FCI PromotionalThe co-directors of the Latino Academy of Workforce Development were pretty excited when they heard that they were going to be this month’s recipient of a Forward Community Investments’ Game Changer Grant.

“That’s always the best call to get on a Monday morning – ‘Hey, here’s some funding in order to help your programs!’ So we’re really excited about it,” Carla Garces, co-director at Latino Academy of Workforce Development, tells Madison365.

“Yeah, we get really excited because every single funding – every single dollar – means that we can have more sustainable programs at the Latino Academy,” adds Norma Gallegos, co-director at Latino Academy of Workforce Development. “We are very thankful. The mission of Forward Community Investments aligns with what we do. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a great partnership with them to make our community better.”

Through the Game Changer program, FCI is making the grant application process easier for small organizations that are responding to racial inequities in their communities. The application process consists of just one five-minute video — which could be just a cell phone selfie video — along with a one-page form. More than 50 organizations have submitted videos for the first round of grants. What makes the program especially unique is that it’s not just a one-time award; instead, one $3,000 grant winner is being announced every month throughout 2017.

Gallegos and Garces submitted the video (below) to Forward Community Investments that they made in their spare time at the Latino Academy. “It was actually really fun to make,” Garces says.

Based out of the Bridge Lake Point Waunona Neighborhood Center, the Latino Academy of Workforce Development offers a variety of programs including job training and certification, workplace safety training, computer classes, GED programs and English as a Second Language. For the FCI Game Changer Grant, the Latino Academy had requested funding to expand its Bilingual Construction Program, a 7-week intensive training that helps prepare students for a broad range of careers in the trades. Students graduate with potential starting earnings of $15/hour and access to opportunities for career advancement.

“These are good middle-class jobs. A lot of times for the Latino community, as we know here in Dane County, we have a quarter that are working in food industries and making $18,000 a year,” Garces says. “Construction is in demand here in Madison and it pays well.”

The Latino Academy's Bilingual Construction Program
The Latino Academy’s Bilingual Construction Program

The concept of building something with your own hands is very powerful. Students take ownership of their abilities and are given the opportunity to use this gift to give back to their community.

“It’s great to drive by a building and see our students working there. We take pride in that,” Garces says.

The $3,000 FCI Game Changer Grant will go towards building a “tool lab” for the program that will have woodworking tools to for students to build furniture and other projects and to sell them in the future. Students will use newly learned skills to create a physical item such as a bench or picnic table that will be raffled and sold.

The Latino Academy's Billingual Construction Program partners with Stevens Construction Corp.
The Latino Academy’s Billingual Construction Program partners with Stevens Construction Corp.

“Our space is very limited here, but we thought we could purchase tools for the construction field for the tool lab and students could use that during their training,” Garces says. “Each class will be able to use the tools over and over again. It’s something that would give back to the organization and allow students to take pride in what they are producing.”

Garces says that The Bilingual Construction Program is important because it directly addresses poverty rates and socioeconomic disparities for Latinos in Dane County.

It’s been an exciting and challenging year for Garces and Gallegos since they took over the director job from Baltazar De Anda-Santana, the longtime director of the Latino Academy of Workforce Development who left last summer to join the staff of the United Way. The Latino Academy is trying to keep on doing De Anda’s unique ‘education through community’ approach that works closely with students, responds to the community’s educational needs quickly, and creates pathways to improved education and employment for the Latino community.

The Latino Academy's Bilingual Construction Program stops at a Dave Jones Inc. job site in Madison to get a feel for what goes into new commercial construction.
The Latino Academy’s Bilingual Construction Program stops at a Dave Jones Inc. job site in Madison to get a feel for what goes into new commercial construction.

“Although we only worked with Baltazar for about 6 months before he left, the vision that he had for the organization was so strong,” Garces says. “He always had this motto: ‘education through community.’ We always listen to the students first whether we are implementing or expanding programs. We listen to the students and the community first before funders and others who might think they know what’s best for the center. The students have amazing ideas, as well.”

“We have the perfect team here at the Latino Academy with Carla and [Employment Program Coordinator] Monica [Caldwell]. I really trust my co-workers,” adds Gallegos. “Everything we do, every project and every program, we want it to be a successful program and we always do it thinking of the students.

“It’s been a great year. We love challenges, and every semester brings new challenges,” she continues. “And we will keep working to do what we do and to grow and have more sustainable programs.”

In its capacity as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), Forward Community Investments builds stronger and healthier communities by providing loans, advising, and grants to mission-based organizations that address the root causes of racial inequities and socioeconomic disparities. FCI supports initiatives that improve equity and make positive change possible. Its vision is an equitable and inclusive Wisconsin built on cooperative social action. For more information about FCI, go to www.forwardci.org.