Since 2009, Encuentro has been providing a wide array of educational programs to New Mexico’s Latino community. Through its resource center, located a few blocks from downtown Albuquerque, Encuentro offers a variety of classes ranging from English language learning to financial and computer literacy. The majority of enrollees have very low levels of formal education, and in general speak, read, and write at a very basic level. A large number of students are undocumented, and the number one concern for people who walk through Encuentro’s doors is not language, but income. Understanding this is important when it comes to shaping the work, and through the years Encuentro has consistently catered to the needs of its students by offering classes and providing services that support them.
The Encuentro curriculum is intentionally flexible. Meetings are held every two months with members and staff to discuss framing and make decisions regarding which components should be added or removed. “It has been important to incorporate popular education, to look at the community and not be didactic,” says Executive Director Andrea Plaza. This ability to adapt to the people seeking support from Encuentro has been critical. As a result of this approach, lessons and specific trainings that focus on necessary, tangible life skills like how to balance a checkbook, and how to provide basic care for an elderly parent have been introduced. For those seeking Encuentro’s services this sort of information is particularly useful and meaningful, and the process of determining not only which services to offer, but also how to offer them begins at the intake level. Basic information is collected from incoming students, and a placement test is given in order to gauge English literacy and fluency. The results of these tests allow Encuentro staff to engage students at the level that makes the most sense for their individual comprehension.
One unanticipated benefit of the Encuentro model came as a result of the community resource center that opened in 2011. The space is shared with two other organizations that are also focused on providing services to the Latino community, and the benefits of this arrangement have been substantial. In Executive Director Plaza’s words, “People come to Encuentro for an English class and it comes out that they haven’t been paid in three weeks. We connect them to El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, an immigrant rights organization that has a focus on labor rights, with whom we share a space, and now that student has a resource they never expected would come from taking an English class.” The impact of these unforeseen intersections is significant. Encuentro staff members have noticed that program participants are communicating with each other about these experiences while also providing resources and information to their peers based on their own personal learnings. Information from a series of focus groups that were conducted as a means of understanding the effects of these experiences is currently being analyzed. The conversations included questions like, how have these unforeseen intersections helped your family? The expectation is that these focus groups will demonstrate increased knowledge and access to resources among not only those who attend Encuentro classes, but also among their friends, family, and the greater community.
Plaza has noted that, “so many of the best things that happen at Encuentro occur organically.” This is not an accident. Encuentro has established a thriving learning culture and fostered an environment where people feel safe and supported, and it’s no wonder that a positive community based ripple effect has resulted.