La Casita hosts panel on engagement, accessibility barriers to marginalized people

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By talking with many Syracuse community partners like La Liga and the Young Women’s Christian Association during the pandemic, Tere Paniagua learned that each organization was facing the same issue: trying to survive in order to be the lifeline for many vulnerable groups during an assembly time.

“My hope is that the conversation that we’re going to have here today is going to lead to some new insights, maybe some new initiatives that are going to result in closer collaborations, shared resources, and to see what we can do together to address this problem that we are all facing,” Paniagua said.

On Thursday, La Casita Cultural Center, located in the Near Westside of Syracuse, held a hybrid panelist event titled “Engaging Urban Communities: Rebounding from COVID-19 and the ‘New Normal.”” La Casita invited Syracuse University faculty, students and community partners from across the city of Syracuse.

Paniagua, executive director of the Office of Cultural Engagement for the Hispanic Community at SU, was the moderator of the panel.

The focused conversation on how community partners are engaging and primarily marginalized urban communities that have been met with significant barriers in the midst of isolation and loss. Panelists also emphasize the different roles community-based programs serve and the challenges that arise with community building and involvement.

Zachary Pearson, a master’s student in social work at SU and a volunteer at La Casita, designed the ECHOES of the Culture program, which hosts improvisational theater workshops. ECHOES uses the creative process as a parallel for important social and emotional skills for young students.

Pearson said that low attendance has been an issue as La Casita transitioned from online to in-person activities and offered a potential reason as to why.

“(Something that) I’ve noticed is, for our students, our staff and our volunteers to be in a space with people again … meeting new people and collaborating with new people is very challenging,” Pearson said.

Although there have been challenges regarding attendance, panelists suggested ways they helped increase community engagement through adaptability, creativity and lending each other a helping hand.

Zakery Muñoz, a Ph.D. fellow in composition and cultural rhetoric at SU, said that he first visited the center to work on compiling and organizing La Casita’s archive. At the time, there were not any active programs because attendance was very low for both in-person and online events.

La Casita was lucky to obtain the Allyn Foundation Grant, which was provided on the condition that La Casita provide a new certain amount of programming activities for children in grades K-12 to participate, Muñoz said. After witnessing the issues, he came up with a suggestion to spur higher attendance numbers.

“I just pitched to Tere, ‘Hey, let’s teach these kids how to write.’ I’m a writing instructor, I’m teaching right now in my home, so we designed a four-week program where we teach the students how to write,” Muñoz said. “Then the catch was concerning attendance, (so) we were paying them to be in the space, even the young kids that were coming here to do mental health workshops.”

Muñoz had to be flexible and adaptable working through the pandemic. He also connected with the social challenges Pearson mentioned about transitioning to in-person programming, he said.

Both the writing and theater workshops are creative processes, so Muñoz spoke about approaching programming through an ethic of contingency.

“How can we be there for the students as humans first?” Muñoz said. “I think it’s something that I’m continually thinking about, both in the community and my own writing coursework.”

Attendance has always been an important aspect for many of the community partners at the event, but accessibility has also played a major role in how they have united to support one another.

Brice Nordquist, a dean’s professor of community engagement and associate professor of writing, rhetoric, and composition, pointed out the need for computer literacy and supplies to make it easier for members of the community to participate in programming.

Through these obstacles, Nordquist was glad to receive support from other community members such as Bea González, community organizer and former vice president for community engagement.

“The Office of Community Engagement sent out a call… ‘How can we support you, and how can the Office of Community Engagement support what’s going on in the community?’” Nordquist said. “Through this office, (they) provided computers for those spaces (and) gave us some tablet computers that could sustain the kind of internet connectivity we needed.”

Having access to electronic devices and workshops on how to use them to do homework took some stress off of students and families. Some were previously struggling to attend online classes and complete assignments because they only had access to phones, which would be used to connect other devices to the internet. Addressing the need of accessibility has helped the community not be limited to only the classroom, but become open to other learning opportunities as well.

Elisa Morales, executive director of the Spanish Action League, also known as La Liga, opened after Nordquist and said she admired hearing him talk about his collaboration with the Office of Community Engagement. Morales said the pandemic has also led to amazing coalitions of community partners, members and volunteers coming together for a greater cause.

“La Liga has provided PPE and toiletries, first-aid kits, food boxes and milk, drinks, and just everything you can imagine to over 21,000 households,” Morales said. “We normally see 2,000 clients a year, so this is very overwhelming, and we’re very short staffed.”

The final subject of the night, which panelists identified with and which pushed all the community members and volunteers to continue their work, was faith.

Fanny Villareal, executive director of the Young Women’s Christian Association, said that having faith without fear is important for progress and innovation to occur when seeking new methods to sustain and increase community engagement and programming.

“If you are afraid, you don’t have faith, because that is the other side … of change,” Villareal said, “Really have faith and don’t be afraid, because everything will be just fine.”

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