‘Opportunity Community’: A Model for Cultivating Economic Mobility

with Christine Nieves of Esperanza

In many areas throughout the U.S., Latino communities are disproportionately affected by poverty.

Christine Nieves, Vice President of Development at Esperanza, joins host Liliana Henao Holmes to discuss the challenges facing Latino communities, and an initiative that creates “opportunity communities” to serve as launching pads to cultivate economic mobility.

Posted on:

September 01, 2023

Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Henao Holmes: For the last 35 years, the Latino cultural district in North Philadelphia has served as a launching pad for recent migrants, providing wraparound services and building Latino-focused institutions, including schools, workforce development opportunities and even a newspaper. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Liliana Henao Holmes. Leaders from the group Esperanza believe that what they call an "opportunity community" can serve as a model for how other U.S. cities can cultivate economic mobility within Latino neighborhoods. Joining me to give insight into this community is Christine Nieves. She's a senior vice president of development at Esperanza. Christine, thank you so much for joining me.

Nieves: Thank you, Liliana, for having me.

Henao Holmes: Christine, can you share with us the biggest challenges that still face the Latino community in Philadelphia, but basically all over the country?

Nieves: Yes, the Latino community in North Philadelphia, just like in many areas of the United States, is greatly affected by poverty. In our own Hunting Park neighborhood, for example, a family has an average household income of just $24,000 each year, which is about half that of the average family in the rest of the city. Latinos throughout the United States also tend to live in communities that have experienced high rates of disinvestment, which means fewer resources on the ground for those families. And oftentimes, when investments do come, in housing or the local economy, the cost of living in those neighborhoods rises and families that have lived there for many years are forced to choose between whether to remain where their networks are or to move elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is the story for many Latinos throughout the United States.

Henao Holmes: Precisely. Esperanza was born out of these challenges. Can you share with us the mission and vision of your organization?

Nieves: Absolutely. Well, Esperanza was established in 1986 by the Reverend Luis Cortés and the Hispanic clergy of Philadelphia. These pastors were serving families each day and each Sunday in the heart of North Philadelphia. And these were families who were having trouble finding a safe, affordable roof to put over their heads each night, to find a job that would pay a fair wage or to find good schools for their children. And because the pastors all believed in the dignity of people, they decided to create Esperanza as a solution so that they could have more power and influence over those issues. Today, Esperanza serves 25,000 families each year with services in education, community economic development, workforce development and the arts.

Henao Holmes: Christine, you guys use the term "opportunity community."

Nieves: Yes.

Henao Holmes: What is it, and could this become a model for other U.S. cities?

Nieves: Absolutely. So there are experts out there like the Urban Institute, that have taken a look at Esperanza as a potential model already. An opportunity community, put simply, is a place where a person desires to live because there are sufficient opportunities to make progress and to build a quality life, opportunities for economic mobility. That includes things like safe streets. That includes things like good schools, affordable housing, access to opportunities for cultural and spiritual expression. All of these come together in an opportunity community to provide opportunities for individuals to make progress.

Henao Holmes: Christine, what are some of the highlights of the positive change that Esperanza has had in the Latino community in Philadelphia?

Nieves: So this is actually one of my favorite things to talk about, because Esperanza is showing every day that success can be the story of a community, not just one person. Some of our greatest areas of success have been in education and community and economic development. We work with 3,000 students each day in grades K through 12, and at Esperanza College. Our high school has a graduation rate of 98%, and more than 80% of our students are accepted into colleges. In addition, our dropout rate is less than 1%, compared to 27% for Latinos in the city overall. Many of our teachers choose to stay and to remain and to teach here after graduating from our own schools. In the area of community and economic development, we've planted more than 2,000 trees working together with partners. We work with 200-plus small businesses along three economic corridors. We are opening a center for Latino health equity and taking steps to create a digital version of this opportunity community. But what I am most excited about is a project that we are working on now -- an affordable rental housing land trust that will ensure that rents remain affordable for families who choose to stay for years to come.

Henao Holmes: Christine, if people want to learn more about your work, where can they go?

Nieves: They can visit us at www. Esperanza.us. Our phone number and e-mail are there, and we'd love to hear from you.

Henao Holmes: Christine Nieves from Esperanza, thank you so much for joining us today.

Nieves: Thank you for having me.

Henao Holmes: And thank you for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Liliana Henao Holmes.

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