Last September, members of the Mobility Partnership traveled to Lummi Nation in the Pacific Northwest to learn about challenges and opportunities for economic mobility in Native American communities.
One of the Partners who took part in the trip was Reverend Luis Cortés Jr. Cortés has spent the last 30 years building Esperanza, a non-profit organization in North Philadelphia that has grown to serve communities across the country. From its nine-acre campus, Esperanza operates charter schools, a community college, housing counseling services, a workforce development program, and immigration legal services, as well as national capacity-building and advocacy initiatives. Esperanza offers all of this with a keen awareness of the cultural identity of its community, and its unique history, traditions, and needs. Cortés is developing a place- and identity-conscious model that, he says, is already proving to be phenomenally successful in his schools, and, he hopes, with the right research, can be applied elsewhere.
He sat down to talk about elements of his model. He began with an experience in a different cultural setting that helped solidify some of his thinking.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and space.
During the Mobility Partnership’s learning trip to Lummi Nation in the Pacific Northwest, it became clear that you know quite a bit about some of the cultural and economic considerations of providing services in Indian Country. You’ve even done joint programming with one Native American tribe. How did that come about?
I was doing a master's degree in economic development in New Hampshire. While studying there, I met a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, and we started talking about young people. He said to me, "You should bring the kids in your program out to our tribal land." So we did. For three straight years we took groups of young men to the nearby reservations.
In the beginning, the points of reference for the young people were completely different. My students were urban, and their students were rural. But very quickly we started to see similarities.
The Passamaquoddy have their own land and facilities, but their kids were still exposed to mainstream culture, and that culture was constantly sending negative messages about them and their heritage. There’s this clash between the expectations of your home culture and the expectations of the external culture, and it weighs on the kids. The majority culture is saying that what your parents believe in is antiquated. As they learn more through school and begin to interface with the majority culture, they are being pulled away through very subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—cultural cues.
No one was dealing with this psychological component. The majority culture is tagging them in pejorative ways, and no one was helping the kids process this.
I thought the Passamaquoddy kids had it made. They had their own tribe, land, facilities, and resources. But outside of the tribe, they were looked down upon. I realized they were having the same struggle as my kids.
How did those experiences with Native American youth affect the way you think about your work?
That experience reinforced the importance of three things: culture, quality, and institutions.
First there’s culture. For example, all our kids learn Spanish. They’re Hispanic, but most of them aren’t native Spanish speakers, which is ironic, because more affluent parents are now seeking Spanish language instruction for their children. We have found that, in learning Spanish, our students become more confident. Their identity and sense of security are strengthened.
The second point is quality. By maintaining top-notch facilities and making the cleanliness of those facilities a priority, we are sending a message to our students that they are worth it and that they can compete. If we don’t maintain a high standard on our campus, when we tell them they can do anything, they’ll say, "Really? How come this organization is not competing? Your facilities are second-class. Your teachers are second-class. Your system is second-class. You're telling me I could be anything, but you're not showing me it can be done."
And that brings me to institutions. There was a time when the Irish were not accepted into the mainstream, so they created Notre Dame. There was a time when African Americans were not accepted, and they created Howard. There was a time when Jewish people were not accepted, and they created Brandeis. Today, those institutions are mainstream. Back when they were founded, they were cultural responses to otherness. These groups had to forge their own pathway and find a way to compete, so they created their own institutions.
Likewise, our campus at Esperanza is owned and operated by a Latino-owned-and-operated non-profit. We take care of our own young people. We’re the employer.
In most major cities, minority people rarely run institutions. I've been building a whole concept based on cultural competitiveness, the idea that your culture as a Latino, as African American, as a person of color does not impede you, but rather it will help you move forward, if you apply it the right way.
So there’s cultural awareness, quality, and institution-building. But I know you also describe Esperanza as a place-based program. How does place intersect with these other elements?
Place is fundamental in moving our community forward or holding it back.
We used to have a problem in our neighborhood: The more we helped people, the farther away they moved. The challenges for the community remained unsolved. We got to a point where we thought, "Maybe we shouldn't be helping people," but, of course, helping people is our business. It’s what we do. Then what is the solution to that problem? The solution was to create institutions. The institutions are grounded in place, and they mold culture. In creating institutions, we learned that we didn’t have to worry about people leaving the neighborhood. Institutions provided an anchor and rooted people to this community and this specific place.
Back during the community development corporation movement and the Office of Economic Opportunity under President Kennedy, the United States started using words like “empowerment,” “self-actualization,” and “self-determination.” We were going to try to take those concepts and build programs around them. That was the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson, but because of the Vietnam War, funding ceased, and we never found out whether it would work.
You are making a strong case for the need for institutions grounded in racial and ethnic pride to build people and places. But some people interpret the results of the presidential election as a repudiation of race-consciousness. How do you respond to that? Is your model sustainable in this environment?
When people with a far-right ideology come here, they love it, because we practice and teach self-determination. We are picking ourselves up by our bootstraps, educating disenfranchised, marginalized people, and sending them to college. Our students far outpace their peers when it comes to graduation and four-year degree completion.
In the city of Philadelphia, we have a 20-percent dropout rate in middle school and a 30-percent dropout rate in high school, which is staggering. Our dropout rate at Esperanza is less than one percent; and seven out of ten graduates go on to college. This is with a student body that is 100-percent minority, 100-percent free lunch, 18-percent special education, and 17-percent English language learners. We’ve been ranked in the top 11 percent of schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report, but if you compared us to only those schools serving a similar population, you might find just a handful with better performance.
We're also investing millions of dollars in this neighborhood, transforming our primary business and residential corridors, and going about economic development in a way that's different. We're going to call our main business district the Latin Quarter as we develop the businesses and the physical space. That's a very ethnic name, and we’re working on developing a very ethnic architectural look. This will strengthen our cultural identity even further and will lead to long-term economic growth.
When you show these results, the questions about the relevance of race-consciousness become moot.
Who do you consider your peer organizations? Are there other groups like Esperanza around the country?
I don't know, but I’m sure there are. That's part of the research that has to be done. Who else is having success? How do we measure that? After we have defined the metrics that are tied to success, how do we expand and proliferate that? To me, that's the question.
We're building this model, moving forward with best practices substantiated by data, but it’s not about data only. Our work has to be data-driven, but data without application is just a library.
We already have a library of data about what works to build strong places and what works for people of color. For economically disadvantaged people and communities, let's open up the library and see what should be applied.