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Elizabeth's Story

Dear Friends,

In this letter, we tell the story of Elizabeth.  A Salvadoran mother who came to EBECC as an ESL student, Elizabeth learned the tools of advocacy and organizing, first in order to meet her daughter's needs, and then to struggle for improved educational opportunities for all Latino children in East Boston.  Now living in California, Elizabeth left EBECC in September a seasoned, knowledgeable activist whose determination and example inspire others to follow in her footsteps.

Elizabeth's story is not unique.  We encounter people daily whose circumstances have rendered them voiceless.  A key piece of Elizabeth's experience was the opportunity to participate in collective action to achieve change.  For those of us who have experienced this journey personally, or have been part of someone else's journey, we know both how important, and yet how difficult it is, to raise one's voice to bring about change. Elizabeth's journey from student to activist shows a common progression from seeking help for a personal problem to working to improve a community condition. It is EBECC's vision and hope that each person who comes through our doors has a chance to make this journey.

We are proud of our current campaigns which focus on increasing the access of immigrant students to higher education and improving education for Latino children attending East Boston's public schools. As we approach the end of the year, however, we wrestle with how to raise money so that we can continue to sustain our campaigns and develop new organizing opportunities to offer the individuals who come to EBECC.  Support for this organizing is just not a priority for the vast majority of funders. 

And so, we turn to ourselves and to you who believe in the critical importance of organizing and who know first hand the transformation EBECC offers.  It is we who must be the solution to this funding dilemma, and it is our donations that must bridge the gap.  Please join us by making a generous, tax-deductible donation to support the journeys of individuals like Elizabeth. 

On behalf of all of us at EBECC, we wish you peace and joy this holiday season.

With sincere gratitude,

Frank Ramirez
Executive Director

William Horne, Esq.
Board President

Elizabeth: One Woman's Journey from ESL Student to Activist

"English classes for Latina mothers" said the EBECC flyer posted at the health center.  Elizabeth, a 30 year old Salvadoran woman with a tiny baby in her arms, had been in this country less than a year, and everything was still frightening and overwhelming.   But the flyer offered hope.  Written in her own language, the teachers must speak Spanish. And, this class was nearby.  But most encouraging, it was the only ESL program that offered care for her child while she was studying.  

In March 2003, Elizabeth came to EBECC to learn English.  She entrusted her plump-cheeked baby, Laura, to the kind woman in the infant room and joined 20 other women, also scared, also mothers, in the classroom.  Some of them, like Elizabeth, had risked everything to escape the poverty and hopelessness of their homeland.  Like Elizabeth, they had left children behind to join their husbands who were working in the U.S.  These women knew, without an explanation, Elizabeth's ache for her 9-year-old daughter, Yamileth, back home and how complicated and dangerous it would be to arrange for her to cross the border and join her parents in East Boston.

Learning English was hard.  Elizabeth had been lucky to finish high school in El Salvador, but everything was so different here.  She would certainly fail, she thought.  On that first day, her enthusiastic young teacher, Emily, told the students in fluent Spanish how foolish and scared she had felt when she began a year of learning Spanish in Chile. They laughed at the image of an even younger Emily, trembling in a store, trying to find the words in Spanish to buy a pen.  And then they laughed at themselves, and at each other, as they mastered ESL I and moved on to ESL II. 

Elizabeth had been shy at first, but as she learned English, her confidence grew. She especially looked forward to the parent education workshops included in the ESL curriculum. The Parent Organizer, Irma Flores, also Salvadoran, taught the mothers about the U.S. school system and the many differences between U.S. and Latin American education.  She told them of their rights as parents, and that it was important to advocate for their children so that they would not be overlooked or miss opportunities.  "Our children's education is our responsibility," Irma stressed in every class.  Elizabeth held onto her words in anticipation of Yamileth's arrival.

By August, Elizabeth and her husband had found a way for Yamileth to leave El Salvador and make the journey to join them.  Overjoyed to have Yamileth finally here, safe and sound, Elizabeth immediately set out to register her for school.  She had no idea how valuable Irma's parent education workshops would be, first in simply enrolling her in the Boston Public Schools, and later in ensuring that Yamileth received what she needed from her new school. At every turn in the enrollment process, the school department asked for documents that Elizabeth did not have.  She had to make countless trips to a school department office in Roxbury, 2 trains and one bus ride away, with her squirmy toddler and her increasingly weary nine-year-old.  Some days, confused and discouraged, she trudged back to EBECC for Irma's help.  It took three months of persistence, but Elizabeth succeeded in enrolling Yamileth in the fourth grade of a good school.  Despite the uninviting beginning and the enormous adjustment to a strange language and culture, Yamileth excelled, a testament to her own gifts and her mother's involvement.  Yamileth's English soon surpassed Elizabeth's.  At a parent-teacher conference, the teacher did not have an interpreter and asked Yamileth to translate for her mother. Elizabeth knew from her workshops with Irma that parents had a right to an interpreter, and she insisted that her daughter should not be required to assume an inappropriate responsibility. 

Elizabeth's experience with the school system, intertwined with the information and skills she learned in the parent education workshops, made her determined to help other parents advocate for their children.  Irma encouraged her to join EBECC's Parents' Committee, an action group working to improve the education of Latino children attending East Boston's public schools.  She knew that Elizabeth's struggles reflected the problems many Latino parents in East Boston experienced. Months later, the Parents' Committee chose Elizabeth to be East Boston's parent representative at a Boston City Council hearing to discuss hiring Family Community Outreach Managers in public schools across the city. 

Elizabeth went to City Hall, accompanied by Irma and 21 other East Boston mothers with their 17 restless, vocal toddlers and infants in tow.  They waited nervously for Elizabeth's turn to testify.  Unused to the din, one City Councilor sharply criticized the parents for bringing children to a hearing and said that if the noise did not stop, they would have to leave.  When it was time for Elizabeth to speak, she addressed the man's irritation with words that have become famous at EBECC:  "We are sorry about the noise.  We know that you were not expecting such young visitors.  But we are mothers.  We care deeply about the education of our children, but we must bring our children wherever we go.  This is our reality."  Then she went right on to poignantly describe her desire to be involved in Yamileth's education and the many difficulties she had experienced in communicating with school personnel.  The Parents' Committee members were amazed and proud that someone had spoken their truth with such strength.  Later, in the hall one of the mothers asked how she had been so brave.  With a sparkle in her eyes, Elizabeth replied, "I thought of Irma Flores and all the times I had listened to her speak up at meetings with the School Committee and the Mayor."

Elizabeth's courage achieved a small but important victory for the parents.  When the mothers returned to City Hall weeks later, a city councilor arranged for a space for the children to use during the meeting.  And, Elizabeth's testimony, together with effective organizing by parents throughout the city, contributed to the eventual hiring of 15 full-time Family Community Outreach Managers to increase parent involvement and improve parent/school communication.
Elizabeth and her family moved to California recently because her husband could not take another cold winter.  But she remains a folk hero at EBECC.  The story of her determination continues to inspire the Parents' Committee. When members prepare for a difficult encounter with a school official, someone always recalls the time Elizabeth spoke up for all of them, with her simple but courageous statement to the Boston City Council: "We are mothers . . . this is our reality."   


Elizabeth

Elizabeth

 

United Way of Massachusetts