By Mark Apostolon
STOCKTON, CA – Latino organizations from around the country will gather here January 26-27, 2016 for an important convening of NCLR, the nation’s largest Hispanic organization based in Washington D.C., and its Affiliates to learn about Stockton’s El Concilio and its comprehensive social and educational programs that have been effectively serving, empowering, and improving the quality of life of the Latino community throughout the San Joaquin Central Valley for almost 48 years.
“This has been a remarkable year for us,” Jose Rodriguez, president and CEO of El Concilio, is more than happy to let you know, “and our affiliation with NCLR has been significant in putting El Concilio into the national spotlight.”
As the nation’s largest Hispanic organization, NCLR has partnered with over 300 Affiliates across the country to serve millions of Latinos in the areas of civic engagement, civil rights and immigration, education, workforce and the economy, health, and housing and fight for an America where economic, political, and social advancement is a reality for all Latinos. It is to Latinos what the NAACP is to African-Americans. El Concilio is one of their Affiliates.
“At this year’s NCLR’s national conference in Kansas City, we were recognized as the NCLR’s Affiliate of the Year,” Rodriguez proudly tells us, “for the exemplary work, innovative social, educational and dynamic outreach programs we’ve developed advancing Latino needs.” Along with the award came a cheque for $25,000 from Ford Motor Company, but beyond that, the award meant sudden national and international recognition, respect, and affirmation of the organization’s work and advocacy programs. It also made El Concilio one of the go-to agencies for other non-profits and governments seeking answers to otherwise complex immigrant-related issues.
Just last month, in November, Rodriguez, representing El Concilio, travelled with an NCLR delegation to Germany where they met with representatives of the government and the Heinrich Böll Foundation to discuss how programs developed in the U.S. to benefit Latino’s might be adapted to benefit the sudden influx of Syrian immigrants and refugees entering Germany. “It begins with expressing to the new comers how to integrate and assimilate, which means working with Syrian ethnic-based agencies to teach them the language, how to advocate for themselves and for children,” Rodriguez points out. “Even the basics of how the banking system works. That’s what we do.” There is also the issue of acceptance by the German people, “in that I can see how much the Syrian Muslims and American Hispanics seem alike. But let me tell you the United States is the best country. You’re born in America; you’re automatically a citizen. You can become a citizen. If you’re born in Germany but you don’t have German blood in you, you can’t be a citizen. You can be 4th generation, and still you’re not a citizen. You can’t even vote in Germany.”
Voting is an issue that goes back to El Concilio’s beginnings as Founding Board Member, Irene Killian de Ojeda, recalls, “El Concilio was founded in 1968 because there was a lack of services for the Spanish-speaking. So, a group of us got together and decided we needed to do something about it.”
Founded during the civil rights movement by five visionary leaders, and a $10,000 dollar grant from the Catholic Diocese to aid the migrant workers with immigration and social welfare issues, El Concilio has managed to establish a distinguished record of accomplishment.
In 1996, Rodriguez was an attorney working in the organization’s legal services when he was asked to step in as executive director for one year while a search committee interviewed for a permanent replacement for the outgoing director. “That was 19 years ago, and I’m still here” A modest man, Rodriguez cannot hide the organization’s accomplishments and growth during his tenure. “When I started in 1996 our annual budget was $1 million, that’s now $10 million. We’ve gone from 30 employees to 200; and from only two operating sites to nine. Our growth has been challenging, but it’s also been rewarding. We have a very dedicated and well-educated staff, who is always asking ‘what more can we do? How can we make it better? What is changing in our community that wasn’t there yesterday that we need to address today?’ We all have pride in serving the community, which is why we see January’s convening as an important affirmation of all our good work and commitment to the community’s accomplishments.”
January’s convening will include Affiliate meetings and workshops on El Concilio’s diverse programs and how they can be adapted to meet various populations. There will also be presentations from Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, U.S. Representative for the 9th District Jerry McNerney, and State Assemblymember from the 13th District Susan Talamantes Eggman who serves on the organization’s Board and is also its Immediate Past President. It is something Assemblymember Eggman takes to heart: “El Concilio’s got history here – almost 50 years – and continued to grow and provide services that the community so desperately needs. The State and the Feds can pass all kinds of policies about services, but if we don’t have organizations that are in and know the community, and are ready to provide the services so desperately needed, then all those policies are really for nothing.” For Rodriguez, this recognition is just the beginning of an exciting and challenging but ultimately rewarding new chapter for El Concilio as it enters the national arena, “these Affiliates coming to Stockton are coming here to learn how we do what we do, how we’ve created the success we’ve worked so hard to bring to our community – the pursuit of a quality education, affordable health care and the opportunity to realize the American Dream. It’s a love we all bring to our work at El Concilio.”
By Mark Apostolon