Listening to the immigrant community: Using popular education to transform the City of Somerville

Participants in the Grassroots Leadership Institute receive their certificates, Irma Flores, front right

An interview with Irma Flores

Irma Flores is the Spanish Service Coordinator for the SomerViva Office of Immigrant Affairs in the City of Somerville, Massachusetts. Over many years, she has partnered with UFE to develop popular education facilitation and leadership skills, and apply them in her work to civically engaged immigrant communities. She identifies as a Latina, a person of color, and an immigrant from El Salvador. 

Irma is one of many local leaders who have come through UFE’s workshops, trainings, and mentorship who is multiplying UFE’s impact in Boston and throughout Eastern Massachusetts through her work as a popular educator, facilitator, and trainer. 

What is your connection to UFE?

Jeannette [Huezo, UFE’s Executive Director and Senior Popular Educator] has been my coach in popular education for many years. I use these skills every day in my work, from inside a municipality and outside with immigrant communities.

UFE is a great opportunity to develop the skills you don’t know you have. That’s what happened to me. I never thought I could be a community organizer. As an immigrant I didn’t understand how the system works, how the government works, and how it impacts an immigrant community. I became a community organizer. It’s through [UFE’s Popular Economics Education] workshops that you discover those skills. 

I love the way that Jeannette teaches us about income disparities. You don’t realize how huge that is until you see what’s going on. For the community just to realize, “I’m paying more taxes than the people [with so much income].” Participants respond like, “I have to do something. What do I need to do to change that?” I see people learn and move to asking, “What do I need to do?” The perspective of people after a training is totally changed [compared to before the training].

What difference have UFE’s trainings made to your work?

From the outside you can say, “you need to do this” to people in government, but I was thinking “maybe we can do some changes from inside.” I went to work first at the Somerville [Massachusetts] public schools as a parent liaison, and then 10 years ago was offered a position in the Office of Immigrant Affairs as a community liaison.

I have been able to work in a process to understand that community members are the ones with the best knowledge of their own needs. We have to listen to the community. 

We need to shift from services to something sustainable for families. We have to change our methods toward civic engagement. Popular education is the method I use. 

Immigrant organizers from Greater Boston learn about the distribution of income in the United States at UFE’s Grassroots Leadership Institute workshop, where Irma was also a trainer.

Why popular education?

With popular education, everyone has their own experience and every experience is valid. When I set up meetings in the community, I began to arrange people in a circle instead of  someone at the front and everyone else in the audience. That simple practice alone made a huge difference because it signaled to everyone that nobody is more important than any other. Everybody has the same rights. It may seem insignificant, but it was an innovation in a municipality. Sitting in a circle with community members and municipal leaders totally changed the dynamic.

Another example. The city holds community meetings to present projects and share statistics. I organized the first Spanish-language community meeting back in 2016. I thought, “You know what, we can offer this meeting in Spanish. And the ones that use the headsets will be the English speakers. Even the mayor.” It made the Spanish-speaking community feel respected and included, that “They are speaking my language.” 

In my mind we can do changes from the inside. That has meant cultural changes — working day by day to make huge changes in city policy and practice around how city staff engage with communities. Traditionally, if you need a service you go to City Hall. Now, we go to where the community is, and we listen to what people have to say. It is a huge change. It changes the power dynamics. You are engaging the community, 

Popular education allows me to understand the communities we  are serving. It is hard. The work is ongoing. I strongly believe in popular education. To be able to implement popular education in a civic engagement process is huge. 

How has UFE supported your development and the development of your program?

I now have four people under my supervision. I invited them to workshops with UFE and they participated. Before that, they didn’t understand [what was meant by listening to the community], but now they have been exposed to trainings.  

We have had success engaging the Latino community in Somerville. For 8 or 9 years we have run a Latino Leadership Institute. We invited residents to co-develop a leadership curriculum. Just giving the basics — What does it mean to be a leader? What are a leader’s qualifications? How can I participate in the community? We talk about racism, wealth, and economic disparities.

Now we are serving communities speaking Spanish, Nepali, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Chinese, in addition to English – 6 languages. Even though the communities are different their needs are similar. With the communities we are working with, popular education is the best model to get people engaged. 

You were a trainer in the Center to Support Immigrant Leadership’s Grassroots Leadership Institute, and so was Jeannette Huezo, UFE’s Executive Director. What was UFE’s contribution?

A lot! Somehow it seems that most everyone who led a session in that training of trainers had been a participant in UFE trainings. There is an inter-relation there. I invited my co-workers who I supervise. Participants included a lot of Latinos, Afro-Latinos, people from Cape Verde. They are involved with cooperatives, worker rights, youth work. They have been leaders in their communities, some with training and some receiving training for a first time. From UFE, they learned about the economy. 

In December 2022, UFE collaborated with partners to create the 2022-2023 Grassroots Leadership Institute of the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing (CSIO) in Greater Boston. The Grassroots Leadership Institute is a 25-hour curriculum provided in Spanish and English in 4 sessions to immigrant leaders from across the Greater Boston area who are involved in Workers’ Centers and working on issues like wage theft in the undocumented community. 

Collaborating organizations in this completely free institute were the Brockton Workers Center, Center to Support Immigrant Organizing, Moon Jaguar Solutions, SomerViva, United for a Fair Economy, and others.

UFE has been a longtime partner with CSIO, whose goal is to help immigrants in the forefront of community and workplace struggles to develop their power and leadership not only to succeed in their immediate context, but also to contribute to the broader effort to build a more just and democratic society. 

UFE’s workshop focused on popular education facilitation, economic inequality, and an exercise that asks folks what issues they were experiencing in their communities to help develop a focus for a campaign. We received feedback from the participants that they felt that the 5 hour long workshop flew by, they loved the focus on storytelling and it provided actionable skills and tools for organizing. 

What would you want other people to know about UFE's work?

UFE is doing a really good job and – more importantly – we are changing people’s lives. When people understand the system issues, they are willing to be more active in the community and make change. 

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