Immigrant Integration: UnidosUS Affiliate of the Year PODER Shares its Successes

As one of the most diverse cities in the country, Chicago attracts people from all walks of life. Many of those people are Spanish-dominant and working hard to build a fulfilling life in the city. Thanks to organizations like our Affiliate of the Year, PODER, Spanish-speaking Chicagoans can get the extra support they need to integrate socially and into the workforce, and it all starts by grasping the English language.

By Brenda Gonzalez and Beatriz Paniego-Béjar

As our 2018 Affiliate of the Year, PODER hosted a Peer Exchange earlier this month, inviting members of our Affiliate Network to Chicago for two days of conversations. More than 40 guests represented 25 other members of the Affiliate Network who arrived to learn about PODER’s method for success, and to exchange strategies and best practices that ensure that immigrants are welcome, Latino families have opportunities to thrive, and organizations are strengthened.

Since joining the Affiliate Network in 2012, PODER has leveraged its partnership with UnidosUS to continue to create sustainable and viable solutions for the language and employment challenges that Chicago’s Latino immigrant community faces. PODER has worked with UnidosUS on issues such as immigrant integration, workforce development, and bridging the digital divide.

With a theme of “Building Capacity to Facilitate Immigrant Integration,” the Peer Exchange was an opportunity for attendees to discuss ways organizations across the country are leading efforts to prepare immigrants with increased employment opportunities, language acquisition, and greater use of digital tools.

A community reception honoring PODER closed out the first day of the exchange that was open to local Chicago partners, providing a space for Affiliates to network, connect, and celebrate.

Where the magic happens

The second day of the Peer Exchange started at PODER’s offices in the south side of the city of Chicago, where they had three English classes happening that morning. The beginners’ class was made up by a mix of younger and older Latinos, starting to get a grasp of the English language. In another classroom, a group of women were challenged to fix the mistakes spelled in sentences on the board, and the third room was learning vocabulary by playing the game Taboo.

This last class was graduating from level three to level four; all the participants were very engaged and having fun, and also shared that they were a bit overwhelmed about moving levels. Their teacher encouraged them though: “I see you already getting bored in some of the lesson we do: you’re ready to move up.”

Housed in the second floor of a banking institution, PODER feels like a welcoming place where the community arrives joyful, ready to grow and succeed. The classrooms surround the office space, so all of PODER’s staff can always look outside their cubicles and be reminded of the reason they are doing the work they do: to create a community fully engaged in society, starting by learning English.

“It is important for us that our students know how to navigate systems. In that way, they really do feel part of the community,” said Natalie Vesga, Director of Literacy and Workforce. “This work does hit home: my mom doesn’t speak English, and I was always her interpreter. In PODER we help parents get involved in their children’s lives,” Griselda Piedra, Operations Manager, shared.

More than that, PODER is a stepping stone for their learners too: José Acevedo, Office Manager, started as a student in the organization, then became the front desk person, and now takes care of finance and bookkeeping, “and many more things,” all his colleagues state.

Common challenges

Moreover, the exchange featured panels led by PODER that share knowledge and experience about running successful programs. One focused on how to strengthen a nonprofit’s board of directors with diverse experiences and ages. Attendees heard from a Human Resources expert, a nonprofit consultant, and a young professional, all who are serving on PODER’s board and who discussed the ways each are contributing their skills to shape the direction of the organization.

PODER CEO Daniel Loftus and Chicago City Clerk Anna M. Valencia.

Chicago City Clerk Anna M. Valencia joined the Peer Exchange as special guest speaker to discuss the ways her office is teaming up with organizations like PODER to serve city residents. After sharing her inspiring story as the descendent of Mexican immigrants, City Clerk Valencia provided an excellent recap of Chicago’s roll out of the “CityKey” government issued identification card which is having a tremendously positive effect on the city’s immigrant community.

During a session on nonprofit sustainability, participants engaged in a hands-on group activity assessing their own organization’s sustainability threats and discussed possible interventions. This workshop-style session was a great way for participants to learn from each other and gain exposure to different ways organizations are approaching common challenges.

Through several engaging presentations, attendees learned how PODER is building trust in new neighborhoods, leveraging partners for greater impact, and how they are continuing their legacy of welcoming Chicago’s immigrant community.

The Peer Exchange made clear why PODER became the 2018 UnidosUS Affiliate of the Year. Congratulations! We look forward to continuing seeing your organization grow.

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