By Patrick Thelen
Over 52 million people of Hispanic origin are currently living in the United States. By 2050, the number is expected to reach 132.8 million. This demographic transformation is clearly visible for those living in LA. According to the 2010 US Census, there are 4.7 million people of Hispanic origin residing in Los Angeles County. In other words, this group makes up 48.1% of the County´s population.
What exactly do these numbers mean? For Carlene Davis, an experienced policy and management professional in the public and non-profit sectors, they represent an opportunity to embrace a new reality, and confront change in a positive and enriching manner.
In 2003, as a volunteer effort in response to rising tensions from the changing racial and ethnic landscapes of Los Angeles’s schools, neighborhoods and communities, Ms. Davis founded Abrazar. Created on the premise of the unifying power of language, Abrazar –which means embrace in Spanish –is focused on utilizing Spanish-language learning as a vehicle to facilitate positive inter-group relations between African-American and Latino youth, particularly in South Los Angeles.
Although the project has been dormant during the last five years, Abrazar has just announced a community host partnership with Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School. This alliance will allow Ms. Davis’ venture to relaunch in January, 2013, the ¡Listos! After-school Program and the ¿Cómo Se Dice? Weekend Academy –the latter will be open to the general public.
The ¡Listos! After-school Program is both a Spanish-language learning and cultural awareness program for elementary school children. In Spanish, listos means both “smart” and “ready.”
The ¿Cómo se Dice? Weekend Academy is a Foreign Language Experience (FLEX) Spanish program for children between six and eleven years old. The goal is to teach Spanish in a fun way that will prepare students to acquire a second language over time.
Bridging the gap between two communities
“In the 2000’s, as the demographics of South LA were continuing to switch from African American to Latino, we started to witness an increase in black-brown tension,” says Ms. Davis. As a native of Los Angeles, she did not like what she was seeing and decided to build a bridge between both communities. She created an educational advocacy campaign, and told neighbors that their children should learn the new language.
“My goal is to change the hearts of the community. Both African Americans and Latinos need to learn from each other,” says Ms. Davis. “Language is a powerful social and cultural tool that establishes bonds between diverse communities.”
“I think a program like Abrazar affects relationships between the two groups by breaking down barriers,” says Susan Plann, Professor of Chicano/a Studies at UCLA and an Advisory Board Member of Abrazar. “One of my students wrote an honors thesis on the program, and part of her research involved interviewing kids from the classes. Many said that they wanted to learn more Spanish and practiced it with their Spanish speaking neighbors. They were really into it. Programs like these demystify ‘the other’ and we need more of them.”
Abrazar started off as a vocational side job for Ms. Davis. Her full-time job was very time consuming and did not allow her to dedicate the time and energy needed to maintain a sustainable project. “I was just doing what I could to bring this to the community. I wasn´t thinking of developing a long term program.”
Ms. Davis is currently working as a consultant with the Coalition for Educational Partnerships. This job has provided her the required time and liberty to relaunch Abrazar and confront future challenges and opportunities.
In addition to her partnership with Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School, Ms. Davis will continue her previous affiliations with LA Commons and The Foundation for Second Chances. She is also affiliated with the International Society of Black Latinos, an organization dedicated to educating the community about the cultural and historical richness of the African Diaspora in Latin America and the presence of vibrant Afro-Latino communities in the U.S.
The relationship with the International Society of Black Latinos is highly relevant in Abrazar’s educational program. “At first we would only focus in teaching Spanish. Over time we added the cultural content and gave it an Afro-Latino focus. Although Mexico is an important part of our curriculum, we also spend a lot of time teaching the culture and music of Spanish speaking countries with a strong African presence.”
Although Ms. Davis’ mission is to develop a cultural experience that will unite both communities, she is also aware that teaching children a second language will benefit them the day they start looking for jobs. “In a city like Los Angeles, in which Spanish is the unofficial second language, a person that knows both languages will be preferred in any profession that involves human interaction. However, Abrazar´s vision is to prepare a future generation of global citizens.”