Supports Michigan’s Latino Children and Families
Helping Latino children and teens thrive despite today’s politically charged environment is an important part of the job of Israel Flores, family coach and family engagement & support specialist for Early Childhood Connections in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Kellogg Fellow (a recent alumnus of the WKKF Community Leadership Network) spends his days striving to improve the lives of the families in his community.
In Israel’s own words, he unveils the tremendous daily challenges these young people and families face, and he explains what gives him hope and resilience to do the work he does in these troubling times.
Q) Thanks for your time. Please explain some of the common fears facing the Latino community:
“In today’s political climate, I’m seeing a lot of trust issues with Latino children and organizations in general. It’s a fear of being deported. The biggest challenge I’m seeing is with Latino kids and teens, who are U.S. citizens, but their parents are undocumented.
Let me give you an example: In order to apply for college, students need a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to get a loan, but they have to fill out paperwork that asks questions about their parents and their social security numbers, which the parents won’t have if they are undocumented.
That’s a big issue, because those teenagers won’t apply to FAFSA or be able to afford to go to college, because they want to protect their parents. These young teenagers are the future of this country. If we don’t create these opportunities, who is going to run this country in the future? We won’t have educated people. That is what I worry about.
The other issue is that many Latino parents are not taking their kids to the doctor, because they need proper paperwork. Even if the child is a U.S. citizen, they will not send their kids to medical care because they don’t want to apply for Medicaid — even if they are eligible for it — because of how the organizations are going to expect information that might get them deported.
Keep in mind that many of those families have been living in the United States for more than 10 years, so their lives are here. It’s very hard for them to risk every single thing, because they have nothing in their home countries. Of course they want the best for their children. They really believe, as I do, that this country offers wonderful opportunities for their kids to live a better life. This is just a very difficult situation for these families.”
Q) What role do community and connections play in your work?
“Not many people know my whole story when I came to the United States. The truth is that when I came to the U.S., I came like so many other people. I crossed the desert, and I was undocumented. After 10 years, I had the opportunity to adjust my status. Now I’m a U.S. citizen.
I understand the challenges that Latino families face. Because of a piece of paper they can exploit us? Believe me, there’s a lot of exploitation of the Latino community. People don’t know it. They don’t see it. But it’s there.
So to have that connection with the community is important, because the community knows where I come from. They know who I am. I am one of them, and they know that I have had the same challenges.
As an organization, person, or community leader, whatever you want to call it, if you want to create change in our community, you have to have the community’s trust. At the same time, we as Latino leaders — who have the privilege to have these citizenship documents — must elevate the community’s voices.
We need to help people exercise their rights, because even if they don’t have these documents, they still have rights — even if people don’t have documents, if they don’t speak English, if they can’t properly vocalize their thoughts and others won’t listen to them. We have to provide opportunities for people to express themselves and create leadership opportunities for these voices.
I’m really good at technology, and I could probably make much more money if I changed careers. But the truth is that I know where I come from and I believe I was called to do this work in my community.”
Q) What do you wish people would talk more about?
“I wish people would talk more about immigration. It’s unfortunate that immigration is so political. Immigration is like the elephant in the room and nobody wants to talk about it. They know it’s an important issue, but they don’t want to talk about it because they wonder how they’ll get the funds to deal with it.
I want people to start seeing how the Latino population provides and helps this economy and community, even though we don’t have the same opportunities economically or educationally.
How many kids are brilliant, but they don’t have the same opportunities, often just because they are Latinos? The stereotype is that Latinos cannot be CEOs or computer engineers. You can see on the movies and TV shows, Latinos are only described as lawn care workers, cooks or drug dealers. I really want for people to stop having that mindset and start seeing us as people.”
Q) What gives you hope these days?
“Truly, it’s hard for me to think of the entire nation right now, because of the political situation at this moment. But what gives me hope is that I see people really committed to solving these issues. I often receive emails and calls asking me how they can support the community. I find that people in the Latino community — like all people of color — are people. That’s all. They just want to be happy.”
Q) What value did your Kellogg Fellowship bring to your work?
“My fellowship helps me amplify my knowledge, network and learning. In fact, my learning was an important piece. There were a lot of workshops about equity, of course, but also I was able to create relationships with other Latinos and people of color. It was a very eye-opening experience just to see that many of us face the same issues, but we often confront them separately, in different ways.
I’ll give you an example. Often, if funding is given to the Latino community, the other minorities will start complaining about why they didn’t get that too. The same thing happens when other minorities receive funding, the Latino community starts complaining about that. At the end of the day, our system pits people of color against each other to fight for the same resources, instead of empowering us to get together and fight the battle together.
Meanwhile, networking with the other Fellows has been a fantastic opportunity. Sometimes I don’t even utilize all the connections that I have made. Now that I’ve done this interview, however, it makes me realize that I really should reach out more to my Kellogg connections. It’s a powerful resource for me and my work in general.”