Giving Thought: ‘Deep listening’ comes before solutions at Valley Settlement
At the tender age of 6, Maria Tarajano-Rodman joined her parents in a life-changing move from Cuba to the United States. Many years later, she knows what it means to pack up and leave your homeland for better opportunities somewhere else.
At the age of 10, she was the neighborhood babysitter. By 14 she was cleaning offices at night, and she worked through her college years at the University of Florida, where she received a full-ride, four-year scholarship. She was an active participant in her parents’ dream of buying and owning their own home.
Five months ago and more than 50 years after setting foot in the U.S., she accepted a job in the Roaring Fork Valley leading a nonprofit devoted to supporting immigrants.
“My parents always said you have been given an opportunity, and people have stepped up to support your education and your dreams,” she said. “So whatever you do, find a way to give back.”
Interestingly, this forward-looking, goal-oriented woman cannot say exactly where she plans to take Valley Settlement, the organization she now leads. But that’s exactly the point of taking the helm of this unique, nimble and dynamic entity. She plans to let her constituents and clients set the course.
From its beginnings a decade ago, Valley Settlement has asked the Latino immigrant community to identify the kind of help it needs. Among the organization’s current cornerstone programs, designed to answer community needs, are:
The Little Bus Preschool: Three mobile preschools travel to underserved neighborhoods around the valley to provide early childhood education.
Family, Friends and Neighbors: A two-year training program shows informal child care providers how to render safe and high-quality service to hundreds of local children.
Parent Mentors: Latino parents dedicate more than 15,000 volunteer hours annually to local elementary schools, building connections between the families and their schools.
Lifelong Learning: Classes in English, Spanish literacy, computer skills, math and more enable roughly 100 adult learners to help their children with homework and be more active in the community.
Using a two-generation approach, meaning that the organization deliberately engages both parents and children, Valley Settlement is in the middle of a three- to four-month “listening tour,” knocking on doors and conducting as many as 1,000 face-to-face interviews with families around the valley to identify needs and hear directly about their challenges and successes. The information gathered along the way will be used to build programs by and for the interviewees.
Tarajano-Rodman emphasizes the “deep listening” that embodies this research effort. Latina women make up most of the Valley Settlement staff and they bring their own immigrant experiences to the interviews.
“We really value and support the lived experience of people in the community, and that is mirrored by the lived experience of the people who work at Valley Settlement,” said the new director. “The deep listening that we do comes from knowing.”
When the organization’s staff members and board members sit down in the fall to create a strategic plan for the coming years, the conversation will begin with the results of the listening tour.
“This (tour) will help us determine where we need to be, being nimble and responsive and not assuming that we know the answers without asking,” she said.
Also instrumental is Valley Settlement’s recent move to Glenwood Springs, which is more centrally located for the organization’s staff and clientele than its original home in Carbondale’s Third Street Center.
“First, we’d run out of space at Third Street, and there was a being-on-the-bus-line issue,” Tarajano-Rodman said. “The majority of our staff now live in Glenwood or farther west. And every minute counts when you’re trying to be responsive.”
She feels Valley Settlement is well-positioned to do great work across the Aspen-to-Parachute region, but she will not jump ahead of the current research effort by predicting what the results will say. For now, her job is to empower the staff to collect the information and then to see where it leads.
“This process is about deep listening, getting information and feedback,” she said. “All of that takes time, and I don’t want to guess, because it isn’t fair to the process. The community will teach us.”
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.