Sustainable social change comes not only from bandaging the current pains of our society, but ultimately from reinventing the systems that create problems in the first place. A systemic change begins with a cultural mind shift, but how does that actually happen? How do we both answer to the needs of our current state while preparing for our future vision?

Groundbreaking solutions in society take time to see through, but a look at the activities of UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence can give insight on how meaningful work gets done. UNIDOS is a support system for Latino families providing services for women, men, and children who have survived domestic violence and sexual abuse. Their focus is on ending domestic violence by treating whole families. They build their programming to address the root causes of the violence and division in families transitioning between cultures. UNIDOS believes in providing skills and education that empower people to become experts in their own lives. They understand the role of community and strong support networks in achieving long-term crisis prevention over short-term crisis resolution.

UNIDOS Executive Director Veronica Lazo (left) with Cecilia Gilhouse, the former executive director, at Centro Hispano's annual banquet
UNIDOS Executive Director Veronica Lazo (left) with Cecilia Gilhouse, the former executive director, at Centro Hispano’s annual banquet

“We don’t see ourselves as ‘the saviors.’ We approach violence as a community issue with a community perspective, not as the agency,” UNIDOS Executive Director Veronica Lazo tells Madison365. “We’re not the entity that’s going to ‘fix this.’”

The families who come to UNIDOS are often split between family members who are documented and naturalized and those who are not. This causes tension when, for example, two children in the same household with the same upbringing will have very different privileges and opportunities based on their citizenship status. UNIDOS also works with a lot of divided families and single mothers who have lost their main support system when the father of the household gets deported after committing a crime to better provide for his family. Scenarios like this put pressure on the mom and guilt on the children.

When working with these families, Lazo states, “we want to be aware of any issues in school, like bullying or other trouble. We are looking at the needs of the families not only to stay safe but also so we can provide necessary resources, such as parenting classes, job skills training, and access to food, healthcare, and employment. We work with Centro Hispano and other community partners. We work with single mothers who have lost their system of support and assist with language barriers. There is no limit to how long people can come here and no limit to how many times. On average, people stay here one to two years.”

UNIDOS Anniversary Celebration titled "Dancing in Her Shoes."
UNIDOS Anniversary Celebration titled “Dancing in Her Shoes.”

“When people come to us, we’re not here to judge. We are a listening ear. We’re not here to tell you what to do,” Lazo adds. “For instance, if people tell us about a bad situation that they are not ready to leave, we understand that’s up to them. We are careful not to tell people what to do, of the unintended consequences of telling people what to do.”

Lazo and her team at UNIDOS recognize the need for a cultural mind shift in the families they work with who are transitioning to life in the United States. They build awareness with an understanding of how culture can be both helpful and harmful. “We need to change this mentality that the men are in charge and the women need to stay at home. That’s a cultural mindset that doesn’t work here,” Lazo says.

She explains that what can happen is a man takes on two or three jobs to support his family, and if that is not enough, out of desperation, he turns to crime. Cost of living is high in the United States, so it becomes necessary for both parents of the household to work to provide for the family, but this can challenge the family’s value system and the man’s power and identity as a capable provider. “At UNIDOS we ask, ‘how can we start changing the mentality and shifting the culture?’” Lazo says. “Yes, your cultural values of community and family are great, but if that’s what you value, then why are you hitting your wife?”

The goal is to enable people to take responsibility, and so everything UNIDOS provides comes from their clients’ request, as a response to what is not currently being serviced in Madison and the greater Dane and Rock counties. This can also be their greatest obstacle. It is important to note that UNIDOS is a small organization, and so while there are many things they would like to be able to do, they must respond to the most urgent needs of their growing community.

UNIDOS community art projects are also a way to raise awareness and organize people around a shared goal for the future.
UNIDOS community art projects are also a way to raise awareness and organize people around a shared goal for the future.

For example, UNIDOS is currently developing their 24/7 crisis line. This is because many of the crisis lines in town do not have the ability to assist people in their native language. “There’s so much lost in translation, it’s ridiculous,” Lazo says. “It would be different if this were a one-time thing, but it is an issue if we’re in a growing community and these services aren’t growing or improving in larger organizations.

“We are up against bigger organizations for the same funding. We don’t have a grant writer, for instance. We’re too small. But if UNIDOS didn’t exist, the people we support wouldn’t get any because of the language barrier.” Lazo adds.

Lazo explains her own transition from an advocate to director in her 5 and 1/2 years with UNIDOS. “I have a lot more administrative stuff to do. I’d love to be just an advocate again. But I’ve gone from advocating for the people to advocating for my staff, making sure they’re paid and have proper support so they can do their jobs,” she says. “I want to be careful to have only the staff that I can take care of and staff that can do a very tough job. Because we’re small, we have to be considerate of what we can and can’t take on, and we can’t risk burning our staff out.”

There is a lot a small organization like UNIDOS can teach others from this statement alone — to know what one can and cannot take on and to grow responsibly in order to serve adequately. The way Lazo regards her responsibility for her staff and UNIDOS exemplifies her holistic approach to family and the community. It is an approach that can both offer compassion and hold people accountable.

“I don’t think these politicians or policy-writers would say the things they do if they could see the impact,” Lazo says. “The tension that our community goes through whenever we have a ‘political bomb’ regarding immigration is terrible. The impact shows in that the children are concerned. They have this fear that their families are going to be torn apart.”

“The other piece we miss with immigration is about the impact of crossing the Mexican-U.S. border,” Lazo continues. “We are dealing with kids who already have PTSD. None of it gets exposed in the news, what people have to go through to cross the border. Many of them have been trafficked, raped, etc. On the one hand, the U.S. has done a lot to intervene in the wars and conflicts of other places. But then why can’t we also intervene in the immigration process? And what’s the role this country has played in creating violence in places that people are fleeing from?”

Regardless of the stance that people take on immigration, the reality is that immigration is a part of how all civilizations function and evolve. Yes, it is a source of friction, but it is also a cornerstone of the United States’ identity. It is important, then, to consider how our country’s policies reflect this, and what kind of infrastructure we need to develop for people to play a meaningful role in our community and in our economy. The mindset we take will determine whether the outcome of immigration is one that defines our country for the worse or better.
What does this mean for UNIDOS? Beyond responding to the urgency of violent situations, UNIDOS structures its programming to make families’ transitions into the future a healthy one. Lazo integrates her art therapy background into UNIDOS’ practice. She finds that having children and parents work on art projects together can facilitate trust for them to talk about the conflicts they may otherwise be guarded or confrontational about. Community art projects are also a way to raise awareness and organize people around a shared goal for the future. “You have to be creative to be a survivor,” Lazo affirms, “so you can see that something else is possible for you.”

To help people become the guides for their own success, UNIDOS has programming such as Proyecto Dignidad (Project Dignity), for men who are concerned service providers for the community. For women, UNIDOS has Mujeres Adelantes, which includes support groups for survivors of abuse and sexual assault and classes for parenting and job skills. For children, UNIDOS has Voces Unidad.

“While most people leave our programming after one or two years, we have some who stay longer and move from our support group to our leadership group. These are people who have the training and experience to become advocates and have been with us as long as seven years, since the organization started,” Lazo says. “Those who come to support group are invited to join the leadership group later on. For survivors, it’s about having someone I can relate to and inspire me that I’m not alone. I don’t think as a facilitator I could do this work alone.”

“Men and women both have to be held accountable. We ask, how can we get men involved? Men can be victims, too, and men have a huge role in ending violence,” Lazo adds. “We have a combination of men who are using our services and men who are service providers, all of whom are allies. We need to shift this mentality that we condemn the behavior that was wrong or that the victim did something to provoke the behavior. Through programming like Proyecto Dignidad, we are allowing people to be the experts in their own lives.”