As the members of ARISE see it, the key to empowerment is for women to help other women see that they have talents and gifts that they can use to improve themselves, their families, and their community. Yet, for women who grew up being told that they had nothing to offer, that all they were good at was raising children and keeping house, the idea that they had skills that went beyond meeting their families’ basic needs was hard to believe. For the last 24 years, though, the women of ARISE have been doing just that; telling their relatives, friends and neighbors in the colonias of southern Texas: “Yes, you can do it.”
ARISE is a grassroots organization of women for women. It is about building on strengths and respecting the dignity of each individual. It’s about spirituality, cultural values and personal growth. It’s about connecting women with each other and strengthening the fabric of their communities. It’s about teamwork and putting personal ambition aside in favor of common goals. It’s about inspiring hope and a sense of possibility.
When Sister Gerrie Naughton, of the Sisters of Mercy order, came to Las Milpas in 1987, she did not have a specific plan. According to her, the plan “revealed itself, step by step, through her interaction with the women of the Las Milpas community.” She understood that in order to build a sustainable project, it had to be done by the women and led by them as well. Her first task was to gain their trust. When transplanted from their homeland to their new host country, many residents had lost their sense of community and replaced it with fear and isolation.
The first of four ARISE Centers opened in Las Milpas, a poor colonia along the south Texas border with Mexico, in 1987. Back then, the area was barely developed. There was no pavement, flooding was a recurrent problem, and there were no basic services. Its residents were discriminated against by other Mexicans who lived in the nearest town of Pharr because they saw them as “poor immigrants.” In over twenty years, the community has experienced many changes, some good and some not so good. NAFTA, for instance, brought a lot of development to Las Milpas, but truck traffic to and from the border has increased congestion, noise, and air pollution. Drug traffic along the border has also gone up. On the positive side, Las Milpas now has two new elementary schools. Residents collected signatures to get a doctor and clinic in town, and there is even a pharmacy in the community.
ARISE combines personal development, and leadership and community organizing training for women so that they can build on their personal capacities as leaders and organizers with the skills to build similar talents among other women in their community.
How Is ARISE Structured?
Sister Gerrie began to build both the women’s trust and the organization by going door-to-door and recruiting women interested in improving themselves and their community. Over the years, ARISE has developed a structure based around four community centers. Each Center has a director drawn from the original group of women recruited by Sister Gerrie. In addition, each Center has two community organizers, and several animadoras who run the different programs offered to the community. The Centers are separately incorporated and work independently from each other, each with its own Board. Each has its own budget which the staff develops based on the needs and interests of the residents in their area. The four Presidents make up the team that often get together to discuss certain decisions and work for unity across the four Centers. They share a Development Office which is part of the ARISE Support Center. The 30 women on ARISE’s staff provide direct services to over 1000 families in the colonias.
All four ARISE programs share the same mission, vision, values and non-negotiables. They celebrate certain events together to keep that sense of commitment to one another and to the same mission alive. This keeps their ‘small’ group identity strong and at the same time allows them to share life and festivity with the families from the neighborhood.
Staff Recruitment And Training
ARISE’s model is based on building personal relationships with women where they feel most comfortable: in their homes. When a woman from the community becomes involved as a participant in an ARISE program and shows commitment, interest, and enthusiasm, they
- Formación: A 12-week, 8 hrs. a day, 4 day a week personal development curriculum. Women are paid a stipend to attend.
- 720 hours of training on leadership and organizing to obtain certification from the Mexican American Cultural Center (MAAC)
- 72 hours of service outside ARISE
- Mentoring and coaching from more experienced peers
- Leaders receive individualized training on management and other administrative functions
are approached about joining the staff. They must be legal residents and have a social security number in order to be paid, but no one who wants to help is turned away. After a rigorous and ongoing training program, which has been carefully developed by ARISE’s leadership by combining their own curriculum with borrowed ones from various national organizations, the women are hired to work part time. The older, more experienced staff mentor and coach new staff and offer feedback on their performance and suggestions for improvement. For the staff of ARISE the words “I can’t do it” are no longer part of their vocabulary. Each woman decides what role she can most comfortably play based on her gifts and interests. All of the work is done in teams of at least two women.
ARISE’s programs are shaped by the needs that are discovered when staff visit the homes of potential participants. A craft group for women, for instance, started as a result of the observation that when staff did crafts with groups of children in one of the homes, the mothers were always eager to get involved and ended up taking over their children’s projects. Another program – helping women obtain their driver’s licenses – originated from the staff itself. Since transportation and home visitation are key elements for an ARISE staff member, having a driver^s license is essential. ARISE helped them to do this. Women in the community noticed that ARISE helped the staff obtain their licenses and asked if the same could be done for them. The ARISE Coaching for Driver’s License Program was born out of people^s needs.
PROGRAMS FOR YOUTH:
- English classes
- Arts and crafts
- Folkloric ballet
- Summer programs
The main focus of ARISE programming is programs aimed at youth. Youth from the community are trained as animators (tutors) by ARISE senior staff. The staff also helps them prepare the materials for classes, and the organizers work with the family to ensure good participation by the children. The youth are supervised to ensure quality instruction. Programs combine multiple skills. Language lessons, for instance, also teach math and reasoning. The children^s Folkloric Ballet is frequently performed at public events. Mexican culture is heavily emphasized and celebrated in all activities at ARISE.
Programs for adult women always start with personal development and spirituality. Language and citizenship classes are available to those who need them. Although all of ARISE’s programs are free, adults are asked to do servicio contribuido (contributed service) once a week. This means that each beneficiary is required to give 8 hours of service back to ARISE or to the community at large. This gives participants a sense of dignity, and a feeling that they are not just receiving charity. It breaks the habit of expecting something for nothing.
The Next Generation Of Leaders
For the 30 women that make up ARISE’s staff, their jobs are more than a source of income – they are a journey into self-discovery and personal transformation. By challenging themselves to undertake new tasks as new needs come up from the community, the women are continuously discovering new talents. It is this ongoing process that keeps the organization strong and viable. Staff turnover is rare in ARISE. Over half of the staff have been with ARISE for more than 7 years. The senior women go back an impressive 15-18 years. “I started taking classes of self improvement. I just wanted to work. Then, I started thinking about what I was doing. The classes and my involvement helped me with my life, and then I started to deal with my own problems at home.”
One interesting aspect of ARISE’s staffing pattern is that it is built as a loop. The senior women who started the organization are already training a second cohort of future leaders from among women who have been on staff for eight years. Once the new leaders are ready to take over, the old leaders will go back to the base and begin working as organizers and running activities, just as they did when they first started!
One might say that ARISE is truly a program of the people, for the people, and by the people. Neighbor helping neighbor in the neighborhood is a popular way to describe ARISE.
ARISE Las Milpas Ballet Folklórico performing for Día del Niño Celebration
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