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KAREN MENENDEZ COLLER (copy)

Karen Menendez Coller, executive director for Centro Hispano of Dane County, is pictured at the center in this 2015 photo.

The theme for Centro Hispano of Dane County in 2018 was action, said executive director Karen Menendez Coller.

Some of that action was planned and proactive, like expanding Centro’s services, but other moves were reacting to crises, like jumping into action when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came to town in September.

But going into 2019, Centro Hispano, a nonprofit that offers programs and services to empower the Latino community, plans to take a beat to plan ahead. The theme of the year is hope, Menendez Coller said.

“It’s going to be the year of sowing the seeds of what the future could be for our community,” she said. “We took action when we felt we were very much on the defensive, and now we’re saying we’re strong.”

Menendez Coller sat down with the Cap Times to look back at 2018 and talk about Centro’s priorities for the coming year.

2018

Perhaps the most striking event for the Latino community in 2018 was the fear that came from four days of ICE activity in September. ICE detained 20 people in Dane County, and the scale and surprise of the effort, plus swirling rumors on social media, fed fear and panic in the city’s immigrant and Latino communities.

Centro Hispano offered a safe space for the community during that time and used its Facebook page to provide updates. The center hosted a press conference and held a meeting for families of detainees, offering legal advice and mental health care.

On top of that, Centro Hispano grew their case management capacity in 2018 to provide bilingual, culturally appropriate support. They gave away bigger-than-ever college scholarships for Latino students, and piloted a Spanish-language AODA (alcohol and other drug abuse) treatment program in partnership with Journey Mental Health.

“We were very adamant about making a point with each of our programs to have action in the community,” Menendez Coller said. “I feel like we made very solid moves in 2018 that were needed.”

Due to lack of documentation, roughly a third of Centro kids don’t have access to in-state tuition or financial aid for higher education, so Centro Hispano has grown its scholarship program significantly. It gave out two $10,000 scholarships in November.

“What better way to take action than to give more sizable scholarship awards to the kids?” Menendez Coller said.

Regarding current AODA efforts in the area, Menendez Coller said there’s a lack of bilingual, culturally appropriate services.

Attendees “don’t get much out of it because of the language barrier, but it also doesn’t address a lot of the reasons why there may be addiction in our community,” she said. “That’s a space (where) actually there’s a tremendous amount of room for growth in Dane County.”

Centro hopes to get statewide accreditation for its Spanish-language AODA group in the near future.

In 2018, Centro Hispano also built or strengthened a variety of collaborations with law enforcement, legal providers and faith-based communities, Menendez Coller said. Partnerships include those with the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, the Immigration and Refugee Task Force, the Dane County Immigrant Assistance Collaborative and the Immigration Enforcement Rapid Response Team.

2019

“The last two years have been a lot of crisis response,” Menendez Coller said. “We haven’t had a chance to breathe, to just be and to just really nurture the seed of hope for our future. ... What do we need so this community feels really, really incredibly supported the next three to five years?”

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Centro Hispano will work on marketing and building capacity for the organization, and in January there will be announcements about the expansion of youth programming. They’ll also work on their messaging around the organization, and on Latino and immigrant communities more generally. They’ve realized the importance of changing wider public opinion, Menendez Coller said.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Humanities Council, they’re interviewing people throughout Dane County for a statewide exhibit that Menendez Coller hopes will “change the perspective around our community.”

“There's so many amazing, beautiful stories that have come out and it’s really powerful when you're telling them visually and with a life history,” she said. “If other people understand our community, then the work and the dreams that we want to have here at Centro are easier.”

Menendez Coller said the fight for driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented residents were “two issues that I want us to be bulldogs around.”

In his campaign for governor, Gov.-elect Tony Evers said he would support in-state tuition and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and in-state tuition for undocumented students brought to the U.S. by their parents.

After the election, Menendez Coller — who is originally from El Salvador and a former California resident — said she was proud to be a Wisconsinite.

“I feel very proud of being in a state that hopefully is going to be setting the tone in the right direction,” she said. “I feel like I’m from here now, which is pretty cool.”

Asked what the wider community could do to help Centro reach its 2019 goals, Menendez Coller pointed to the importance of relationship-building, and not just engaging with Centro when there’s an emergency like ICE raids.

“I wish everybody would talk about the needs of our community all the time, and know all the data and would just bring it up in their place of work. If everybody in their own spaces included the dreams of the Latino community, I think our vision would be a lot easier,” she said.

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