Bill Sarno CTLatinoNews.com
With the debut of its Connecticut Expansion Initiative last year, the New York-based Hispanic Federation began charting a new course to empower and advance Connecticut’s Hispanic population by focusing on the ground level – the state’s Latino nonprofit organizations.
With this focus on strengthening the leadership of agencies with existing links to the community, the Federation, already highly influential in its home base of New York City, is quickly emerging as a powerful force for improving the quality of life and addressing the needs of Connecticut’s Latinos.
With it new agencies in Connecticut, the Federation now has 100 organizations in its 25 year-old network in New York, New Jersey and now this state. Its current mission is to use its experience and expertise to better position the Connecticut nonprofits to champion Hispanic public policy issues related to health care, employment, immigration reform and the environment.
At the state capitol, the Federation’s increasingly unified voice is already being noticed. Rep. Edwin Vargas of Hartford said engagement with the Federation has enabled the agencies to “articulate their case better and has equipped them to be more effective.”
In the past year, Federation members lobbied for passage of a higher minimum wage state and helped explain the Affordable Care Act in Hispanic neighborhoods. The network of agencies also has formulated a list of policy priorities for 2014-2015 to social and economic well-being of the state’s Latinos.
“The Federation has done more than any previous organization to help the Latino community,” said Yanil Teron, executive director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford, a workforce development agency.
Unlike New York, where the Federation has taken on a more visible role, such as in opposing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda restrictions, the Connecticut organization at this stage is primarily focused on building a structure for change from the ground up.
Vargas and others active at the Capitol said they see little evidence of the Hispanic Federation functioning as an independent force. However, Vargas acknowledges this organization has been “very helpful to the Latino nonprofits.”
By concentrating on improving the leadership and internal capacity of member agencies, the Hispanic Federation functions as a “backbone agency, ” Teron said.
To date, the Federation has distributed $200,000 in grants to its member agencies in the state. It also has initiated educational programs specifically designed to energize and train the nonprofits leadership and helped the agencies modernize their operational resources and created opportunities for the local organizations to develop long-term relationships with business professionals.
How far this initiative has progressed in a few months was evident at the Federation’s most visible foray at the State Capitol, a lobby day and legislative luncheon at the State Capitol in April. This event attracted dozens of state and community leaders. Among the speakers was Governor Dannel Malloy, U.S. Sen., Richard Blumenthal and Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman, as well as several leaders from state House and Senate.
The primary focus of the gathering, Teron noted, was to educate the state representatives about the agencies working at ground level.
Additional signs of the Federation’s rising influence in Connecticut include growing corporate support from entities such as General Electric, ESPN and Wells Fargo Bank, and the fact that there are now 15 Hispanic Connecticut nonprofit agencies, as opposed to three a year ago.
A key element in the Federation’s initiative is the Hispanic Leadership Institute that it set up through a partnership with the University of Connecticut to better prepare nonprofit leaders for their crucial roles. The first session of this 10-week senior management program, offered at no cost to Federation members, was held in May; a second class will begin in October. Among other things, the institute concentrates on is leadership style–how to identify the operational needs of an agency, and the addition of leadership succession.
The Federation’s commitment to Connecticut Latinos is further accentuated by the hiring of Ingrid Alvarez- DiMarzo, as Connecticut’s Hispanic Federation Director, and the establishment of a permanent office in Hartford.
Alvarez-DiMarzo not only brings energy and years of experience to her new job, but also offers first-hand experience of how things work in Connecticut, having been director of the Hispanic Center of Greater Danbury. The naming of someone from Connecticut was a smart move, said Teron.
There were three member agencies under the Connecticut umbrella a year ago, said Alvarez-DiMarzo. They are the Center for Latino Progress, the Latino Community Center and the Spanish American Merchants Association, all of Hartford
Now there are eight additional organizations that have completed the entire membership process; they are: Arte Inc., Junta for Progressive Action in New Haven, the Hispanic Health Council, San Juan Center in Hartford, the Spanish Community of Wallingford, the Spanish Speaking Center of New Britain, the Hispanic Center of Greater Danbury and South Norwalk Community Center.
The other four agencies, Casa Boricua in Meriden, Latina A.R.M.Y of New Haven and Greater Bridgeport Latino Network and the Caribe Youth Leaders of Bridgeport, are finalizing their participation and there are more in the pipeline for membership, Alvarez-DiMarzo.
There is no cost to become a member, but 51 percent of the population served and of the executive board must be Latino, Alvarez-DiMarzo said,
The Connecticut initiative was given a big boost when Wells Fargo Bank provided $100,000 in seed money to be used by the Federation to support its member agencies in areas such technical assistance and capacity building.
The Federation also has received grants from the Connecticut Health Foundation to help with the Affordable Care Act rollout and from the State Department of Social Services to address specific needs of member agencies.
An important part of the Federation’s effort is to strength the agency’s advocacy ability, both on the state and national level. In June, Alvarez-DiMarzo traveled with a group of agency leaders to Washington, D.C. to meet with the state’s congressional delegation.
The training at the Hispanic Leadership Institute is designed to teach the the nonprofit leaders on how to prepare an advocacy agenda, how to deal with legislation and how to share this advocacy with the community. There also is training on how to testify effectively at government hearings, such as the those leading up to adoption of a higher minimum wage.
To develop an advocacy agenda and strategy, there are quarterly meetings of the nonprofit leaders. Looking to the upcoming legislative session, the major concern will be to make sure that the Latino community’s needs are not shortchanged as lawmakers work on a budget encumbered with a projected deficit.
The Federation will be working with the agency leaders, Alvarez-diMarzo said, to produce a “blueprint” for elected officials to consider.
The policy agenda submitted on behalf of the member agencies includes the following:
- Increase funding for the Hispanic Human Services
- Budget equity: Although Hispanics represent 14 percent of the state population, funding for Hispanic-led nonprofit organizations comprises less than one percent of the state budget.
- Establishment of an Office of Early Childhood
- Greater public information outreach
- Increase funding for Care 4 Kids and Department of Education after-school programs, including 21st Century Learning Centers to support families and improve academic outcomes
- To build on recent state action to offer in-state tuition to all students regardless of immigration status
- Do more to offer quality health and mental health services to all residents regardless of English proficiency and immigration status