Oprima-1: A Creative Social Enterprise Strategy Connecting Immigrants to Employment

By David T. Applegate, Research and Policy Assistant, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

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Founded in 1997 in Chicago’s historic Pilsen neighborhood, PODER serves Chicago’s immigrant community by providing free comprehensive English education in conjunction with an innovative social enterprise and job training. The National Initiatives team recently had the opportunity to chat with PODER’s executive director, Daniel Loftus, about their social enterprise, Oprima-1, and the critical work they’re doing to empower immigrants to build new lives in Chicago.

National Initiatives: Could you begin by telling us a little about the work PODER is doing in Chicago to serve the immigrant community?

Daniel Loftus: PODER is an English and job training center focused on helping immigrants advance their English language abilities. Though we serve people from diverse backgrounds, most of our students are coming from Latin America with very little English, lower levels of education, and very few economic resources. One of the things we identified early on at PODER was that many of the people who were coming to us to learn English lacked first language literacy; that is, many people would have trouble reading and writing in their native language, Spanish.  Without a first language foundation, students will struggle to learn English, so we offer students an opportunity to improve these skills while obtaining an elementary school diploma from Mexico. This gives students a great sense of accomplishment and greatly increases their success rate in English.

IMG_1246Students are then ready to begin English classes. Our English program is free, and it’s an integrated program, meaning that we integrate civics, computer training, and job training skills into the classes with the ultimate goal of advancing English language abilities. We make an effort to contextualize English language learning by simulating real world scenarios in the classroom. Providing a stronger foundation in English is one of the most important first steps in empowering new immigrants to thrive both economically and socially in the United States.

National Initiatives: Can you tell me about PODER’s social enterprise, Oprima-1, and how it benefits PODER’s program participants?

Daniel Loftus: Oprima-1 is our bilingual call center. Using a transitional jobs (TJ) model, Oprima-1 is an outsourcer that employs our native, monolingual Spanish speakers to help businesses better connect with their Latino customers. Oprima-1 was born out of our need and desire for a business opportunity that advanced our mission and addressed some of the challenges faced by our organization and the immigrant community we serve.

The fact is, it is takes a long time to learn a new language – especially a complicated one like English. It’s often impossible for students to commit to a two-hours-per-day, five-days-per-week, unpaid English training program. Whether it’s unstable employment, family obligations, or any assortment of challenges that come with being an immigrant, our students face many obstacles on a daily basis and often struggle with simply putting food on the table. So it’s understandable that English—or any sort of education or advancement—often comes last when they’re prioritizing.

With Oprima-1, we were trying to make it easier for our students to balance these demands by offering a combination of work and study in the same location. Students receive 45 hours of certified customer service training in Spanish where they gain invaluable soft skills. As long as students commit to participating in two hours of English instruction per day, then we are able to guarantee them paid employment for six hours per day, five days per week. Oprima-1 connects our students with a paying job the moment they walk in the door. Further, they can take advantage of the most marketable asset they have – their Spanish speaking ability.

National Initiatives: What types of businesses does Oprima-1 work with, and how do businesses benefit by working with Oprima-1?

Daniel Loftus: We’ve worked with many different industries—with health clinics educating folks about the Affordable Care Act, utilities companies, insurance groups, trade associations, philanthropy, and even a contract with the Department of Labor. Even though their customers can speak English, sometimes businesses underestimate their customers’ preference for Spanish—particularly on the phone for anything that might require a financial transaction. Our value proposition is that we give businesses the opportunity to connect in a first language, Spanish, with their customers. We are able to provide them with native Spanish speakers who have already received certified customer service training.Oprima1.Alfa

National Initiatives: Why are paid transitional employment opportunities important to PODER’s work, and what would you identify as existing needs and challenges?

Daniel Loftus: Transitional jobs and earn and learn strategies are critical for PODER. These strategies allow us to teach language skills to our program participants more effectively. Also, as I mentioned, many of our students are not in a financial position where they can afford to commit to an unpaid training program—it’s simply very difficult to serve our target population without offering some sort of paid transitional employment. The TJ model has really improved our capacity to serve the immigrant community in Chicago.

As for challenges, we’re always looking to expand the number of businesses we work with through Oprima-1, and this can be difficult since we’re a smaller organization. Documentation and immigration status is also definitely an issue. We started out as an organization that was able to serve everyone, but our Oprima-1 participants must have legal work permission to be employed. We have to try hard to strike a balance and not alienate our base.

But many times it really comes down to the case management side of things. Our students face such a wide range of challenges on a daily basis. Our expertise is in English and call centers. But the needs of our students obviously go well beyond learning English. We do whatever we can to help students by working with numerous other organizations to guarantee that our students have access to all of the resources they need to not only survive, but thrive while beginning new lives in Chicago.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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