Nueva Vida: Helping Latinos experience belonging
During the past year, Nueva Vida Latinos facilitated seven educational forums within the public school system in a process of learning, self-discovery, creative unfolding and excitement. We began this community-building process by addressing emotional and mental health issues, from recognizing early stress symptoms and self-destructive behavior patterns, to teaching techniques for reducing stress, improving self-esteem and strengthening communication skills within families.
As the forums progressed, the parents became more and more engaged, asking for specific topics about which they desired more education, such as "positive parenting." As one father expressed, they wanted to learn better ways of relating to their children instead of the old model of physical punishment. During our periodic phone interviews and evaluations, we were able to understand how parents were benefiting from the forums and also learn what they really needed and wanted.
Not surprisingly, the more we focused our forums on the needs they expressed, the more participation we saw. New connections were built as the parents realized the commonality of their struggles.
The Nueva Vida grant program began with the thesis that, if the Latino community had a program designed and delivered for them with appropriate linguistic, cultural and holistic sensitivity and awareness, a seed would be planted, eventually yielding both significant participation and change within the community. This thesis was informed by the research that many others have done nationally and by my own early experience here prior to the grant's start. The participation in the forums, ranging from 45 to 80 people at each gathering, has proved the thesis correct.
I believe that the success of this program has to do with both the holistic approach that was utilized, and the practice of always taking into account the opinions, desires and essential needs of the community. We implemented various components, such as breaking into small groups or asking for volunteers to speak in front of the entire group, at the rhythm and pace that they set. We hired professional Latinos, who were themselves culturally and linguistically competent, to address their respective subject areas at a level the audience could relate to. The forums were held at school sites so that parents could better understand that schools are places of belonging and community building, not just where they send their kids.
By the seventh forum, when the newly proposed A-G requirement at the high school was the topic, a new sense of ownership by the community had been established. Interaction between Latino parents and school district staff took place in ways the community had not experienced in the past.
Instead of having school officials do all the planning of content and the bulk of the presentation, in this forum the Latino parents were integral to the planning process as well as the evening's unfolding experience. For part of the evening, the parents sat in the audience next to Anglos and together experienced an interactive presentation from a Latino educator from Marin. In one of the group exercises they gathered alongside district officials in small groups, sharing as equals.
Anecdotes from follow-up interviews reveal the power of this simple arrangement. One woman shared how important it was, in her small group, to hear Anglos sharing their own immigration stories of their parents' or grandparents' generation. She hadn't imagined this sort of common experience, and that her own children could one day achieve success in this culture. She was so thrilled that she determined to learn English so that she could gain a better understanding of her Anglo neighbors in the Valley. Three other women were inspired to continue their own education as they realized that life does not have to end with raising kids and working hard, but can be more engaging and enjoyable through increased learning.
More significantly, perhaps, was the apparent desire of large number of participants to continue using this model with the school district, to develop a stronger partnership with the superintendent and her staff so that this seed that has been planted can grow. When both cultures can meet on an equal basis to communicate openly around common interests, I believe we will see the Latino community become increasingly motivated and engaged. And isn't this how many of us experience what it means to belong?