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UIX: Support for the community is strength for the community

Roberto Torres

The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan's 37 years of history are not only its biggest asset but something that Executive Director Roberto Torres has leveraged to push the center towards sustainability. 
There's a lot to learn from history.
 
The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan's 37 years of history are not only its biggest asset but one that Executive Director Roberto Torres has leveraged to push the center towards sustainability. The goal of the Hispanic Center is to provide unmet social services to the Hispanic community in Greater West Michigan, and with a served population of 12,500 and growing, sustainability is critical to its future.
 
"We have been around for 37 years and we've relied mainly on foundational support, and we appreciate that tremendously, but the future of the Hispanic Center is going to be determined by how well it can sustain itself through other means in addition to foundational support," Torres says.
 

Getting Started

After Torres took the helm of the Hispanic Center in January 2015, he led a nine-month strategic planning process. His team outlined the steps they would take to secure future income and identified potential challenges. The center was charged with assisting the local Hispanic community but its message was lost on many.
 
"I was at a meeting with about 120 Latino senior citizens. I asked them, 'How many of you are aware of the Hispanic Center?' and everybody raised their hand," he says. "I asked, 'How many of you have been at the Hispanic Center for any service in the last five years?' And only one couple raise their hands. I asked how many had been there in the last 10 years, and it was still just that same couple."
 
Most of the people at that meeting were Puerto Rican and Cuban, Torres says, and assumed the Hispanic Center was for Mexicans and those who needed documentation.
 
"I looked at literature we had published, and it said we serve the Spanish speaking population of Western Michigan," he says. "I thought to myself, there are many Latinos that do not even speak Spanish. Does that mean they are not being assisted by the Hispanic Center? It immediately occurred to me that we had a problem with how people saw us."
 

Spreading the Word

Knowing the Hispanic Center had a wealth of history in the form of personal stories, Torres had interns from Grand Valley State University conduct and film interviews. They interviewed past board members, past founders, and others who have been supportive of the Hispanic Center. Then, Creative Change Mission helped them put together a video that Torres says speaks to both the history of the Hispanic Center and its future.
 
"We have an opportunity to gather this asset that's called 'people who have been a part of the Hispanic Center story,'" Torres says. "We have an opportunity to turn that around and turn it into a value for our center."

 

Some questions of identity needed to be answered before the Hispanic Center could tell its own story, Torres says, but with a new design, new logo, and new initiatives, the organization has started that narrative.
 
"With every person we meet, whether they're corporate CEOs or non-profit workers, this is the story we're sharing," he says.
 

Turning a Profit

"My mother taught me a lesson, that we can be poor, but we don't have to look dirty poor. So, I said to my staff, 'We can be a nonprofit, but that doesn't mean that we can't make a profit,'" he says. "What we need to do is look at what we do and put a value to it. It's of value to somebody. We have to identify the opportunities to grow our organization by doing things no one else does."
 
In identifying those opportunities, the center came up with four initiatives. The Hispanic Center has always offered basic services like immigration services and family support but it has augmented those with a concentration on economic growth, project development, workforce development, and fund development.
 
The focus on economic growth will require members of the Hispanic community to be represented when certain projects are proposed in the community. Torres says there has been a noted absence of Hispanic representation in previous economic projects.
 
The Hispanic Center's project development initiative has a similar focus and recently led to a partnership with Habitat for Humanity on a Rumsey Street project.
 
"We here in the Grandville corridor believe that with the population being 73 percent Hispanic, that's significant enough to say, we need to maintain what makes this corridor unique and special," Torres says. "We need to be included in that design, and at that table to be able to assist with the development that's going on. We're not there to alter development, we're there to influence it."
 
The center's fund development initiative, as described, is aimed at collecting 37 years of history and converting it into an asset.
 
The fourth initiative, workforce development, faces a major need in the Hispanic community, empowerment.
 
"We don't just want to provide a service but to change their station in life," Torres says. "When somebody comes through our door, we need to be able to say to them, if you're looking for a greater occupation, better opportunities, or a career, we can offer that."
 
Torres spends a lot of his time connecting with community residents and other civic leaders. He often brings up employment, as it's a major issue for the community he serves, and looks for solutions through partnership.
 
"There is such a shortage of employees and the competition is so great," he says. "I was talking to the mayor of Walker and he was saying they have about 3,000 positions available there. The challenge to us is, how do we take a population like ours, give them the training in manufacturing that they need, and get them that employment opportunity?"
 
The answer, hopefully, is the center's workforce development initiative.
 

Focusing on the Future

It's hard to talk about the Hispanic Center without mentioning its vast youth-oriented educational programming. Led by Director of Youth Services Rachel Lopez, the center's SOL program, which stands for Supporting Our Leaders, engages students from 12 to 24 in 10 distinct curricula.

"A student could potentially be in our program for 12 years," Lopez says. "We see them throughout their educational career starting with middle school and up through college and the workforce. We've been able to get students to go to multiple programs for multiple years, which is really great for their development."

The goal of the SOL program is to help students reach their full potential, increasing their success along with that of their families.

"We have a pretty big parent engagement component to all of our programs," Lopez says.

The Hispanic Center's educational efforts concentrate on three core elements: leadership development, college preparation, and workforce development. And each of the 10 programs, held after school and over the summer, highlights either one or all three of those areas. Since the Hispanic Center was founded years ago, it's always had some sort of youth program. Lopez says. But where the center used to offer a drop-in after school program, it's grown to offer hands-on leadership training and the Sol Peer leaders program, where high school students are researching the heritage and culture of their Roosevelt Park and Grandville Avenue neighborhoods.
"They've done community forums, some art field trips and they're painting a mural," Lopez says. "None of them really have art backgrounds so it was fun for them to explore different mediums and colors while looking at identity and culture. They've taken ownership and pride in where they come from by hosting clean-ups along the wall, too."

Perhaps the most crucial element of the Hispanic Center's investment in education is seen in the Promise Partners mentoring collaboration created by Lopez. Promise Partners combines the resources of Grand Valley State University, Ferris State University, the Cook Arts Center, Cook Library Center and the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. 

"What we've created is a mentorship pipeline, where students can get involved as early as kindergarten and all the way up through college," Lopez says. "We pair them with mentors but we approach it through a peer-to-peer mentoring model. We have community professionals mentoring college students, our college students are mentoring high school students, and high school students are mentoring middle school and elementary students. What we wanted was to get community members engaged and giving back, as well as create a pipeline so we don't lose students in those transition years."
 

Staying on Target

Torres has left the imprint of his life's experience on the center. He credits his dedication to service in the public sector to an upbringing in what he calls the "migrant mainstream." He grew up in a migrant camp as one of 13.
 
"As a young child, I had to learn to be creative," Torres says. "We didn't have much. I imagined quite a bit."
 
As a child, Torres developed an artistic skill and appreciation for art. He took up drafting and architectural design in high school and while he initially intended to build a career in that field, he would be called in a different direction at Bowling Green State University. As social issues became more pressing, he leaned towards political science and public administration.
 
With nine years in an administrative role for a Catholic school, and 16 years in city administration, Torres' was seemingly cut out for the position. Former interim executive director Carlos Sanchez, Director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center at Ferris State University, even told local media that the center had "hit a home run" with Torres in 2015.
 
"In the city of Canton, Ohio I was director of economic development. I worked with manufacturers and developers and people who wanted to create new things or grow their businesses. I started to appreciate the idea of, if you really want something done, dream it up and do it," Torres says. "The tools are there to help you if you know how to find them and position yourself. That lends itself here as I look at what's possible in Grand Rapids."
 
For more information on the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, visit http://hispanic-center.org/
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
 
Photography by Steph Harding
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