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Breaking the cycle of poverty in El Barrio with education

June 15, 2020 Category: FeaturedPurposeShort
Congreso de Latinos Unidos, located in Fairhill, serves one of the poorest communities in the country’s poorest major city.

Close to 46 percent of Latinos living in the Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods are below the poverty rate, according to a study from The Philadelphia Collaborative for Health Equity. Congreso’s own statistics show that 64 percent of their clients have a family income of less than $10,000 a year.

“For many of these students growing up in poverty, they just don’t have access to the resources they need,” said Rita Mejias, an assistant teaching professor at Penn State Abington.

Mejias teaches English to high school students who have been selected to participate in a new dual enrollment program at Congreso in collaboration with Penn State Abington. Students in the program graduate with college credits and a Penn State certificate in rehabilitation and human services.

“Some of these high schools in these neighborhoods are not giving them what they need to be successful in college,” said Mejias. “If you give them the resources, the guidance, the encouragement…that’s what they need because some of them come from homes that all they’ve seen is negativity.

Mejias is a North Philly native. She identifies herself as a “product of Congreso.” Her parents were grade school dropouts.

“They needed to work, needed to pay rent and bills,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I relate to this program so well. I know what it’s like to be all on your own and have ambition.”

Congreso wants to move their clients into economic self-sufficiency. Get them on their feet, so they don’t have to rely on government assistance programs, said Carlos Cartagena, director of post-secondary services at Congreso.

“But even that is a stereotype,” said Cartagena. “The vast majority are working-class, blue-collar workers that own their homes and work hard. They have just not been offered a way to climb higher. Education can be that tool.”

Constantly overlooked in these situations, said Mejias, is the need to talk to someone who understands the reality that low-income students live every day.

“What I’ve done is open up my office hours for them to just talk to me,” she said. “Just talk. Every single one of them has dealt with issues that a thirty-year-old might have gone through already. These kids were only 16 or 17-years-old. Not only should we be preparing them for college, but giving them the opportunity to have someone to talk to because they are worried or afraid.”

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Poverty and lack of education all tie into the greater picture of community health, said Cartagena.

“All these systemic things that aren’t common in a middle-class or upper-middle-class neighborhood, they’re just not addressed at the public schools,” he said. “Especially if you are a person of color. And this community gets a bad rap. There are good people here that come from good homes, but those stereotypes and stigmas keep them down.”

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