Giving Thought: Strengthening the community fabric

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

For 23 years, English in Action has taught adult immigrants to speak English and helped to bridge the cultural divide between immigrant and non-immigrant residents of the Roaring Fork Valley.

In both respects — the language skills and the community building — 2017 was an important year for the El Jebel-based nonprofit. Executive Director Lara Beaulieu, now in her 10th year leading English in Action (EIA), says 2017 was “super successful.”

Aspen Community Foundation: Tell us what EIA accomplished last year.

Lara Beaulieu: First, in 2014 we set a goal to increase the number of people we serve annually by 100. We aimed to go from 230 a year to about 330. We wanted to reach that goal by 2018, but we reached it a year early. Last year we saw a substantial increase in people looking for concrete ways to become involved in the community. What that meant was we trained about 100 new volunteers, and we were able to match a lot of (students) on our waiting list much faster than we had anticipated.

Second, as people learn English, an important next step is to help them become more involved in the community and to have a stronger voice in the community. One of the new things we did last year was to collaborate with Writ Large and The Temporary to hold a live storytelling event called Immigrant Voices. We brought together six immigrant storytellers from Mexico, El Salvador, Indonesia and Hungary and they each told heartfelt stories about their lives and experiences.

ACF: How does teaching English to immigrants impact the community more broadly?

LB: The process of learning English is gradual and the impact of our work happens in a lot of different ways. For students, learning English may help them speak to their child’s schoolteacher in English, or it may help them advance at work to earn more money or reach a more satisfying position. Sometime students go on to earn a GED or higher educational degrees. I think our students also develop stronger support systems because of their relationships with tutors. One student’s wife had medical issues last year, and his tutor was able to help him find some resources to pay for the medical treatment. He wouldn’t have had that access otherwise.

It’s also easy to underestimate the impact this program has on tutors’ lives. Often our tutors say they get as much out of the interaction as the students, who are inspirational people that have gone through a lot to be part of this community. They make tutors’ lives richer and more multidimensional.

ACF: What was the local impact of Immigrant Voices, and do you plan to do it again?

LB: We had a sold-out crowd of more than 200 people, with standing room only. Part of the impact was to show the diversity of immigrants in our community. The stories we hear about immigrants are often one-dimensional. I think what impacted people the most was the diversity of stories they heard, and the realization that they hadn’t heard these kinds of stories previously. We plan to do it again in November. And, thanks to support from the Aspen Community Foundation, we’re working on a video so people who weren’t able to come can still experience the evening. There were so many rich elements to these stories. Kristi Mace, for example, was a Hungarian refugee, and her story has real ties to today’s refugees, who are escaping harsh circumstances in their home countries.

ACF: Is EIA essentially the same organization you joined in 2008? What has changed and what has remained the same?

LB: My predecessor Julie Fox-Rubin built a really solid organization and her values and goals were very similar to what we have now. It was a smaller organization; this year we expect to quadruple the number of people we serve. One-on-one tutoring is still the core of what we do but we also tutor in small groups and we have drop-in conversation classes. We’re in a stronger position now to realize more of our aspirations — serving more of the people on our wait list, continuing to share and celebrate immigrant voices and build stronger cross-cultural connections.

Last year we also collaborated with other organizations on a series of what we call “house meetings” with English speakers and non-English speakers. A group of eight to 12 people come together for an authentic conversation about what keeps them up at night, and what gets them up in the morning. It’s a way to draw out people’s common struggles, as well as their unique struggles. We’re always seeking new ways to bring people together across cultural divides so we’re more connected as a community.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.