“I believe this workshop was a good thing not only for the people that went, but also to all of the Latino community. It is showing us that people are interested in hearing our voice, and that we actually have one. It makes all of us feel included in this amazing community.”
– Adriana Lopez, Bilingual Administrative Assistant, West Marin Senior Services
Over two weeknight evenings last month, at West Marin School in Point Reyes Station, four-dozen members of the local Latino community gathered for an Abriendo Caminos, or opening roads, facilitated workshop. The assembly featured presentations; intellectual, emotional and communication exercises; and small group and large discussions as well as food, conversation and ritual. Its purpose was to train community members in leadership – however each individual might define “leadership” for herself or himself – and to encourage increased Latino participation in solving problems confronting both the Latino and Anglo communities.
This brief but, for participants and facilitators, profoundly moving gathering had been a long time coming, founded on years of work by and support of such local non-profit organizations as West Marin Community Services, Marin County Health and Human Services, West Marin Family Services, Coastal Health Alliance, West Marin Senior Services, Marin County Free Library, West Marin Literacy Program and others.
The goals of Abriendo Caminos were twofold:
1) To have collective understanding about what it means to be a leader, including defining who is a leader, and exploring the barriers and opportunities confronted in and by the community.
2) To create a space for collective learning and healing so that attendees might share their personal stories in an honest way that fosters more meaningful relationships.
“Abriendo Caminos (Latino Empowerment training) is work this community has been hungering for – and we all win. The West Marin Fund will continue to support this heartwarming effort, and its leadership. We invite others who value such engaged diversity to join us. Really, we’re making something happen in West Marin that other communities only dream of.”
– Catherine Porter, Executive Director, West Marin Fund
Abriendo Caminos developed out of a cultural and societal sense of disempowerment that did not begin here in West Marin, California or the United States, but originates in the countries of origin of our Latino and Hispanic friends and neighbors. These issues continued and flourished, and were exploited and accentuated here. Such problems as hierarchy, classism, and being seen and treated as less than equal based on one’s skin color, education, region and country of origin are among such issues. These obstacles were, and are, then played out to the benefit of others – the neighbors, friends, colleagues and community members who do not live under such restrictions or marginalization.
Abriendo Caminos, however, was intended and designed to focus not so much on community as a place of hurt but as of opportunity, and to address the often-expressed question by some in the Anglo community, Why aren’t Latinos involved in the larger community?
Through one-on-one case management at such agencies as the West Marin office of Marin County Health and Human Services, Shoreline School Readiness and others mentioned above, a weft of stories began to reveal themselves.
For example, a Latino community member overheard an Anglo neighbor saying, “These Latinos don’t know how to eat well, they just binge on chips and sugar.” In fact, nothing could be more offensive to a Latino. This remark served as a lightening bolt to the heart of how little some in the non-Latino communities understood Latinos, including the degradation of family structure and of community through the traumas of asylum-seeking and of immigration, and how these factors affect and shift Latino behavior.
“We are working on being a united, diverse community, so as the workshop title suggests, opening roads in community inclusion and leadership is essential to take advantage of the strength of our many individual and cultural perspectives – uniting to grow and lift our community.”
– Maurice “Skip” Schwartz, Executive Director, West Marin Senior Services
Out of such simple but painful occurrences arose an idea for the La Mesa de las Abuelas event. In English it means Our Grandmother’s Table. The event outwardly focused on food but actually served as an exploration of the deeper cultural and familial roots that both bind and distinguish the rich diversity of not only our Latino communities but the entirety of West Marin’s immigrant population, i.e. all of us.
Figuratively switching the tables without coming from a place of hurt or combativeness but instead looking into the personal and collective Latino history, participants in La Mesa de las Abuelas rediscovered healthy family recipes as well as warm recollections of grandparents, in celebration and pride.
Organized as a small potluck, La Mesa de las Abuelas brought together family recipes and food from home, and not simply from Latino community members. Green beans with tomato, onion and chilies; pork in tomato broth; Tepache, a mildly fermented pineapple beverage; Calabasas (sautéed squash) pot black and pinto beans, and more comidas deliciosas were appreciated, honored and discussed alongside roasted chicken, roasted apples, Irish soda bread, roasted beets, beef stew and goulash, in an atmosphere of curiosity, respect and pleasure.
Through this shared experience an allegorical light bulb illuminated the perspective of non-Latino participants, some of whose own grandmothers had in fact prepared meals out of cans and boxes. The realization arose that all of us have something to contribute at the table.
“Collaborative members helped plan, set up, and provide food, but did not attend Abriendo Caminos, so hearing about the training at our debrief was pretty great. We’re incredibly blessed to live and work in a community that wants to be “one” – where we want to know each other and understand each other better and where we want to share in making decisions that impact our lives. I see Abriendo Caminos as an important step toward achieving that goal.”
– Bonny White, Branch Manager, West Marin Libraries, Marin County Free Library
Through the success of La Mesa de las Abuelas two more events were organized, with the addition of storytelling alongside sharing home-cooked dishes and family memories, serving as a cultural exchange. Attendees reminisced about the smell of their abuela’s kitchen and the warmth of the comal (griddle) as she made tortillas, for example.
The third gathering took a different turn, responding to funding requests made to the West Marin Fund by West Marin non-profit organizations. The executive directors and boards of some of these organizations had asked the Fund to provide financing for increased Latino involvement on their boards, a shift indicating a broader interest by the Anglo leadership in including at the decision-making table people who are not yet present in the room, so to speak. That the push to invite Latinos came from the existing non-Latino leadership is significant, a real game-changer.
Using the La Mesa platform to demystify and build community, relationships between individuals and elements of the larger community began increasing and expanding. A general sense developed of prioritizing leaders in community-based organizations who could mingle with existing leadership, and to cultivate and train up-and-coming Latinos leaders based on the shared recommendations of their peers. It was out of this process that an ad hoc West Marin collaborative became a force of exploring who ought to be present at the head table.
The West Marin Collaborative
The West Marin Collaborative, whose constituent participants include a broad cross section of local individuals, non-profit organizations and governmental agencies, including many already mentioned above as well as public school principals, had been meeting for several years to examine, discuss and address Latino community issues and poverty in West Marin. The Collaborative meets regularly and is open to anyone, and to additional agencies and organizations, who wish to engage in this ongoing partnership.
One of the long-range goals of the West Marin Collaborative has been the opening up of the process to include non-Latinos in leadership training, and to coach leaders who could participate in local governing and non-profit boards, place-specific to this rural community.
“As a Community Health Center, Coastal Health Alliance is governed by a consumer Board of Directors that is expected to represent our patient mix, to best meet the needs of the community. CHA whole-heartedly supports the Latino Empowerment/Abriendo Caminos process and looks forward to greater Latino involvement in determining the future of health care services in West Marin.”
Steven Siegel, Executive Director, Coastal Health Alliance
Again, in response to the question, Why aren’t Latinos involved?, a Latino experience of feeling powerless and of not being welcomed, was common in spite of the best intentions of the Anglo community. Two existing community leaders, Socorro Romo of West Marin Community Services and Maria Niggle of West Marin Family Services (and formerly with Shoreline School Readiness) began researching, inquiring and listening to the comments, yearnings and suggestions of both Latinos and Anglos. It was through that simple process of inquiry and feedback that the idea for Abriendo Caminos arose.
“Learning from each other, valuing what we have and appreciating each other, this is why we feel that building community is important; it is what we want to see happening,” said Socorro Romo. “None of us desires to be separated, but first we must learn to value ourselves. This process is not about taking away power from any of us; it is about how can we enrich the community. How can we hold the communal space so that all of us can feel confident? That is why Abriendo Caminos came about.”
Last month’s two-day gathering was both an empowerment retreat as well as an opportunity for individual and group introspection. “Given the obligations and limitations set by family and livelihood, transportation, time and so forth, not everyone has the leisure time to engage in such meaningful activity, and when we do have it, why not use it?” said Maria Niggle. “The goal of this guided retreat and training was to offer the message that even with limitations we can speak up about what we want to see in our community, and about how can we feel equal and participate in the community equally.”
Maria adds, “Of course none of us, individuals, families or communities, are islands, disconnected and adrift from the rest. Much gratitude and thanks are owed not only for the actual September 23 and 24 gathering but the incubation as well came from the West Marin Collaborative; even choosing the workshop name itself was a collaboration.”
Around the same time, members of the Latino community stepped forward with the proposal to arrange a Mexican Independence Day celebration, as a means for the two communities – Latino and Anglo – to become better acquainted. Held at the West Marin Commons in Point Reyes Station, the September 14 event featured a range of live music and dance performances, homemade food and beverages. At one point, nearly 200 people of all ages and cultures gathered in the brilliant weather. The event was a huge success and shifted the perceptions of many who attended. Cultural dignity, values and celebration are important to the whole community, regardless of their origins!
The supporting role of community-based organizations such as West Marin Fund, Coastal Health Alliance and The Marin Literacy Program, each of which provided generous financial grants, was key, as were the financial contributions of numerous individuals. One anonymous donor even provided $3,000 towards Abriendo Caminos. Additionally, home-cooked suppers and lovely volunteer-created table settings by members of Mainstreet Moms; physical space provided by Shoreline Unified School District’s West Marin School and set up by the staff of Gallery Route One; and childcare coordinated by Madeline Hope, Nancy Bertelsen and Papermill Creek Children’s Corner also served to create a supportive, safe environment.
“We were happy to host Abriendo Caminos at our school and to provide another in a series of leadership opportunities for our Latino parents. From a personal and professional perspective, I look forward to continuing our effort to meet the challenge of providing the best educational opportunities for our Latino and all students by working together as a learning community.”
– Matthew Nagle, Principal, West Marin/Inverness School
‘Feels like the right time’
Socorro Romo, in thanking these community allies, remarked, “In providing the space for this group to think through its issues and opportunities, the success is an outcome of a shared community effort and willingness to make the effort to listen, to go deep, rather than just to get something done.”
“Stepping back from problem solving, we looked instead to explore the qualities of leadership through an internal discussion, rather than simply anointing a leader,” said participant Rebecca Porrata, retired Public Health Nurse. “Thanks to the dedication of participating individuals and our collaborative allies, we built on the foundation of past community efforts by schools, churches, Health and Human Services and so many others, all of whom had been preparing the soil for decades.”
“This feels like it is the right time to begin working towards a unified community, one community that honors and celebrates all of our heritages,” continued Rebecca Porrata. “I feel proud of the fact that we are working together to train new leaders for meaningful board participation, bringing others into the decision-making process and moving these organizations forward.”
Indeed, the spirit of the times is to do something now. Latinos are staying in West Marin longer, they are settling in. Yet our rural immigrants are isolated, unlike the more urban areas of east Marin with its supermarkets, public transportation, and the ability to find work on the street corner. Here in West Marin, many times Latino folks are out on a ranch trying to get somewhere, literally and figuratively.
“The purpose of our exercises was to form a trusting body of people, through individual and group exercises that helped us reflect on leadership, on what we are currently doing in our community, and on the values that we can contribute to our community,” said Socorro Romo. “What can I do for my community? What gifts do I bring to the table, and what opportunities are there to share my gifts? Through lots of exercises, participants explored the intersections of ‘me’ and ‘community.’ Who am I, and how do I give back to the community?”
“The Marin Literacy/West Marin Literacy Program recognizes that a crucial part of our Latino community feeling confident to step into roles of leadership and community involvement is more complex than simply offering literacy services. When this project was first proposed, our board was immediately enthusiastic to be a funding sponsor and has budgeted future funds to continue to support this powerful work.”
– Robin Carpenter, Executive Director, The Marin Literacy Program
“I can reposition my perspective’
Finally, rituals were held at end of both evenings, incorporating a table for altar offerings presented by the participants, who had been invited to bring an item to which they felt an attachment. On the first evening these offerings were placed on the altar, alongside lit candles. On the second evening participants were invited to organize, and if so moved, to reorganize the offerings, as well as to reflect on what message did they have to share with the group.
“To build a community,” said Maria Niggle, “we need to bring our values, our heart, and to do it with love. It’s okay to make changes, to change ideas, even to make changes to someone else’s altar offering. In the end the product was so beautiful. One participant remarked, ‘I felt power, and no fear in moving my item. I can also reposition my perspective!’”
The West Marin Collaborative has been supporting community empowerment and enrichment activities since its inception as the “Latino Family Services” group that began many years ago. Through advocacy and empowerment of Latino voices, concerns and solutions can be elevated on a local, state and even federal level.
– Kathleen Roach, Public Health Nurse, Marin County Health and Human Services, Point Reyes Station
Evaluations were completed by nearly all of the participants on both days, the results of which are being assessed and will help determine the next steps. One statistic stands out as indicative of the success of Abriendo Caminos and can be appreciated by anyone who has participated in an intensive workshop such as this: more people showed up the second evening than on the first.
Others evaluation summaries include that more than half of respondents felt they are now able to identify oppression in their own life, including identifying institutional oppression; half of respondents can identify leadership skills within themselves; and three-quarters were able to articulate a situation in which they felt oppressed, versus less than a handful of participants at the beginning of the workshop.
“Our Latino community has been behind the scenes for many years; we hope that that is about to change. The leadership workshop “Abriendo Caminos” illustrates that our Latino community is ready to embark on a new journey. Our duty as community members and agencies is to encourage and support this new direction, by becoming culturally proficient agencies that respectfully encourage the participation of all cultures represented in our wonderful community.”
– Lourdes Romo, West Marin Senior Services Board
As an outcome, some Proximos Pasos – next steps – have already been identified, with more to follow. First, to continue these overview empowerment retreats; and second, monthly Talleres de Bienestar Comunitarios (Community Wellness Workshops), therapeutic workshops under the auspices of Health and Human Services on different themes identified by the community. One such topic is bullying, both in school and in the community, among adults and adult bullying reflected in the behavior of our children, and addressing how to put a stop to bullying. Each month’s Tallares de Bienestar workshop will examine a different such theme through a therapeutic lens.
A third Proximos Pasos is intensive leadership training for Latino community members who are ready to serve as organization board members, through identifying individuals who just need a little extra help, support, strategies and techniques. A number of such individuals have already been identified.
As Socorro Romo puts it, “The confidence I saw in the faces of the Abriendo Caminos participants is evidence of the efficacy of such community and individual efforts. This gives us all the energy and inspiration to keep moving forward in finding creative and meaningful ways to contribute.”
If you would like to support, get involved or stay informed of these efforts, contact Socorro Romo of West of Marin Community Services, at firstname.lastname@example.org and (415) 663-8631, or Maria Niggle of Marin Health and Human Services, West Marin Service Center, at email@example.com and (415) 473-3807.