A middle-schoolers’ service-learning project to help Latino families: UnidosUS’s CASA students become civically engaged

CASA students at a 2019 gathering at UnidosUS’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

In a year of so many unknowns, being able to not only receive support, but answers gave this group of UnidosUS’s CASA students hope and a sense of purpose. As our community has not only seen a disproportionate effect in cases and deaths from COVID-19, but also—as research shows—been at a disproportionate risk of losing their homes, these students at UnidosUS Affiliate Conexión Américas, in Nashville, Tennessee, knew they wanted to prepare a service-learning project around housing and preventing evictions. The result: civically engaged young people ready to step up to help their community.

By Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

“I have a question about my mother,” Shalia, a student at Conexión Américas, typed in the chat of the Zoom call, where since March 2020 CASA students have met. This evening, there were 28 students logged in, and they were very engaged in a conversation with pro-bono lawyer David Esquivel and his assistant Mike.

“They were selling a house to her, but we discovered that it was a lie and my mother was renting it, not buying,” Shalia wrote.“We went three years without air conditioning and the house was in very bad condition.” The lawyers in the call explained that this is a very common issue that happens among renters, in which the rent agreement says you have the option to buy the home at one point, but it doesn’t specify when. The lawyers also explained that the obligations any tenant has regarding the maintenance of the house are those established in the contract.

David and Mike spoke about tenant rights and the laws that are currently in place to protect people from houselessness, the topic Conexión Américas’s CASA participants wanted to learn about. They were working on their service-learning project to help people who are struggling with rent and housing options due to COVID-19, and they wanted to understand the issue.

Conexión Américas’s CASA sessions meet in Zoom.

ENCOURAGING YOUNG ADVOCATES

UnidosUS’s CASA (Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción) is geared at middle school students with the goal of fostering academic learning in a context that speaks to students’ cultural and linguistic background. With CASA, the young participants acquire the necessary skills to address a genuine need in their community through volunteer activities and other learning experiences.

For this class of Conexión Américas’s students, who have lived through a pandemic, the need in their community was clear. Now they wanted to learn more about housing and how to protect their families and Latinos. The organization facilitators organized sessions with housing and local experts that helped the middle schoolers better comprehend the difficulties at hand. The presentations were delivered in Spanish and English, since the organization works with many recent arrivals, so most of the students in this CASA group spoke Spanish.

In this call, the chat was the participants’ friend: the students felt more comfortable writing their questions, and the facilitators encouraged participation, didn’t matter the form. Sofia Rodriguez asked: “Those who don’t have a lease/contract, do they have any rights?” Mike responded: “People do have rights even if they don’t have a lease,” and went on talking about eviction notices, illegal evictions, legal protections due to COVID-19, and more.

The facilitators in the call were very involved, making the presentation easy to follow for the students, as well as encouraging for them to participate. In just one evening, the students heard about the tricks and lies tenants face and learned about the systems in place to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.

A YOUNG ROLE MODEL

District 30 Council Member Sandra Sepúlveda.

After learning the legal options tenants have to protect themselves, our Affiliate prepared a meeting for their CASA students with the first Latina, and the youngest—26 years old when she got elected—councilwoman ever elected to Nashville’s Metro Council, Sandra Sepúlveda.

Daughter of Mexican immigrants, Sandra never thought she would be running for office: “I was five when I moved to the district I represent, and I noticed we were ignored a lot here in Southeast Nashville,” she shared with the students. “I just couldn’t take it. I decided that I didn’t want this district, that looks and sounds like me, and looks and sounds like you, to be represented by the same type of people each time.”

The students can easily related to Sandra. Just as many of the CASA participants’ parents, Sandra’s moved to the United States looking for better opportunities for themselves and their future family. Sandra’s decision to run for office was motivated by the fact that she wanted to advance her family and her community’s well-being. She gets emotional remembering how it felt to not only see her family’s last name in signs, but on the ballot on election day, and the students thank her for sharing her experience.

Sandra is a role model for Conexión Américas’s CASA students, because, just as they are, she’s young, and while she was running, she heard time and time again she should be waiting for her time, “But you have to keep fighting, because you have a voice and you are the future of your family and the future of your community,” she said.

“Sometimes in life you’re going to be faced with hard situations and it might be the hardest thing you ever do, but you are your ancestor’s dream,” Sandra told them. “You can do whatever you want. Work hard and know that there’s people that are going to support you and are going to be there for you for whatever you need.”

When it was time for questions, these CASA students wanted to know more about her campaign, how the local government works, and how she pushes herself every day to continue going: “It’s a lot of work, but if not me, who? I’m one of only four Hispanic elected officials in the whole state, so I don’t have an option to give up, because a lot of people don’t have that voice. I have to keep going because I have to make sure I speak up those people,” Sandra explained. With those words of encouragement, realizing they too have a voice and power, the students were ready for the next step in their service-learning project.

“APOYO MUTUO”

One more session proved our CASA students were ready, civically engaged and committed to help struggling families in Nashville. In their “Panel de discusión de NAZA,” three students led a conversation with leaders around the work being done to help support the Nashville community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After this live panel, which you can watch here, the students presented their GoFundMe campaign to collect funds for Safe Haven Family Center, the only local shelter in Nashville that keeps families together. CASA middle-schoolers chose this organization because they put themselves in the shoes of the people having to go through homelessness, and believe strongly in Safe Haven’s mission to empower “Middle Tennessee homeless families with children to achieve lasting self-sufficiency.”

Their appeal to collect these funds is guided by the principle of “mutual support,” or “apoyo mutuo” in Spanish, the idea that even if one cannot donate, the community will spread the word and make sure funds are collected for this very important cause.

Conexión Américas’s CASA students’ campaign is still going, and you can support these middle-schoolers’ service-learning project to help families stay together during these challenging times: follow the organization here and learn how to donate to this project—or simply show your “apoyo” by spreading the word.

Congratulations to these CASA participants who are encouraging all of us to continue getting involved in our communities. ¡Gracias por inspirarnos!

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