By Aurelio M. Montemayor and Nancy Chavkin
Comunitarios are innovative community and family partnerships with the sole purpose of collaborating with schools to improve the success of students in the community. The comunitario model itself is the product of a collaboration between two community organizations in south Texas: the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) and ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality).
Comunitario projects in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas embrace a new kind of family engagement in education: intergenerational family leadership, or liderazgo familiar intergeneracional, which values the participation and collaboration of parents, community members, and youth. While many traditional family engagement programs view children as the passive recipients of the benefits of parent involvement, our model sees youth as assets who can inform, lend expertise, and lead community efforts to improve their schools.
Youth “Tekies”: Supporting Positive Youth Image
“No, sir. I’m dumb and very poor in math!”
This statement is at the heart of why intergenerational family leadership is critical. The story begins more than a decade ago, when the ARISE Community Center’s youth group became a support team for adults who had little or no experience with technology. Some old computers had been donated to the center, and the youth “tekies” became the technology bridge for the families. This youth project had evolved from the IDRA family leadership sessions set up to introduce families to online education resources. These young people from those same economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of the colonias had already become the English language bridge for their families. Now, they also were their technology bridge. One high school junior was especially adept at guiding the ARISE ladies who were hesitant to hit the keys, imagining they would break something in the process. When one lady was ecstatic as she saw her name appear on the screen, we told the young tekie, “You’re a brilliant technology teacher.” She replied, “No, sir. I’m dumb and very poor in math!” When adults repeated the praise, she responded that they were prejudiced because they liked her, which must have been a good feeling.
The support given to youths in these centers is sometimes in stark contrast to the harsh environment they experience in school. IDRA has seen over and over that all children can learn and master high school course requirements with appropriate and effective support. Likewise, with appropriate support, they can take on leadership and carry out community projects for the betterment of their community and their education. Some of those early Youth Tekies are now teachers and in other professional fields. One is a staff member at ARISE.
Pedro: The Development of a Youth Leader
Our intergenerational family leadership model helps to foster the development of youth leaders who continue to give back to their communities. For example, Pedro Nepomuceno began volunteering at ARISE when he was 12. He was part of the youth cadre that mentored little ones as part of ARISE’s summer program, which provides activities for young children who wouldn’t otherwise have any summer activities because of the isolation and poverty of their communities. The intergenerational leadership begins with these opportunities for cross-age mentoring. When he was 17, the summer before his freshman year of college, he participated in the IDRA-sponsored meeting, ¡Ya! Es Tiempo, as a youth tekie, guiding adults in how to use the OurSchool portal to get information about their schools. Based on what they learned, the families would later lead projects focusing on curriculum, instruction, and college preparation in their local schools.
After receiving his bachelors’ degree from Texas A&M University, Pedro spent some time working for ARISE. While there, he accompanied a team to San Antonio to present on the ARISE comunitarios at the IDRA’s annual La Semana del Niño Parent Institute, with an audience of parents and educators from across the state. Pedro was the translator for the presenters who made their entire presentation in Spanish. The session was live-streamed, making it possible for several groups in south Texas to participate. Part of the power of intergenerational family leadership comes from allowing youth to participate and lead in efforts to inform the community about their experiences in school.
Aurelio M. Montemayor is a senior education associate and lead trainer at the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio, Texas. Nancy Chavkin is Regents’ Professor of Social Work and director of the Center for Children and Families at Texas State University.