Mundane things like ordering from a menu, talking to a doctor, applying for a job or navigating traffic signs can be hard for people who don't know a country's language. When non-English speaking people migrate into the United States, one of the biggest obstacles they face is figuring out how to communicate. The Longmont-based nonprofit Intercambio has been offering affordable English classes to recent immigrants since 2001. And on Saturday, June 21, the Left Hand Brewing Company is throwing Culture Jam, an intercultural party to help raise funds for Intercambio's work. In advance of the festivities, Westword spoke with Kristine Edwards about the organization.
Westword: Talk about Intercambio's work.
Intercambio is a nonprofit that trains and mobilizes volunteers to teach English to immigrants in Boulder County. That's one of the most basic things we do. We also provide a ton of events throughout the year. Our goal is not just to teach English. One of the reasons we use volunteers is that we want to build relationships across communities and across cultures that otherwise wouldn't happen. We have English classes taught by volunteers to immigrants. Volunteers don't need to speak Spanish in order to teach English. They don't have to have a teaching background. It's just people wanting to help other people. They are taught with our curriculum, which is designed to be taught by volunteers to people who have never spoken English before.
We also offer life skills classes, job application classes, culture trainings, because it's not just English that's a barrier for immigrants. It's understanding the soft skills -- how to interact with people from other cultures. You have to be on time, and time is relative in different countries. We talk about how time and relationships work in the U.S..
We have events every month. We're working on Culture Jam this time around. This all sprang up out of last year. We had this huge waiting list and needed volunteers to teach English. I was working with Josh over at Left Hand Brewing Company and he invited us to be part of the summer concert series. We worked together to bring in Grammy-winning Ozomatli. The goal was to not only throw an awesome cross-cultural party that doesn't often happen in Longmont, he goal was to raise money for Intercambio and raise awareness.
Talk about some of the barriers facing the migrants that you've worked with and how you have addressed those.
They're varied. People have all different types of backgrounds. As immigrants, people come here. They've lived their lives other places. They've accomplished what they could in their home countries, but then they come here and they have to start all over again. The most basic part of it is that they have to learn English. If you don't know English, you can't do anything in the U.S. Really, you're very limited, at least.
For example, one of our students, she arrived in the U.S. and she spoke absolutely no English, but she really wanted to work with children. She started in our lowest level class, level 1-A. She spoke no English and had to work her way up. She got through all seven levels of our curriculum. She became proficient and was able to go on to Front Range Community College. She got her certificate and now, she's working at a preschool. She's providing for her own family and she's achieved her dream of working with children.
Ninety percent of our immigrants are low-income. Our classes are low-cost. We still want our students to invest in their education. They are required to pay a very small fee. We had this group of young, low-income mothers who started taking English classes together five years ago. They all started having kids at the same time. The teacher referred to those kids as her grandbabies.
One of our mothers, she started speaking English, but suddenly, she had a daughter who was developmentally disabled. Now, she has the English skills she needs in order to speak to therapists, speak to doctors and understand how to be involved with her child, not only in terms of her health, but also her education in the U.S.
We had another mother whose daughter was on the opposite side of the scale. Her daughter, at two, was suddenly reading in English and in Spanish, which is crazy. It's just amazing. She wanted to make sure that her daughter had the best education available to her. She was able to apply for her child to get into a special school so she could keep learning at a rate where she was able to learn.
A lot of these people are parents. Their goal is to build a life for themselves and set quite good examples for their kids. They really develop themselves. It's hard to tell your child to study hard in school if you're not doing it yourself. A lot of our parents take that seriously and they set really high standards for themselves. They're dedicated and come to class every week, which is hard as an adult to have work and kids and everything going on. They require their kids to do the same thing. It's really inspirational to see that all the time.
Read on for more from Kristine Edwards.
What countries do the people you're working with come from?
We have people from all over the world. I would say 80 percent of our students are from Mexico; 90 percent are from Latin America. The rest of them are from all over the world, all over Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. We have students from everywhere. It's really fun to come to work because of it. Are those students working in the same classrooms with each other? What possibilities, collaborations and tensions come up in those collaborations?
We assess every student's language level, especially in our group classes, and then we place them into the group according to their language level, not according to culture. Some of these classes are really multicultural. It's easy if you have a class with everybody who speaks the same foreign language. It's easy for them to fall into "Let's just speak Spanish about this concept," but if you have people from all over the world, you can't do that. You have to learn in English. It's really an immersion experience for these students.
Have your teachers encountered stumbling blocks or their own challenges around cultural literacy or intercultural dynamics?
We've started to see an influx of Middle Eastern students, which is really interesting because of the cultural challenges there. If we have Middle Eastern women in a class, we usually want that class to be taught by American women because it can be scary. Depending on where they come from in the Middle East and how conservative or not that country is, it might not be appropriate for a man to be teaching a woman, even in a group class setting.
Usually, if we're doing private classes, we only match men with men and women with women. We don't want to have any issues there.
When it comes to dealing with this new cultural difference -- we're very used to Latin America -- it's an interesting thing for the teachers and us. Sometimes you don't shake hands. Sometimes you don't touch. All different parts of the world interact in different ways. Our volunteers are really open to it and they enjoy the challenges of this kind of work. Our staff does as well. I don't think people that aren't open to that are going to apply to volunteer in this way. I think it's good, overall. Challenging, but fun.
Colorado's political climate around immigration is charged and shifting constantly. How does this impact your work?
Immigration is a polarized issue. One thing that everybody, no matter what their position is, one thing that everybody can agree on is that we want immigrants to learn English if they're going to be here. That's how Intercambio helps with the situation. We try to stay as apolitical as possible. There are organizations that do policy work. Our goal is to help with immigrant integration and make sure that when communities interact with each other, they are open and really able to communicate with English. Everybody needs to have one common tongue.
Culture Jam is set for Saturday, June 21, at 1265 Boston Avenue, Longmont. Festivities run from 5 to 10 p.m.; general entry costs $28; kids $10. For tickets, go to lefthandbrewing.com or call 303-772-0258.
Folllow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.