearly see what is special about Junior Players, an arts education program showing up for underserved areas while also bringing together students from all different backgrounds. Students come from schools like Booker T. with performance arts programs and also schools without any performance arts programs. Neena describes Junior Players as truly inclusive, “It is inclusive in the sense that it benefits both privileged students and not, who are all auditioning and performing together giving that real world experience and opportunity that students are looking for.”
If, like Neena, you are passionate about the arts and diverse opportunities for students in Dallas, Junior Players has so many ways to get involved: the Young Professionals Committee, The Advisory Board, in addition to the staff and Board of Directors, which gives individuals the chance to lead at every level or every stage of their life. And just like leading, there are varying giving levels and ways to give whether it is through your employer, shopping, or individual giving. Follow Junior Players on YouTube to see some incredible videos and follow on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for the latest updates.