Transcript – Episode 79

Narrator:  This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council.  We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:  I think before we always focused on the academic performance and talking to families.  And now, we’re really focused on how can we support you to have a better relationship with your child.  But, we find like that is just– has been more receptive for families and it’s helped youth more.

Anita Walker: Hi.  I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud.  Our guest today is Alex Oliver-Dávila.  She is Executive Director of the Sociedad Latina, and welcome to our program. 

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila :  Thank you so much.

Anita Walker:  You are one of our long-standing member organizations in our creative youth development programs, working with youth in the Boston area.  Talk a little bit about some of the elements of your programming.  I have a memory in my mind of the last time I was there of the young people making music.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:  Yes.  We are very fortunate to be part of that portfolio, so thank you.  We have been doing this for quite some time.  We are the oldest Latino youth organization in Boston.  We are going to be celebrating 50 years next year.  And so, one of the things that we love to do is to hear back from our young people in terms of what programming they would like to see, and arts has always come up number one.  And we ventured into the music piece probably about 18 years ago.  Young people came to us and asked us, “Can we have a music program?”  So we started tiny, tiny, bringing in consultants, and then we brought it in-house.  We renovated our space, and we focus on middle school all the way through second year in college.  So we start by providing school day classes to middle school students, and we also have a STEAM program where music and arts are influxed into that out of school time program.  And then, we focus on high school students, ages 14 to 18, transitioning them into high school and focusing on mastery of music, and then we work with them around the college access, and we follow them for two years in college and career.

Anita Walker:  So that’s a little unusual, isn’t it, to follow into college.  Why did you decide to do that, and why do you think that’s making a difference?

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila: It is.  I think we started to do that probably about 15 years ago.  So, we started to notice– I have been there for 20 years, but one of the things that we really focused on was high school graduation.  And at that time, we had the highest dropout rate out of any minority group.  And so, we really focused on the high school graduation, and we’re so, so, so focused.  And we started to get young people that would come back to us, and they had no plan.  And so, we realized, wow, that, you know, there’s nobody helping them to do this.  And many of them, their parents had never gone to college, so it just seemed something so, so far away.  And so, we started to really focus on what would be your next steps.  And so, even if students did not go to college, we started really focusing on visiting colleges, going on college campuses.  We started partnering with many of the colleges in our neighborhood to have programming onsite so students could actually go onto the site and be able to feel like they would be able to do this.  And so, we started following them two years into college.  I wish it could be longer because we’re finding that even now, it actually takes even longer.  But, we are a small organization, so that’s about as much capacity as we have.  But, we feel that really they need that coaching.  They need to have people to help them, to remember, “Don’t forget to fill out your financial aid form again,” you know, and to navigate the system.  If you’ve never been to college, it can be pretty overwhelming.

Anita Walker:  Anything else?  Those are great examples for the younger people in your program because they’ve made the leap across the great divide between high school and college.  So do they come back and work with the younger kids?

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Yes, they do.  And we are fortunate that we are in the Longwood Medical area and also in the cultural institution, cultural district, and also the Colleges of the Fenway.  So we have partnerships with all of the Colleges of Fenway.  We have memorandums of agreements with all of the colleges, all the institutions.  And so, we actually are able– you know, it’s not going to be every young person; every young person is different, but we have really, really strong ties with, for example, Mass Art, with Wentworth Institute of Technology.  So we’ve been able to actually work with those admissions to kind of take a look a little bit differently at some of the young people and also help them prep.  We’ve had youth that go on into Berklee School of Music.  So we have these long ties.  And part of our strategy is we have a lot of work study students and a lot of interns that come from these colleges.  And so, we request them, and we talk to them and then they come back in the organization.  And if they’re not doing that, they still end up volunteering.  We do have an alumni network.  And we have about six staff that are alumni, and we have a very intentional alumni pipeline into our staffing.

Anita Walker:  So the relationship with Longwood, that’s interesting too in terms of the internships and the opportunities.  I mean, it’s your next door neighbor and again, just creating that open door and pathway.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Yes.  When I started working at Sociedad we had one institutional partner, which was Brigham and Women’s.  And so, they’re a long-standing partner.  We’ve worked really diligently.  And again, we have relationships with all of the colleges.  We have space that we use at Northeastern.  We use space at Simmons College.  We use space at Emmanuel College.  We have ties with Babson College.  So we have really very deep seeded– and if I’m missing anyone, I apologize.  Oh, Harvard School of Public Health.  I mean, so we’ve used everybody’s space and we have very, very deep relationships.  And then the hospitals also have been really great in terms of taking our young people and giving them internships and then in the past few years, really focused on the cultural district.  So now, we have young people that work with some of the artists in the MFA, traveling around the city.  We have young people that have been interning at the Huntington Theatre; so, really trying to expand that in terms of having young people understand that music is not the only pathway.  It’s part of the arts pathway, but there could be a whole plethora of jobs.

Anita Walker:  You’ve been doing this, as you said, for 50 years and we’ve been running creative youth development programs or supporting them for more than 20, probably close to 25 by now.  So, and this is a field of practice that really sort of was born organically and developed and nurtured itself until we started to figure out a name for it and to define it.  In the time that you’ve been working in creative youth development, how do you think this has evolved, the work has evolved, and what have you learned since day one that you’re doing differently?  What are you seeing now in terms of what’s important with the youth that you work with?

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   That’s such a good question.  I think that what I’ve loved seeing over the past 20 years that I’ve been at Sociedad is that just very mainstream, you know, businesses, politicians, healthcare sectors, etc. are really understanding what that means, creative youth development, and why that is actually important and how we can really engage young people to a whole other level.  When I look at some of the arts programming, and our organization has attracted some young people, especially young men, who have really been like the most disengaged and has brought them back in and really just changed their life around.  And so I love how that has grown, how people understand, and I think they take our work much more seriously where I think before they thought we were a lot of fluff.  So I think that’s also what’s been great about Mass Cultural Council, really pushing that and really helping, you know, to kind of blow up the field so that we can have this understanding and be taken more seriously.  I think the thing that, I don’t know if we’ve learned it, but we’ve just taken it to another level, is the whole notion around helping all of the young persons.  So we may have started, you know, just doing like after school and then as we noticed things that were happening to young people, we had to add something else.  So I think this whole notion of really, really having like this holistic approach, I think we’ve learned that we need to be much more engaged in the life of a family.  And I think the other piece that I have learned as well is just– I think before, we always focused on the academic performance and talking to families.  And now, we’re really focused on what is it that, and then how can we support you to have a better relationship with your child.  So you already have a relationship.  It could be good.  It could be bad.  It could be lukewarm.  But, we find like that just has been more receptive for families and it’s helped youth more.

Anita Walker:  How do you engage in the conversation initially with parents and with family members?

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Mm-hmm.  We tell families that we are going to be involved for the long-term.  So we actually have a packet that we share with families.  We meet with all the middle school families in our neighborhood that we work with.  We know all the principles; we know all the teachers, so that also helps, to be able to have referrals, but we really sit down with the family and we show them our success rate and we show them where students are and we talk to them about why we want to be involved in their life and what kind of impact we can have.  And I think when we start talking to families about not just, you know, going to college and not just having a job, but when we start talking to families about the pieces that we do that are creative and also have a cultural influence and have a linguistic piece, I think families get very excited about that. 

Anita Walker:  You know, our creative youth development program, we always talk about the youth and the focus on the youth.  But, the impact is far beyond the individual student who may be in your program.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Absolutely.

Anita Walker:  Also, the other thing that you mentioned that I think is really important is the breadth and variety of partners that you’ve brought to the table that really wrap around these young people.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Yeah.  We’ve been, again, very fortunate to have such wonderful partners.  I think we couldn’t do the work that we do without them.  I think, you know, we’re small; we play a role, but I think when we, you know, tie ourselves to a– for example, Berklee.  Berklee is a huge partner.  They provide an influx of work study to be able to provide one-on-one, you know, instruction with students.  When we look at Wentworth, we have Saturday programming there that is really focused around STEAM pieces because we know that that’s a huge benefit for our young people and that can be a true pathway.  When we partner with Babson around entrepreneurship, we know that Latinos make up, you know, the most number of entrepreneurs.  And so, we know that that’s a viable pathway.  So, yes, we’ve been really fortunate to have such great partners.

Anita Walker:  So what’s next?  What’s on your wish list to do next?

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Well, we have grown so much since 2011.  We were working with about 2,000 youth and now we’re working with about 6,000.  So, we haven’t grown in terms of staffing to mirror that.  So I think one of the things we’ve been talking about on the board is how do we look at that growth.  We’ve been really bombarded by requests from Boston Public Schools to do a lot of entrepreneurship and college access because we focus on Latino and English language learners and students with formally interrupted education.  So we’ve had this exponential growth.  And now, we have to figure out, with that growth, especially the in-school days, how do those young people come back into our organization and how do they access everything else that we have, whether it’s, you know, being in the youth arts mastery or if it’s being in civic engagement or college access, whatever that looks like.  I think that’s the next step, and building our alumni pipeline because I think that’s really crucial for us and really important is that our staff reflect the youth that we are working with.

Anita Walker:  So just a few minutes on your own capacity because that’s exponential growth.  And I can only imagine that, you know, you never want to say no to anyone who knocks on the door and says, “Here’s a student.  Can you please, you know, enlist this person in your program?”  So how strategically do you recognize the fact that ultimately, you must build up your own capacity or face total burnout by the staff?  How is the board and how is the organization thinking about that?

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Well, I think one thing is we have over 100 volunteers.  So even though we might not have the staffing capacity, we have a huge volunteer base that helps in many ways.  And then, some of our partners– like, for example, Emmanuel provides us with interns that are with us for four years.  So they build up this relationship.  So, it’s almost like having a staff.  So, we might not call them a staff.  They serve, you know, the function of a staff person.  I think, you know, this is why we’re kind of– we’re doing a strategic direction.  We’ve already done a strategic plan.  So we’re just focused on this question.  So, what does it mean to go deeper, and then what is the capacity going to be, and then what does the financial picture look like?  So, where are we going to grow?  How are we going to grow?  Who are going to be our new friends?  And I think because we’re also turning 50 years, it’s a great opportunity to really build a new base of donors, especially in the Latino community.  The Latino community, unfortunately, we are not great philanthropists in this country.  We send our money home.  So I think that’s also part of what we want to do for the next generation is like create the next set of philanthropists because if every young person who came to Sociedad Latina gave us $20 a year, we’d never have to fundraise ever again.  So, I think we want to also have a strategy of building our alumni, building that donor base, and then, again, letting people know we’ve been here for 50 years.  We are a solid organization, and this is a great investment, and so, just tapping into a whole new donor base.

Anita Walker:  Amazing story.  Happy birthday, 50 years.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Thank you.  Thank you.

Anita Walker:  Everyone always loves their 50th.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Yeah.  Oh, yeah.

Anita Walker:  But, you have done absolutely amazing work, and you really truly have been a leader in our creative youth development program for many, many years and always breaking new ground and teaching all the rest of us about the power of culture, especially in the lives of youth.  Alex
Oliver-Dávila, Executive Director of Sociedad Latina, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila:   Thank you so much for having me.

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