For 20-years, Alex Fajardo and El Sol Neighborhood Center (El Sol) have been quietly working every day, transforming society one person at a time. The SER National Network Affiliate is located in San Bernardino, California. It trains men and women passionate and committed about serving their communities into becoming Influencers, energized, powerful promotoras, and promotores. The two Spanish words are gender-specific translations for the word Community Health Workers. Yet, the catch-all generic English term does not do justice to the impact being seen from the work of these highly skilled community leaders, most of whom are women. Nor does it adequately convey the respect and influence their title commands when a promotora trained by El Sol Promotores Training Center arrives and helps lead the community in tackling a local issue. To mistake them for people simply passing out flyers at corners or door-to-door is like comparing ordinary ketchup to pico de gallo spiked with habanero chiles and thinking they are the same because they both contain tomatoes.
“We are recruiting people from their community to lead from where they live,” says Fajardo. “These are men and women in the neighborhoods who speak the language of their area. Also, they have the heart, passion, and spirit to serve. They are effective because they know the challenges firsthand of their community, so no one can deny that when they speak. For example, a woman may be going through one of our domestic violence programs, and maybe she has gone through this herself. So, we try to recruit her to become a promotora who can help reach and empower other women going through that experience to seek and accept help to free themselves. Bottom line, our promotores face and live the same conditions and convey that truth when they are face-to-face with a politician or policymaker. El Sol develops the skills in promotoras to do the work of transformation. We are making leaders from the community who can create their own changes in their neighborhoods. The victory is when the community does not depend solely on outside services to improve their lives. They are sustainable when they find their solutions also,” adds Fajardo.
Another reason why El Sol’s approach to its mission is successful is because the template of local promotoras leading transformation can be applied to any issue that residents are facing in their community. Today, areas with significant Latino populations continue to confront chronic challenges in health and education to environmental needs. These can be as simple yet critical as even access to safe pathways to and from school or clean drinking water.
This was the lesson learned in Adelanto, California, located in the high desert, an hour-and-a-half northeast of Los Angeles. The city of 32,000 people, two-thirds Latino, is one example of a community where El Sol promotoras are making a significant difference. Nearly one-in-three residents live in poverty, and El Sol initially went into Adelanto to help families with basic programs, including mental health services. Then, they made a discovery that changed their focus entirely.
“Adelanto is a unique city in the region,” says Fajardo. “For example, there’s one part that has a lot of money, but then there are other parts of the town that have mobile homes, and the people who live there do not even have running water or their basic needs being met. When our promotoras were invited in, they got with the community, and we were able to, first of all, adopt safety as a priority issue,” he adds.
The Adelanto residents participating with El Sol went through a process like mapping out the branches of a tree themselves. This step helps stakeholders see what action is needed to make the necessary changes happen in their community. The people said they wanted to start with safety for their children. The promotoras learned that many of Adelanto’s boys and girls did not have sidewalks to and from school. Also, they found out the youngsters had to take a shortcut when it rained, but the shortcut was not safe. So, the parents advocated for change, and they mobilized to begin getting sidewalks built. Now, they are tackling the water issue.
Fajardo recalls when El Sol first visited Adelanto. “When we arrived, the promotoras were thinking about doing things like a class on mental health. Then we heard the people asking how we can talk about mental health or have peace of mind when we are worried about our little ones’? We are not going to be healthy until the needs of all the residents are heard by city leaders. To them, sidewalks may be something they take for granted where they live, but to our families and us, these can make a big difference in our area. So that is where the promotoras started working, and things are happening now because the people are the ones who dictate what they want to do. Our role is to help teach them how, so they learn and become their leaders.” Says Fajardo.
EL SOL has been recognized for its COVID-19 community outreach and education by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to the President. El Sol is also very active in health education on chronic conditions like asthma or diabetes. Also, developing and providing data to shed light on the underlying causes of these diseases in the Latino community to attack the root causes, not just their effects. Fajardo says what keeps him motivated and working with El Sol is the reward of witnessing the transformation of ordinary, working men and women who go through the transformational training find their voice as leaders. “I recall vividly one man who works as a landscaper to care for his family between 8 AM and 5 PM, but after that, he is meeting with the Mayor and other leaders who seek out his counsel and leadership in their community. Seeing that promoter seated at the table where decisions are made inspires and keeps me going. Hopefully, having El Sol Neighborhood Center recognized and receiving this award will encourage founders to look at our model and want to support our work.”
If you would like to learn more about their work, visit their website.