Neatly tucked into a smallish office on the first floor of the Mirabal Sisters Campus Community School in Washington Heights,are five mothers diligently crafting hair accessories by hand, which they will later sell at the school to raise funds for their parent involvement program. Seated by side in an assembly line, two of the five women work methodically, cutting lilac silk circles then sewing them into flower petals which will later adorn an assortment of hair barrettes and headbands. Two sit off to the side, observing quietly as they work. Genid Carreño passes the time as she waits for her son to be dismissed from the elementary school across the street. She takes classes at Mirabal because she is a participant in the Ercilia Pepin Parent Leadership Institute (EPPLI) of the Children’s Aid Society, which hosts parent education classes in six elementary and middle schools in East Harlem and Upper Manhattan.
“I take classes here because I want to learn new things. It’s convenient that I can take classes while my son in is in school and then pick him up after. It’s easy for me but I really like that I can share things with others too. Talking about issues in Family Life class, for example, is very helpful. Not just talking but listening to others, puts things into a different perspective. It helps you to come up with your answers to problems. The other classes help to build new skills, and the thing is that once you develop a new skill, it’s yours. Nobody can take it away. The person that can learn a new skill is capable of anything.”
This spirit of possibility is very much alive for other participants, as well.
With her short cropped hair, dark jeans, and Cleopatra eyeliner, Margarita Ramirez is a youthful mid-career mom slowly getting a new lease on life. Born in the Dominican Republic’s capital city of Santo Domingo, Margarita arrived in the United States over seventeen years ago, new immigrant dreams in tow. Settling in Virginia, she worked as a baker for over a decade, creating the elaborate suspiro topped cakes and tropical sweets of her native Dominican Republic. Upon moving to New York City, her life changed completely. Caught up in the fast-paced race for survival while managing motherhood and marriage, Margarita found herself unemployed, raising two boys alone, and missing her craft.
“Here [in New York] I wasn’t able to find work making cakes. But I love doing that. It’s a beautiful thing to do something you love, to enjoy your work. I can sit and make confection flowers for hours. It’s therapy for me.”
Aware of his mother’s passion for baking, Margarita’s youngest son informed his mother that there were women baking cakes like hers in his middle school in Washington Heights. Intrigued, Margarita visited the school that very week, and found exactly what she was looking for. The unexpected sweet treats at her son’s school were not the product of a bakery but instead, the works of other mothers and women from the community enrolled in EPPLI. Organized to “help parents and guardians become effective advocates for their children, as well as leaders in their homes, schools, and communities”, EPPLI has become a hub of resources for mothers and fathers in search of a voice and a space of their own, as they navigate the challenges of parenting and educating their children in some of New York City’s most economically marginalized communities. Margarita and several hundred women like her, from East Harlem to Washington Heights, are enrolled in vocational skills programs through EPPLI which are linked to other core educational courses in parenting, nutrition, family literacy, and English as a Second Language.
Little did she know that in seeking to refine her craft, she would also refine her communication and parenting skills, and build a circle of sisters.
“I didn’t imagine that they made cakes at the school but I went anyway. I figured that it couldn’t hurt to ask, and I was [pleasantly] surprised when I arrived,” she recounts. “I take classes here because I want to improve my skills and learn new things so that I can bake again in the future. Now I am here every day. I can’t leave. When Friday rolls around, I am already looking forward to Monday. If one of the girls calls me to tell me they’re decorating a cake somewhere, I just hop on the bus and go so that I can work with them and share [time] with them.”
Mercedes Maldonado takes classes with Margarita and has completed courses in everything from cake decoration to curtain design and nutrition. She is actively involved in the program and volunteers at the school despite the fact that her daughters graduated years ago.
“I come here because we help each other, teach other. I miss these women when I am not here. I like to work with others and learn new things. I have taken very course except fashion design, and my life is different [because of it]. I eat better. I think differently. I am now more conscious and more aware of consequences. I think that I would have handled many things [with my daughters] differently if this program was available when my kids were in school.” It is this culture of personal development, engagement and cooperation that lie at the heart of the Institute’s achievements.
Alma Whitford, Associate Director of Community Schools for the Children’s Aid Society, has supervised the Institute since its founding in 2006 and has witnessed the evolution of parent involvement programs in New York City public schools over the last decade. A clinical social worker and lifelong advocate of children and families, Whitford believes that the power of the Institute lies in its ability to connect advocacy and parent education programming with opportunities for the parents themselves. With women- many of whom are single mothers- comprising over 95% of the Institute’s enrollment, EPPLI serves the needs of children by ensuring that their parents have a broader selection of tools with which to transform their children’s schools, communities, and even their own personal lives.
“Initially, many of the women have to be talked into participating but once they do, the classes become part of their re-discovery of themselves, their talents, and their power. Suddenly, they are more vocal about their children’s education and in tune with their children, as well. They become more vocal about their own education. They start to feel entitled [to a good educational experience] and become invested in their classes. They learn how to become better advocates for their children and themselves.”
Whitford also observes that many of the women face depression or extreme stress. The comraderie and sense of belonging that they derive from participation in classes and workshops, is often therapeutic in these cases. The women feel less isolated and alone, and use the time together to envision directions for themselves, if not simply bond with new friends. With a significant number of participants bound to their roles as home-makers, or limited to participation in the informal economy due to lack of formal education, immigration status, or other socio-economic barriers, EPPLI is one of their only outlets for free or affordable educational programs and professional development. It is also a potential vehicle for creating sustainable, long term pathways to economic self-sufficiency.
Though many of the women lack the financial resources to establish store fronts or formalize other businesses, many of them initiate home-based businesses upon completion of EPPLI courses. The high caliber instruction, coupled with the peer support, often serve as a catalyst for personal business ventures. Ingrid Javier, a homemaker enrolled in the Institute since the fall of 2011, has discovered her passion for sewing and interior design through EPPLI. Javier continues to take classes and volunteer with EPPLI, while creating custom home décor items for sale from her own home. When asked about her motivation for participating in the program, she openly shares her struggle with depression and the new feeling of satisfaction and pride that she derives from her sewing projects.
“I like to cut fabric. I make curtains, cushions, and things for other people because I am capable. I enjoy this.” Her light humor and earnest attempts to capture the value of her experiences with EPPLI reflect the spirit of dedication and solidarity which wafts through the room as each of the women speak.
“The benefits of this program are educational, stress reducing, and social. I was depressed but now I come here to see this bunch [of women]. We laugh. Sometimes we cry. We teach other. When I came here, I already had some knowledge of sewing but I developed my skills [further] here. Now I make curtains, cushions, and other items that people order from me. I come here to be with [the women]. We all have a different story to share. We each represent a different aspect of what it means to be Latino [in this country]. Our different [levels of] education, our…”
“Our culture,” Margarita chimes in.
“Our experiences,” finishes Mercedes.
There it becomes even more evident what fuels the Ercilia Pepin Parent Leadership Institute, and how profoundly impactful the program is on the lives of families and the community at large. The women (and men) who commit to improving the lives of their children and families through participation in the Institute do so through an ever evolving commitment to their own social, emotional, intellectual, and economic growth. Empowering themselves is the first step in the process toward becoming advocates and guardians of their children’s futures. EPPLI not only provides affordable and accessible educational resources, but also simply gives participants a literal and figurative place to grow.
“Women are wasting away in their homes… doing nothing… watching soap operas… waiting for their kids to get home…or their husbands, if they have them“, says Javier. “I was like that. I didn’t do anything but care for my daughter and take care of the house. That made me depressed but now I can [sew]. Here one can discover their dormant potential.”
Maldonado adds, “One feels useful here.”
“My thing is baking but I learned how to sew here too. I never sewed before but now I know how,” says Ramirez. “And I can communicate better with my son. We have always communicated but it’s easier for us now.”
The openness and comfort that the women demonstrate toward each other after less than a year together, is remarkable. It is clear from the way that they seamlessly weave together their individual stories that a new, greater story is being created. In the gap between the heavily politicized debates around the New York City Department of Education’s struggles with mayoral control and the realities of millions of New York City children and youth, lie the stories of the parents who struggle to carve out a semblance of a solid education for their children while still crafting the fabric of their very own lives. These women are the artisans who weave together the threads of possibility.
While parental engagement and advocacy activities anchor EPPLI, the social benefits for participants and their families extend beyond knowledge of educational entitlements and good parenting skills. In Washington Heights and East Harlem, where low-income women of color are overwhelmingly heads of households, EPPLI provides educational resources that are often the entry or re-entry point to employment or entrepreneurship. EPPLI also helps foster networks of social support for parents in transition—whether in their family, work, or intellectual lives. Most importantly, EPPLI provides a space for new dreams to be crafted.
For women forced into the margins by social expectations or economic circumstances, the circles of support are like air. Learning and growing in a safe, supportive circle is life affirming, and may very give life new meaning. According to Javier, “the world demands a lot from women but doesn’t recognize them.” Through EPPLI, many of the women develop the skills to recognize the individual talents and personal power that they see in each other. They also learn to celebrate the powerful women they see in the mirror each morning, as they release their very first suspiros.
*Please note that "suspiros" are literally "sighs" but also refer to the trademark/traditional meringue whipped topping which the women learn to make as part of their cake decoration class.
Marinieves Alba is a Community School Director in Washington Heights, NY.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.