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The Westside Leadership Institute: Empowering a neighborhood by fostering self-reliance


Maria Garciaz, Executive Director, NeighborWorks Salt Lake

Challenge: More than 500 refugees settle in Salt Lake City, Utah annually, many in the Westside neighborhood where schools struggle with cultural barriers and more than 100 different languages are spoken. This underserved population rarely attends local government or parent teacher association meetings and lacks a voice effecting urgently needed change.

A group of students stand in a building with marble stairs behind them

Salt Lake City's Westside communities are rapidly changing as new immigrants, mostly from Latin America, Somalia, Iraq and Burma, settle in the area. The Westside is home to 80 percent of the city's immigrant population, 40 percent of whom are Hispanic. The majority of the neighborhood's children qualify for free or reduced price lunches at their schools, which struggle to address the cultural and linguistic differences of the students and their families. High school graduation and postsecondary education rates are significantly lower than those of the city's nearby Eastside neighborhoods. Participation is low in public decision-making meetings such as local community councils, parent teacher associations or city government. However, this underserved community needs a voice in the public forum to effect essential change.

NeighborWorks Salt Lake (NWSL) was created in 1977 to reverse the decline of blighted neighborhoods in Salt Lake City through partnerships with residents, businesses and government agencies. In 2004, NWSL developed the Westside Leadership Institute (WLI) to cultivate and develop leadership in target neighborhoods and engage their diverse residents.

The Institute offers leadership workshops taught by the University of Utah and community leaders to equip citizens to take civic action and to provide learning opportunities for university faculty and students. The training connects residents to local decision-making bodies, funding sources and other resources. The program expands participants' leadership experience by having them share what they have learned with their families, friends and co-workers.

One Institute graduate, Lourdes Rangel, a single mother of three autistic children, struggled to help her family because of her language barrier and limited knowledge of services for autistic children. She attended a three-hour class once per week for 12 weeks because she wanted to seize the opportunity to learn about accessing resources for her children and others in similar situations.

"I was very scared coming to the WLI because I was going out of my comfort zone and I didn't speak English very well," says Rangel. "I felt overwhelmed and vulnerable, but I needed to face this fear for my kids. I needed to acquire leadership skills to advocate for my kids and other autistic kids."

Rangel learned how to frame and understand a community issue and practice management strategies along with new skills such as leading meetings, resolving conflicts, communicating ideas and using social media. She was particularly motivated to learn about grant writing and how to educate government agencies about her concerns.

Rangel earned three college credits, qualified for a WLI grant and was awarded a leadership certificate. She then established key partnerships and founded Proyecto Autismo (Autism Project), a nonprofit that provides services for Spanish speaking families with autistic children. Rangel, who was mentored by a University of Utah Spanish instructor, now serves as the primary instructor for the Institute's Spanish sessions.

"I wish every community had this type of leadership development because it really does change people's lives. It lets people know that they are not alone and ultimately it lets people know that their voice and opinion matter," says Rangel.

More than 400 students have graduated from the Institute, which hosts two 12-week sessions annually in English and Spanish. The graduates receive official non-credit transcripts from the University of Utah and certificates of completion. Several graduates have taken on roles as legislators and as members of the city council and school district board. Others have gone on to create nonprofits and many have accessed resources far beyond NWSL's capacity.

WLI graduates include:
  • Sandra Hollins, who participated in the first class in 2004, Utah made history in 2014 as the first black female elected to the Utah State Legislature.
  • Rosie Peralta took the WLI English class because she wanted to join the Parent Teacher Association to get help communicating with her two teenagers. After graduating, she attended PTA meetings and later became the organization's president, a co-instructor for a leadership class at an elementary school and served on several community boards.
  • Charlotte Fife-Jepperson established West View Media, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on the diverse communities in West Salt Lake City and is the only news outlet to cover an area of Salt Lake City that has traditionally been undervalued and misrepresented by the mainstream media.
One element of the Institute's success stems from our organization's understanding that change doesn't happen overnight and requires a long-term commitment. A community is best served by teaching it how to become self-reliant through neighborhood engagement and leadership. We learned that a thorough understanding of a neighborhood's needs and abilities is also key to effecting positive change. We conducted studies to determine demographics, renter/homeowner ratios and the area's economic base, followed by door-to-door surveys to measure the residents' interest in supporting NWSL and the types of programs that will best serve their needs.

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