Uplifting Uvalde: UnidosUS has spent more than a year helping local affiliates expand on their parent engagement services while building a blueprint for civic engagement

November is Parent Engagement Month, and UnidosUS is observing it by putting the spotlight on the collaborative efforts it has made with its Affiliates to help families in Uvalde heal from the mass school shooting that rocked their community in the spring of 2022.  

Uvalde memorial

In late July 2022, UnidosUS Director of Parent and Community Engagement Jose Rodriguez drove from his home in San Antonio to the neighboring town of Uvalde hoping to consider a plan for supporting local Affiliates impacted by a mass shooting at Robb Elementary which claimed the lives of 19 students and two teachers on May 24 of that year.

“When I got there, it was fresh. The memorials were there, the flowers were there. I just stood there and shook, then I burst out crying,” said Rodriguez. On the way home, he felt another emotion all too familiar to this tiny community: rage.

“I could not imagine being a parent and walking into a store seeing all the back-to-school supplies that were already on the shelves. I think I’d throw everything on the floor. How do you fix this?” Asked the usually mild-mannered educator.

With so many government and grassroots entities providing crisis intervention, UnidosUS decided its role should be to help locals advocate for policy change rooted in the most pressing requests of its local affiliate organizations AVANCE and Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC). Both serve their community through Head Start programs, and both had staff whose former students, nieces and nephews were killed in that shooting. These Affiliates already have strong parent-engagement systems and processes, but the weight and the proximity of this crisis left everyone including staff feeling exhausted and vulnerable, so they welcomed UnidosUS’s offers to help them carry the load as they grieved.

Chicanos Por La Causa with ACF Acting Assistant Secretary Jeff Hild.

“Our whole purpose is for parents to become their own self advocates,” AVANCE Parent Support Coordinator Gregoria Ponce told ProgressReport.co. “We want to make sure they are building their capacity.”

Gun safety was certainly a difficult but much-needed conversation for this rural, ranching community where gun ownership is a longstanding tradition and residents are still divided along racial and class lines. And mental health? Who in the community wasn’t suffering anxiety and depression after this tragedy? But how do you write up a request for funding a project that could address all the above?

Meals, communion, conversation, the affiliates and their families replied.

From January until September of 2023, UnidosUS provided funding, training, and listening ears for nine monthly meals to about 350 AVANCE and Chicanos Por la Causa staff and families with the goal of helping them transform their grief, anger, and rage into civic engagement strategies aimed at healing communities affected by tragedies like this one and preventing such tragedies from happening again.

The Nine-Month Program  

The program was called Juntos con UnidosUS/Together with UnidosUS, and each month, participants would eat, talk, cry, and plan together, relying on their own family coordinators to drive their communion and conversation toward this goal. Most UnidosUS staff stayed to the sidelines, dropping in on just a handful of the meals while encouraging affiliates to drive the meetings.

“It was time to start the healing,” reflected Chicanos Por La Causa Vice-President of Early Childhood Francesca Brown, noting how helpful it was that UnidosUS provided tools, resources, and a structure for supporting that process. “We learned that we could lean on each other through difficult times. We had meals to set the environment for a family-style conversation. Mentally we didn’t want to overwhelm staff and parents but we wanted them to know we are here to help and listen.”

Developing a sense of rapport and openness didn’t happen right away.

“I remember the first time, the families were asked to introduce themselves and nobody wanted to speak, not even their name,” reflected  Ponce, but she said as time went on, they took advantage of that platform to get up and speak. She was amazed at how their words and their voice tones changed as they did so, something that can be incredibly tough in a community where talking about mental health is so often stigmatized. “It helped them like a therapy session without them realizing that was what was happening.”

During the first few months, the program focused on creating a safe space for participants to express their grief and anxiety while Rodriguez, the one constant UnidosUS staff presence, listened and asked questions. One of those questions was what made participants hopeful, and along with that, he asked them to consider the programs AVANCE and Chicanos Por La Causa offer that help them get them to that emotional state.

They mentioned ANGELS, a services provider for local Head Start Centers by providing wraparound services that address multiple areas of people’s lives from workforce development to early childhood to mental wellbeing. ANGELS gives parents the opportunity to discuss their efforts to advocate not just for their children’s education but also for their own. Through that program, dozens of parents have taken English classes or finished their GED’s. There was also an ANGEL participant who obtained her nursing degree and another who left her work in the fields and to become a school teacher.

But when it came to public speaking, the families struggled to express their fears, concerns, ideas, hopes and dreams to people in positions of authority over their lives and those of their children.

“We were seeing parents in our community coming to speak at the school board meetings, and they knew what their goal was– to get help, to get answers because of what had happened–  but they didn’t have the knowledge of how to do the self-advocacy, how to use the words they were needing to get their point across without shutting the people at the ISD (Independent School District) down,” said AVANCE Family Engagement Manager Janie Cazares noting that while the food, childcare, and materials offered was key, so too was helping the parents hone the messages weighing on  their hearts.

“It’s only been 17 months since this happened and we’re still going through the grieving process. We didn’t directly speak about what had happened during our sessions. We just spoke about how you can speak for yourselves? How can you be your own advocate? How can you get your point across to the community when you are needing something? It was an unspoken thing that all of us went through this but we’re looking at how we’re going to get stronger,” said Ramirez.

UnidosUS has a mandate of supporting the affiliates as the direct service providers, so his job was to promote a curriculum that made them the changemakers. But there were times when he found he should  leverage his own experience to offer more input. When he heard parents saying they often felt too overcome with emotion to provide the standard two-minutes of input they were given when speaking at board meetings, he gave them an assignment. He provided a set of slides from UnidosUS’s own Padres Comprometidos curriculum  in which parents learned to share their thoughts in a two-minute elevator pitch.

“They had to identify a problem and a possible solution, then they had to talk about the benefits,” he explained.

As campaigns began this summer for Uvalde’s November 7 municipal elections, many parents — especially ones who came from countries where the rule of law is rarely followed — said they saw little point in going to vote even if they were eligible to cast a ballot. Rodriguez took this occasion to discuss how UnidosUS strives to hold U.S. elected officials accountable to this country’s history of democracy by encouraging U.S. citizens to vote.

Then in July, some members of the group were invited to attend UnidosUS’s 2023 Annual Conference in Chicago. There, the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) Assistant Secretary January Contreras hoped to host a parent engagement listening session, so, UnidosUS obtained travel funds for several Uvalde families to convene with families from California, as well as ones based in Chicago.

It was an awesome experience seeing how they were soaking up meeting everybody and taking in all the different sessions,” said AVANCE San Antonio Office Coordinator Jennifer Ramirez, noting that they joined in the discussion during sessions on gun violence, voter engagement, health, and early childhood education. “One of them was a father who was fully engaged in anything father-ish, so he was meeting all the gentlemen there and getting their contacts.”

Not surprisingly, the parents had a resounding request for more culturally and linguistically responsive mental health services.

One Uvalde family said they took their child to the doctor after he began exhibiting serious mental health behaviors and that the medical team initially said the child was fine. It wasn’t until later that the team admitted they simply didn’t have a Spanish speaking counselor available to attend to the child in a timely manner.

While Contreras’s term ended shortly after that meeting, the ACF continued to follow up on stories like that one. When they learned that UnidosUS’s nine-month Uvalde parent and educator support program would culminate in September with a graduation ceremony hosted in an Uvalde community space, they sent  their new acting assistant secretary Jeff Hild to join them.

This ceremony was a chance for all stakeholders to come together in a more public facing meeting, one aimed at projecting a feeling of hope for the future and a happier outlook for the new school year. For UnidosUS and its stakeholders, one of the most symbolic moments came when a single father in the program walked onto stage with tears streaming down his face, his young son perched atop his shoulders as he shook the hands of the program’s sponsors.

“I’ve never graduated from anything before,” he told the crowd.

That graduation ceremony marked the first time UnidosUS Director of Education Elizabeth Zamudio, an educator and parent who joined the team a year prior, had been logistically able and emotionally ready to visit Uvalde. The feeling that came over her was one of pride.

“It was incredible to see the work that the team had done to get the community where they were at that convening,” she said.

“I was aware over the months of all the emotional management Jose was helping the community work through, and then when I came in person and was able to see the community smiling and thriving and showing their resilience, I thought, ‘okay, mission accomplished,’” Zamudio told ProgressReport.co.  “We haven’t healed everything, but I think that what we set out to do was to bring the community together. And I was proud of the work that the team had done, and how they were giving credit to our Affiliates who are so invested.”

“There are only about 10 or 11 people in our office, and more than half of them lost someone but we still had to stay strong for our families because they were really going through a lot with the children,” noted Ramirez. “So many things changed in an instant. AVANCE San Antonio really came through in putting in safety measures that were already there but we strengthened them, bringing in security, counseling, mental wellness opportunities, and giving us time to grieve and bury our loved ones but we also knew that we had to be resilient. UnidosUS came at a perfect time.”

The Future of Parent Engagement in Uvalde and Beyond

Chicanos Por La Causa hailed the way the nine-month program created a safe, reflective space for families to let down their guard and entertain their children while the adults developed their advocacy and leadership roles. It was also glad to see how the graduation ceremony created a space for handing out much-needed school supplies for children.

“Families enjoyed these events and children were laughing and smiling at all of them. That is what can help us send the “mejor juntos, better together” message for healing community,” said Chicanos Por La Causa Center Service Manager Pearl Moreno, adding that participants expressed a desire to keep these activities going. “We want to see more community events, more get togethers, more mental health events.”

UnidosUS’s education team is now working to build out new proposals with that goal in mind. They’re using this and other UnidosUS curricula as a reference, taking in notes and reports from AVANCE and Chicanos Por La Causa as they do.

“We now have a blueprint of what worked and what didn’t work, so how can we replicate this for future crises?” Zamudio said.

The UnidosUS education  team is creating a curriculum called Civics for All focused on helping families learn the democratic system in the United States and how they can become civically engaged.

“The hope is that as we engage families in civic engagement efforts in their community, that that will then trickle down to their youth,” she said, noting this curriculum will borrow from a past one known as the High School Democracy Project.

“We’ll take elements of that, and tailor it to the families, and one thing we’re really intentional about doing is that we want to create exposure opportunities for families through these kinds of listening sessions and round tables. We know we can’t do that in all 38 states where our affiliates are located in, so we’re going to connect them to their local school boards, school board meetings, or to local city council meetings.”

Rodriguez is already offering the participants of the nine-month Uvalde program articles on how this works. Along with that, he offers tips and encouragement.

“You have to go and support each other,” he told the Uvalde program participants, explaining that it’s understandable that their emotions will be running high at such events. But for example, he asked them “who put the school board there? Who runs the school? You. You elected them and you can fire them.”

Finally, he reminds them that UnidosUS has spent 60 years answering to the needs of its Latino constituents through the affiliate network.

“This is what we do. We provide opportunities for Latinos to thrive,” he tells them. “Yes, the community is hurting. Yes, the community is in pain. But you know, we’re going to get through this.”

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