Empowering Latinos

Wisconsin / Oct. 23, 2012 / by The Team

Learning a new language can be daunting, especially if the use of that language is so important to everyday life. For adults in the Latino community in Milwaukee, however, there is a new way for them to improve their English skills. 

Empowering Latinos, a program of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, is “a one-on-one career and educational advancement program for Latino adults in the area,” explains Director Erica Steele. 

The program started with the goal of helping parents of children at a local school become more comfortable with using English to interact with teachers. It has grown tremendously in its three years, though, mostly through word of mouth. 

The teaching itself is done by a team of volunteers who each come in to sit with their student for the classes each week. The one-on-one approach allows for an informal environment in which each participant and volunteer can get to know each other as the classes go on. 

Steele explains that the “one-on-one just can't be replaced. It's relationship building, you're forming friendships, you're getting to know that person and really personalizing their goals.” 

This is another aspect of the program that is important. The individualized attention given to each participant means that they can gain the benefits of private tutoring while still having the chance to interact with others in a larger group setting. 

Far from a traditional study of the grammatical rules of the English language, the classes are very conversational, often working on colloquialisms that might not be taught in a conventional class.

In any one class, the participants can work on written English, simply talk with their tutor and improve their pronunciation and vocabulary, or play games likes Apples to Apples as a group to improve both their language skills and their confidence.

“In class we make skits or we talk about slang … Also, we dance together,” says Steele. “We did a dance exchange and we learned about American-style dancing and Latin dance ... so it goes beyond just formal language learning. We really try to get to know each other and form a community and have a culture exchange as well.” 

The emphasis is on teaching to work towards goals the participant has set for themselves. Not only does this improve their drive for learning something but it creates real and attainable goals that will help them in their daily lives. 

“So they're not learning just English grammar just to learn it, and they're not just writing sentences, they're applying it to their lives, their thinking about their own goals and what they want to be able to do with English.”

For just twenty dollars for a 10-week session, the classes are much more affordable than other such one-on-one mentoring programs. “They don't have to go through the process like when you apply for college, it's very simple. You come, you apply, you pay $20 and you're there for 10 weeks for a session.”

The benefits of these classes are numerous. For those who need slightly better written English for their job, that’s what they can work on, but for others it can be for more personal reasons. 

“Their children often will use English as a way of almost like a secret language so that they can get away with having conversations without their parents understanding,” explains Steele. Having a better understanding of English means the parents are able to have a more active role in their children’s lives both at school and at home. 

The classes also give the adults a greater sense of independence. “A lot of adults will bring their children still to translate and they want to be more independent from that. They don't want to rely on their children to translate forms and to help them at the doctor and go to the dentist with them,” says Steele. 

With the English they learn at the classes, many of the participants can understand their children much better and even translate for others. One participant, Maria Padilla says that “it’s allowed me to help others, like in my daughter’s school. Sometimes I am translating on Conference Day.” 

The program means a great deal to the volunteers as well. Steele explains that “the volunteers come from all over. We have general community members that are retired, like former teachers, we have professionals in the area that maybe have their own business or work for a nonprofit in the area, and we have a large majority of college-age students.”

As they teach the participants English, the volunteers learn about Latino culture and about their tutee’s life. Volunteer Toni Wulff explains that “you’re a coach, you’re a teacher, you answer questions, you develop a relationship with that person.” She goes on to say that her relationship with her tutee, Maria “has been just such a wonderful blessing.”

Empowering Latinos truly is much more than a language class. The participants and volunteers learn about each other’s lives and truly become friends and everyone has an evident love for Steele, whose dedication has made the program what it is today. 

“They care for me and support me and it's more than I ever expected and could have asked for,” she says. It’s thanks to “that personal investment of them seeing that I really want to see them succeed ... just a mutual respect and admiration for each other” that she’s built such strong relationships with everyone involved. 

The success of the program comes from the dedication of the volunteers and the spirit of the participants but it is Steele who has grown the program from its original four members. 

“I'm very proud of the program, where it's come from and where it is now. The growth has been incredible. It's ... going on our third year now working on this project and it went from four students to now we have 50 per session and we have over 100 volunteers per session. That's an incredible amount of growth for such a small program who relies on word of mouth recommendations.”

Steele is driven by the work she does and the people she helps, and will ensure the program continues to grow just as it has been. “I'm not satisfied yet,” she say. “I think there's a lot more that we can do. I think this is just the start.”

To learn more about Empowering Latinos, visit their Facebook page or to contact the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin about Empowering Latinos, please visit their website.