By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
I am what academics might call a community-engaged researcher. Much of my research and writing involves telling people in positions of power (teachers, healthcare practitioners, health communicators) about how much they can learn from communities and their communication practices. I am interested in learning about ways that institutions can better invest their time and money toward building relationships and supporting the expertise that is already present in the community. It’s quite simple, really, but I think it’s important work. I don’t see myself as an expert, but rather, I try to leverage my privileges and resources to support and sustain the communities that I work with. Thanks to a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship, I’m spending the 2020-2021 academic year working as a fellow at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin (PPWI) with their Promotores de Salud Program. My role with this work is a bit like an intern and a resident researcher. Part of my time is spent in meetings and planning activities for ongoing educational programming with the promotores and the other part is spent with research activities (like interviews, focus groups, analyzing data, and writing) that are focused on highlighting the work of the promotores. So, while my colleagues are figuring out teaching online in a pandemic, I’m figuring out what it means to do community-engaged research remotely. A topic that is constantly on my mind is access.
Access and barriers to access have long been topics of interest for healthcare practitioners, researchers, and policy makers. They impact how healthy a community is and how well (or not) a healthcare system meets that community’s needs. Networks of access include many different aspects such as transportation, food security, housing, social services, family life, and more. Not only do people face barriers to accessing quality healthcare, but institutions often also face barriers to the ways they can access and connect with communities. Many of these barriers are inherent in the ways the healthcare system is set up to privilege spaces, professionals, and language practices that are separate from local communities—especially immigrant communities. One way that institutions try to “reach” Spanish-speaking immigrant communities is through promotores de salud (health promoters). Promotores de salud are often seen as lay people who can educate their communities about health information and transmit messages from institutions that are trying to reach the people where they live. Too often, the direction of information is top-down in the ways it moves from the healthcare institution to the community.
The hope is that improving access to information can lead to a decrease in health disparities and an increase in the utilization of healthcare services by these communities. But what about the information and education that can come from the community to inform and make positive changes to institutions? Part of my work this year is to lift up the stories, experiences, and expertise of the promotores de salud to help identify ways that the healthcare system might transform into something that is more just, equitable, and accessible.
So, what do these promotores de salud do? The specific role takes on different shapes depending on where they work and what institution they’re affiliated with. The promotores that I’m working with are experts in creating confianza (trust/confidence) and connecting people to resources. By building confianza with their communities, people open up to them about all sorts of things going on in their lives. They use a curriculum (CCmás) about sexual and reproductive health that was developed with input from the community. This curriculum is taught through conversations at Home Health Parties, or Fiestas Caseras, which were modeled after the Avon business model of gathering for a party in people’s homes and working as consultants. These fiestas caseras provide the space for the promotores to facilitate conversations about a range of topics on sexual health, reproductive justice, advocacy, and empowering the community. Through the support of various grants, the promotores also support non-partisan activities for civic participation by encouraging and assisting people with filling out the census and registering to vote. With the current pandemic, some of the promotores have turned to virtual gatherings to host Fiestas Caseras, and all of them continue to help connect people to resources available for legal issues, bill payments, health services, and more.
The promotores may work in similar roles with other organizations and many of them have other jobs in addition to their work with PPWI. They live within Latinx communities across the state of Wisconsin and they understand the daily challenges and injustices that immigrants from Latin America face while helping uphold essential businesses and our economy. With an understanding of the intersecting oppressions that their communities face, the promotores see their work as part of reproductive justice. By advocating for “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (SisterSong), they understand that the challenges immigrant communities face in reproductive healthcare is more than simply whether or not they have access to clinics and information about reproductive health. It is impacted by whether they can pay their bills, whether they have safe environments in their homes, whether they have been denied the option to choose whether or not to have more children, whether their children face danger in the U.S. or other countries, and so much more. This complex understanding of the realities that immigrant communities face in the U.S. could inform more holistic, equitable, and compassionate approaches to healthcare.
Health promoters are experts that researchers, administrators, and practitioners should learn from and compensate for their expertise. If their expertise and experience was valued as much as the credentials of our health providers, then we might see our community education models become more dynamic in the ways that institutions could be informed by communities and relationships between them could become more mutually beneficial.
Rachel Bloom-Pojar is an Associate Professor with the program in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UW-Milwaukee and a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society fellow with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.
On presentation night I spoke briefly about the United Cultural Center in Walker’s Point, and my evening eating at their restaurant, Café el Sol. I skimmed over The UCC and the neighborhood quickly in order to talk more about the restaurant and my “Taco Literacy”-based pedagogy project, so for this post I’d like to give more detail about the former two.
Walker’s Point is Milwaukee’s oldest neighborhood, founded in 1834 by George Walker. Walker, of course, was not the first person to live here, just the first non-native to “own” land here; this is what we call “founding” today. It quickly became a business hub, mainly for the fur trade, and by 1860 it was the most ethnically diverse section of Milwaukee. This meant little by today’s standard, as it meant that Walker’s Point had Yankee, German, Irish, and Czech inhabitants; as I said in class, a cornucopia of whiteness. At the time, such ethnic differences mattered quite a bit, as the European ethnicities had not yet melded together into “whiteness.” The Irish, in particular, were not at the time even considered white unless compared to natives, slaves, or sometimes Italians. Norwegians arrived soon after, followed by immigrants from Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Serbia.
Manufacturing began and grew in the area until Walker’s Point became the most densely developed industrial area in the city by 1900. Twenty years later, the Latinx migration began as the tannery began to hire Mexican workers who settled there, many fleeing the economic and political turmoil initiated by the Mexican Revolution. The earliest Latinx immigrants are known as “los Primeros.” Puerto Rican migration to the neighborhood started in the 1940s, making Walker’s Point the largest Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Wisconsin to this day. In the 1950s, natives returned as the US government attempted to assimilate them into European American society; that is, to “de-Indianize” them.
Today, as I walk around the neighborhood over a range of just a few blocks in every direction, I can see the influence of many cultures. Greek and Asian restaurants stand among the 20 Latinx restaurants in Walker’s Point; this place smells good. The architecture is culturally varied beyond my knowledge of the subject. The neighborhood is currently known as a favored LGBT meeting place, though possibly not at the “gentlemen’s club” that I passed during my short walk. There’s also a jazz club I plan to visit soon
Signs of industrial activity are still everywhere, punctuated by various murals pained on buildings, including the largest mural in Milwaukee. Here is also the largest four-sided non-chiming clock in the Western Hemisphere (or just the world’s largest four-sided clock, depending on what source you consult), the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower, once known as the Polish Moon (and still memorialized by that name by MKE Brewery a few blocks from it) but now widely known as the Mexican Moon.
The United Community Center, or UCC, serves the Latinx community in Walker’s Point with support services, education, culture, arts, recreation, community development, and health and human services. It began in the 1960s as an outreach program run by a local Christian center known as “The Spot,” but became an independent program in 1970 and moved to their current 9th St. location, formerly the Parish Hall of the Slovenian John the Baptist Catholic Church, in 1972. The UCC has seen steady growth since then.
Their programs include the Acosta Middle School, a blended-learning charter school that focuses largely on Technical and Engineering education. They also run the Bruce-Guadalupe School which provides elementary and middle-school education. The 97% of the student body is Hispanic, and 80% are low-income. Of their parents, 58% have completed high school, and 42% have a middle education or less. Yet the Bruce-Guadalupe school has Attendance, retention, and graduation rates all over 95%, providing a clear record of breaking this cycle.
Elder programs include geriatric health services, nutritious meals served daily, recreational facilities and affordable housing.
Aside from the geriatric services, health and athletic services include health care for students and clients, sports leagues, two gymnasiums, a boxing ring, a practice field, and a fitness center.
Other human services include a day care and the Walker Square Initiative, which provides education and assistance to 1st-time home buyers. All of these services are aimed at breaking poverty cycles, providing quality education to the next generation, and stabilizing neighborhood.
Culturally, they offer galleries of Latinx arts and history – one can learn about Los Primeros there – as well as Café el Sol, which fuses Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Wisconsin cultures into a delicious array of foods accompanied by Latinx music every Friday night. I highly recommend it.
Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods by John Gurda
Lisa Flores, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has a forthcoming book that takes a close look at the United States’ rhetoric around the Bracero program. In February, she came to UWM and delivered a talk titled “The Promise of Race and the Whiteness of Nation: Rhetorical Dynamics of Immigration” in which she framed her rhetorical analysis of this time period.
In 1942 the United States signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement with Mexico, an agreement that basically categorized Mexican farm laborers as imports. This series of laws is known and remembered as the Bracero program. It was originally intended to fill the gap that opened in the labor force during WWII but the US continued to “import” Mexican laborers until 1964, long after WWII ended.
Before I summarize her argument, I want to point out the importance of Flores’ research and how it intersects with the work we’re doing in our course. All semester long, implicit and explicitly, we have read, noticed, and discussed the violence English has participated in with colonization. This violence can be seen in the history of “manifest destiny” wherein the US literally stole land from indigenous people with barbaric force, but it can also be seen in the way we deploy English-only laws, standardized curriculums, and the stigmatizing and criminalization of Splanglishes. This violence can also be seen, quite literally, in the way the US’s current administration talks about Mexican people. The current US president was born 20 years before the Bracero program was terminated. The effect of the rhetoric Flores studies is alive and well in the US, pumping more violence and imperialism into contemporary American discourse and politics, further colonizing and dehumanizing our Latinx populations.
Lisa Flores analyzed American ad campaigns soliciting Mexican laborers. Advertisements appealed to laborers, yes, but they also appealed to businesses and “citizens” to comfort them. Ads targeted to Mexican men offered promises of prosperity and good living conditions. Ads appealing to business owners showcased Mexican laborers as happy and hard-working contributions to their enterprise. And ads appealing to “citizens” promised the sustenance of nation and, also, showcased Mexican laborers as happy neighbors, here to help in the enterprise of building a nation.
This is where Flores’ analysis takes shape. She borrows from Sara Ahmed and argues that the US characterized Mexican laborers as “happy objects.” Ahmed explains her concept of “happy objects” in her book The Promise of Happiness—the similarity with Flores’ talk’s title is noteworthy. For Ahmed, a happy object contains the promise of a happy future. If it makes your skin crawl for people to refer to other people as an object, you’re not alone. But, ultimately Flores argues that the US’s rhetoric treated Mexican laborers as “happy objects” to uphold notions of white supremacy and nationalism. To dehumanize is to gain rhetorical power.
Where do we see that happening today?
The US is currently in a crisis wherein we can’t decide how to protect and support people who want to live here, who regard this soil as home. Our Latinx people, our Dreamers, our DACA recipients are not given the full category of citizenship. This violent term continues to be used to dehumanize and colonize populations on US soil. American discourse about our Latinx population has gone from “happy objects” to dangerous criminals and Lisa Flores’ research shows how the one ultimately led to the other.
This week we discussed activism, language, and pedagogy in relation to Gloria Anzaldúa’s and Cherríe Moraga’s feminist anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color and Candace Zepeda’s chapter “Chicana Feminism” from Decolonizing Rhetoric and Composition Studies. These works both discuss identity politics and intersectionality, while also tackling concepts like racism, sexism, and homophobia in academia and larger society. The readings focus specifically on Chicana identities/feminisms, marking them as distinct from Latina, Mexicana, or American identities/feminisms. Chicana/o identity formation began with the rise of the United Farm Workers and other civil rights protests in the 1960s and 1970s. This identity marker delineated not only heritage and ethnicity, as it is typically used to describe those living in the United States with Mexican heritage, but also a political identity that is aligned with civil disobedience and social justice. Towards the end of the Second Wave of US feminism in the early 1980s, Chicana feminists began forming coalitions that addressed the racist and homophobic policies and actions of more mainstream, white feminists. This Chicana identity, one that is uniquely ethnic and political, is what bound Moraga and Anzaldúa together to begin compiling the anthology that would drastically change the course of feminist theory.
Many class members commented on the importance of Moraga and Anzaldúa’s anthology, not only for academic discourse, but for pedagogy. We discussed the chapters that are typically used in classroom settings, and began to explore what it means that particular literature, like This Bridge Called My Back, usually finds itself stuck in disciplinary silos. We brainstormed solutions to this issue, offering effort and awareness as two important first steps to integrating more texts by women of color and spreading them beyond the ‘ethnic/women studies section’ (this is the terminology used on the back of the book by the publisher for organizational purposes, not how we as a class decided to classify the book). Classmates also contemplated the boundaries of allyship in this situation, asserting that white scholars must take responsibility for lacking diversity in professional institutions and take informed steps to expand what scholarship is accepted as canonical. We discussed what Zepeda calls the “Third Space,” for Chicanx students, emphasizing the importance of pedagogies of the home, Moraga’s theory of the flesh, and Chicana feminisms ideology of ‘the personal as political.' These three theories focus on the importance and value of student knowledge, grounding pedagogical practice in an ethics that promotes success for groups traditionally punished in hegemonic educational institutions, like Chicanx students. Class discussion dove into the complications of a Third Space, debating the merits of plural Third Spaces in order to expand post-colonial, flexible pedagogical forms.
This week we were also able to host Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the founder and executive director of the activist group Voces de la Frontera, as a class guest. She spoke about the accomplishments and direct action strategies of Voces, but class discussion further revealed the importance of rhetoric in the movement and for the organization. It is interesting to note that Voces has been using the Latinx distinction since 2016 as a measure for inclusivity, which harkens back to our earliest class conversations about the term’s merit within the community. As a class, we explored the use of ‘movement rhetoric,’ and its repeated presence in Voces through protest signs, letters written to government officials, and educational materials circulated in the community. We also considered the use of ‘family rhetoric’ when advocating for immigrant and civil rights issues. Most of the imagery and language adopted to rally support for Voces’ causes centers on kinship ties and the sanctity of family life. This rhetoric is purposefully chosen to reclaim the humanity so often stripped from immigrants and Latinxs in public discourse. Voces de la Frontera will be hosting their second Dia sin Latinxs & Immigrantes on May 1st, 2018, at 10AM in Waukesha, one of the most conservative and anti-immigrant areas in Wisconsin.