Education is about more than jobs. It is more than a pathway to higher wages. It is intimately tied to our sense of self-worth, dignity, wellbeing, and relationships with the people around us. Access to education – both in pursuit of specialized work and as a gateway to broader worldviews – is a strong measure of a community’s overall health. Especially as our local economies experience radical transformation, it is vital to create opportunities for learning new skills and gaining new insights. Unfortunately, formal systems built to guide immigrants have continually failed to realize the benefits of investing in education.
Over time, immigrants and refugees have been systematically deprived of access to education thanks to strategies that denigrate their productive capabilities in favor of creating reliable low wage labor supply. Whereas funding support for education access has been widely utilized throughout the history of American immigration, in recent decades, this strategy has been replaced with a monolithic focus on entering rapid employment. Instead of waiting or advocating for those systems to be reformed, our common vision has helped to create a community-run funding mechanism that helps immigrants pursue higher standards of professional or educational achievement.
Over the past two years, we have worked with local agencies, community representatives, and the burgeoning community champions infrastructure to establish The Opportunity Fund in Houston. We launched the fund to support two families in its first year, growing to ten in its second, and it is, now, on pace for fifty in 2019. With each new participant, we gain insight into programs, ranging from traditional universities to online programs and vocational trainings, that can extend access to education for immigrants of all backgrounds.
In 2017, we ran a small pilot to explore the models through which an investment in education access could support the needs of newly arriving immigrant families. By putting our full resources and attention into two individual cases, we gained a depth of knowledge about the external factors that complicate even the best-case circumstances for new arrivals. Issues of childcare, transportation, international transcript verification, network connections, program quality, and cultural expectations all played a role in supporting those first two community members, who both came with extensive schooling and strong work histories. We also quickly discovered a valuable link between access to education and our Community Connections Portal, which helped the participants navigate complex bureaucracies through the support of a new network tie. Those experiences, together with the successes and challenges faced by ten families we supported in the following year, have laid the groundwork for sustainable growth of The Opportunity Fund.
The values shared by our community champions and many collaborators are central to the ongoing incubation of the fund. Recognizing that education access is about more than a simple economic calculation, we are working to define new metrics of success. English language acquisition and familiarity with educational opportunities are in many ways more indicative of success than hourly wage increase or labor participation, especially in the short term. In addition, we believe that a community-funded mechanism must consider long term sustainability and fairness through a free-loan structure, in which each individual success paves the way for another family. Lastly, we believe that these instruments must be accessible to the widest number of our community members. Rather than focusing on one small group of “highly employable” or “unskilled laborers”, we are interested in systems that give us, as individuals, the choice to pursue our own ambitions.
At present, we are working on a three-step process of incubation for the fund. First, with each participant, we are expanding our directory of quality training programs and gaining insight into the industries that are best suited for members of our community to enter. Factors such a schedule, cost, and cultural competency also play a role in helping us build reliable tracks for new arrivals to pursue. Second, we are focused on a three-year transition to offering primarily free-interest loans, rather than grants. After finding ideal candidates for loans and through the guidance of our friends at Hebrew Free Loan Association, we have already built a small portfolio of outstanding loans to members of our community. Finally, the last step of our incubation will be to identify a local institution that can build a long-term management capacity for the fund. The ultimate objective is for us to be able to use this tool, once we have taken the time to craft it for our own direct benefit.
Some of the key lessons we have learned through our experiences running The Opportunity Fund include:
1. There exists huge value in offering a community-supported alternative to rapid employment.
Within the extreme pressures of a system based on rapid employment, there is no option, both legally and through basic financial considerations, for an individual to turn down any employment opportunity. Yet, we know that in the long-run, the short-term gains are outweighed by long term costs. Nevertheless, in that moment amid a complex journey of migration, no one is able to make an accurate calculation of risk and return. Especially when alternatives are not discussed, new arrivals have no real choice to express their own time preference.
Simply by suggesting there might be an alternative, we have already seen that a change in mindset can manifest into a radical change of outcomes. Given the diversification of educational opportunities and through the social support of a local community, alternative pathways are within reach. By removing that immediate pressure to accept a job offer, which will likely remain available due to chronic staff turnover at many of the city’s top employers, we give members of our community a moment to consider their strengths and imagine an attainable path of their own.
2. Education and vocational training leads to better outcomes when paired with mentorship.
By the time our education grants were launched, the burgeoning collaboration was already utilizing the Community Connection Portal with success. One of our first education grant recipients struggled to choose between two engineering programs in which to enroll. When paired with an employment mentor through our portal, he made an informed choice based on the experiences of professionals who work locally in his field and came to this country with foreign degrees. Since then, we have matched nearly all our participants with an employment mentor to guide the way and offer encouragement. The synergy between these programs has been a fantastic emergent property and further showcased the invaluable role that increased person-to-person connections can make.
3. The system of public education fails to inform immigrants about opportunities and career paths.
Thanks to some regular guests of our monthly dinners, we have built relationships with individual staff from Houston Community College. They have been extremely helpful in addressing the needs of individuals, and yet, as a whole, public education is nearly impossible for immigrants to navigate on their own. Since HCC closed the office built to support refugee arrivals, no replacement has emerged. Limited information about program costs, degree opportunities, and vocational trainings is shared within our broad network. As we build a body of knowledge, private programs continue to offer better opportunities that major public institutions.
4. Professional recertification and transcript verification require a more systematized approach.
By covering fees for transcript verification and recertification examination, we are making a stellar investment in the future of a family. Yet, these processes often require a higher degree of handholding than most of our employment mentors are able to extend. Over time, we hope to gain expertise in vertical industries to better guide qualified professionals in reclaiming their educational achievements in Houston. Our efforts might benefit from larger groups and professional associations that can offer guidance from within their networks.
5. ESL can become accessible to all willing and able immigrants only through a collaborative, citywide effort.
The demands of work, limitations for childcare, cultural sensitivities, and physical barriers all present a challenge for delivering quality ESL education across Houston. According to the Houston Refugee Consortium, only 54% of enrolled students completed the first level of ESL education in 2018, a troublesome statistic when considering the small numbers and distinct advantages that refugee service providers have compared to other immigrant community support efforts. We have worked with multiple partners to find effective solutions for culturally competent and physically accessible language instruction. While we have found a small group of quality options, it has been extremely challenging to make those programs broadly accessible, especially to women and single mothers. In addition to the economic costs of inaccessible ESL, we cannot understate the emotion and cultural consequences of never learning to speak English.
We envision systems that help small ESL providers broadcast their capacity and maps that assist new arrivals in finding conveniently located class offerings. The diversification of ESL provision is necessary for broad access. Funding for delivering ESL instruction must be more broadly accessible as well to support those efforts. We are interested in utilizing our digital tools to better coordinate ESL instruction. Ultimately, we have been exploring any method by which qualified teachers are financially supported and seamlessly connected with the heavy demand.
The lessons we have learned position us for sustained growth of The Opportunity Fund. As we move forward in the incubation process, it is incumbent upon our efforts to create multicultural self-reliance through a growing network of trust. All partners in the effort, ranging from educators to funding recipients, continue to play an intimate role in shaping its future. Much like our monthly gatherings and our digital development goals, the work grows when we successfully invite new talents and perspectives into the conversation. Altogether, the distinct puzzle pieces fit perfectly in place insofar as our individual community members - coming from all corners of the globe - find common ground in this strange urban setting of Houston, TX.