30 Years of Success
"We raise expectations". If she had just three words, these are the ones Dr. Josefina Villamil Tinajero of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) would choose to describe the mission of the innovative Mother-Daughter Program she directs. For it is by raising the expectations of young Hispanic girls and their mothers that the program helps them to create their own hopes and their own bright futures.
Rosa, a mother who participated in the program in 1986, phrases it another way: "I'm so grateful to the Mother-Daughter Program," she says. "It opened a door for me that led to a way out. It gave me a little spark of hope."
Rosa's daughter, Jessica, now a college student, describes the raised expectations that have kept her going since her sixth-grade year in the Mother-Daughter Program: "You have people there who believe in you, who have hope. They expect so much from you; you don't want to let them down."
The Mother-Daughter Program was developed with the express purpose of empowering Hispanic women. This rapidly growing segment of our nation's population has long been challenged by chronic academic under-achievement leading to low-paying positions in the work force.
Concerned individuals from UTEP, the YWCA and two of El Paso's school districts, and members of the El Paso community at large came together in 1986 to find a way to plug the leak in our system leading to this tremendous waste of potential. They knew it was time to move beyond the misleading myth that Hispanic women need only a cursory education since most will stay home to raise their families rather than entering the job market.
Statistics have since confirmed what the organizers already knew: More than half of the nation's Hispanic women work outside the home, primarily in low-paying jobs. This percentage continues to rise while the percentage of Hispanic women in higher education remains at only about 10 percent. The vast majority of Hispanic women who join the work force do so out of economic necessity. Many are single heads of households.
The program's organizers saw only one clear path beyond the poverty and wasted potential represented by these facts: education. They set to work to find a long-term approach that could encourage Hispanic girls not only to complete high school, but to move into higher education as well. The organizers' long-term goal was to create the possibility of a more equitable representation of Hispanic women in professional careers through higher education.
The approach they developed differs from many educational retention and leadership programs in three important ways:
- Sixth-grade girls, rather than high school girls, are the focus of the program's primary efforts;
- Mothers are considered an integral part of the program and must participate with their daughters; and
- The girls learn about their many options in life by seeing success firsthand in the form of Hispanic university students and career women from every walk of life who participate as role models.
The Mother-Daughter Program is still young, with its first group of sixth-grade participants having graduated from high school in 1993. Yet the program's early successes - both planned and unexpected - have been so encouraging that requests for information pour in from educational institutions and communities around the country. Dr. Tinajero and her associate director, Tita Yanar, agree that the Mother-Daughter Program could be adapted to effectively address the specific needs of any community. Thanks to a generous grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that makes possible the production and dissemination of materials related to Mother Daughter, the program's coordinators are happy to be able to share all that they've learned thus far about creating a hope and a future with the help of the Mother-Daughter Program. This monograph uses first names only, or simply identifies "a mother" or "a daughter," to protect the privacy of the participants in the Mother-Daughter Program. However, all quotes identified this way are from girls and women who have participated in the program since it began in 1986. Their stories, their experiences and their voices are very real. They represent the voices of the thousands who need only be shown the possibilities to find their own hope and to create their own futures.
A Strong Foundation
As coalition members struggled to establish the program during its early years, all they really had to work with were their own commitment and their sincere belief that the girls and mothers in the program were a tremendous untapped resource, needing only to be shown the possibilities in order to start fulfilling their potential. This belief became the most powerful incentive they could offer the participants. As one mother recalled, "When the Mother-Daughter Program told us that they believed in us, I said, well, maybe I should believe in myself, too.
Throughout the ups and downs of establishing the program, organizers concentrated on their goal of raising every participant's expectations. Kori, a daughter in the program, is one of hundreds who have received the message loud and clear. "The program meant to me that Hispanic women are very important, 11 she said. "We have a right to do everything men do."
The Mother-Daughter Program is built on a strong foundation of institutions that have joined together to create a coalition. Each adds an essential element to the program. When they first gathered in 1986, coalition members turned for inspiration to a pilot program conducted under the leadership of Dr. Joanne O'Donnell at Arizona State University in cooperation with the Phoenix public schools. Building on general concepts from that program and the specific needs of the Hispanic female population in their own community, the coalition created the Mother-Daughter Program.
The Big Picture
A question that naturally arises when people learn about the Mother-Daughter Program is, "What about the fathers and sons?" As organizers move into their ninth year, they are more confident than ever that the parent-child interaction involved in the program is an essential element in stopping the cycle of Hispanic females being over-represented in low-paying jobs and under-represented in higher education and professional careers.
To expand on this success, a pilot father-son activity was planned and enthusiastically received by the schools and community in April 1994. As a result, the Father-Son Initiative was begun in the fall of 1994, inviting about 100 boys from seven school districts in the El Paso area to participate in UTEP campus visits and other activities modeled after the Mother-Daughter Program to enhance the boys' academic ambition and achievement. El Paso's Rotary Club has shown its continuing support for the program by providing a grant to fund this new Father-Son Initiative and by involving its members in activities such as Take Your Son to Work Day for the boys who are joining the program.
At the grassroots level, each year more and more mothers and daughters who have participated in the Mother-Daughter Program are returning to their neighborhoods and sharing their hope and inspiration with friends, neighbors and their own family members. Mother-Daughter organizers also hope the program is helping to create a brighter future for the El Paso community as a whole by helping many of its bright, young Hispanic women to realize their potential as future leaders.
Perhaps the biggest dream of Mother-Daughter organizers is to share their program with as many communities as possible. If those communities can raise the expectations of their own populations of bright, capable young people, together we'll be creating a hope and a future in which all of us can share.