Every other Monday night, in a temporary office located in the Waltham (Mass.) Hospital, a one-of-a-kind Board of Directors convenes. The issues before the board on this night are typical of many social service agencies: the cost of tuition for the workshops they offer; the success of recent outreach efforts; the development of parent councils in the local schools; the new accounting software. But the board itself isn’t at all typical. This group, elected to serve the Breaking Barriers project, wholly comprises Latina working mothers—immigrants from such countries as Colombia, Guatemala, and El Salvador. All of the women have completed the program’s ESL and leadership classes, and now they stand poised to lead the organization into its next phase.
Though these new directors don’t have the resumes of a typical board member—one has a sixth grade education from her native El Salvador, another was a shoe-maker in Guatemala—they personify the mission and philosophy of Breaking Barriers: empowering Latina immigrants to develop the skills and self-confidence they need to better shape the course of their lives and to contribute more actively to their communities. “Latino women have a lot to offer this country that has offered us so much,” says EDC’s Gabriela Canepa. “This project is a way to facilitate that process by providing women with better access to education and employment so they can contribute more. A philosophy of partnership and giving back is what the program is all about.”
Four years ago, Canepa began Breaking Barriers under the auspices of EDC’s Center for Education, Employment, and Community (CEEC) as a small pilot project serving just 20 immigrant women from Waltham. She designed a 12-week series of classes that met four mornings a week and provided child care. Half the class time was devoted to English-language instruction, and the other half featured lessons in what Canepa calls “life skills”—job readiness, social skills, community action, health, parenting, and self-esteem. “Most adult education programs for immigrants in this country are vertical. They do English classes or job training or health, but they don’t try to deal with the whole person,” explains Canepa. “I felt that immigrant women needed a comprehensive program that deals with their growth inside as well as the world outside.”
A dynamic interplay between personal growth and community action is at the heart of Breaking Barriers and has led to some exciting class sessions. Canepa invites guest speakers—mostly successful Latinas—to talk about issues relevant to the day-to-day lives of the participants—a lawyer on immigration law, a human resources representative on local employment opportunities, a director of a battered women’s shelter on domestic violence. When the first group of women finished the term, Canepa invited them all to become mentors and coaches to the next group of students, in this way building a network of women to share their growing knowledge of the United States and developing the membership and reach of the program.
The Program Evolves
The model has proven successful. Today, Breaking Barriers has five bilingual teachers on staff and is putting 80 people at a time through a three-month cycle of classes. While the class structure has evolved somewhat since its inception, it still focuses on the “whole person” by providing both ESL and life-skills classes. Canepa has also added classes on computer skills and preparing for the GED. To date, 700 women have participated in the program, and the demand continues to grow. At the request of many in the community, fathers are now included in the program. This is a significant departure for a program founded to focus on women’s issues, but Canepa sees it as a natural evolution: “The work we are doing is changing whole families, not just mothers, so it makes sense to include fathers.”
For Canepa and EDC Senior Vice President Vivian Guilfoy, handing over the leadership of the organization to the participants is a dream come true. “I remember at our initial meeting with the Boston Foundation in 1999, they asked us, ‘What will success look like?’” says Canepa. “We said success would be if the community took over the program in three years. Well, it has happened. I remain executive director, but I see myself playing a more and more low-key role, watching the members become leaders.”
“The success of Breaking Barriers and the women who now lead it demonstrates what can be done when you bring different sectors of a community together,” comments Guilfoy, who directs CEEC. “Through the connections they’ve made and the experiences they’ve had, these women have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about the school system, the local government, and the private sector. Now they are putting all of that to good use in launching Breaking Barriers as an independent organization that will, in turn, spread that knowledge throughout their community.”
Last year, the members elected a board of directors from their own ranks, applied for official nonprofit status from the state of Massachusetts, and secured their first grant as an independent organization. Canepa directed these efforts, but the members have done the lion’s share of the work—researching and writing grant proposals, filing the papers for independent nonprofit status, managing the finances, mentoring new students, directing outreach efforts, and coordinating volunteers. Canepa is currently helping the group negotiate a lease for permanent office space.
For Gloria Sanchez, President of the Board, the opportunity to work as a professional in her adopted country has been a godsend. Since immigrating to the United States, she has worked for a local electronics manufacturer, but she longed to do more. “In my country I volunteered for Caritas, the Catholic Relief Services program that delivers food to the poor,” says Sanchez. “I directed the whole local program. But here I offered my services many times to different volunteer organizations, and nobody wanted me—nobody called me back. Then I called Gabriela about the computer classes at Breaking Barriers, and she has kept me busy ever since.”
New Directions for the Future
These days, Breaking Barriers is growing in many ways. The project has accepted an invitation from the Waltham School District to become part of its Even Start program, teaching life skills and literacy to new parents. It has established Latino parent initiatives in three schools and is planning to launch several more. And this summer the program began a Latino Youth Media Project, which introduced a group of young people to video equipment at a local cable station. Through the program the young people produced two videos about drugs and racism.
Although Canepa is handing over more of the leadership of the organization to the women, she relishes the role of catalyst. She convenes a monthly Latino Leadership Initiative to discuss Latino participation in the city elections. “We were trying to find a candidate for the School Committee but realized that the group members are still not ready for this decision,” she explains. “But we continue to inform ourselves on local issues by inviting speakers from the education community to our meetings and establishing specific goals for the Initiative. I want to keep challenging these women’s ideas of who they are and who they can be.”
Originally published on April 1, 2004