Rocío Calvo & the Latino Leadership Initiative Make Waves Across America

Assistant Professor Rocío Calvo, Director of the Latino Leadership Initiative

Associate Professor Rocío Calvo, Director of the Latino Leadership Initiative

Newly tenured rising star Rocío Calvo continues to be in demand for her unique approach to promoting effective social work with systematically oppressed populations in higher education. This October, at the University of Illinois-Chicago, she presented the keynote address at the national gathering of the Latino Social Workers Organization (LSWO); two weeks later, she spoke at the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) annual meeting in Atlanta on how to increase the pool of Latinx social work practitioners and scholars. She also conducted a Faculty Development Institute, sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Social and Economic Justice at CSWE, on how to best address the Grand Challenge of promoting the integration of Latinx immigrants into American society.

The main topic of conversation throughout Calvo’s presentations was BCSSW’s trailblazing Latino Leadership Initiative (LLI), a program designed to switch the approach to social work with Latinx communities from a deficit to an asset-based perspective. In just its fourth year in existence, the LLI is fast becoming the alternative approach to empower Latinx communities in all of social work higher education. Already, the accolades for the LLI are piling up: in the past year alone, the program has been highlighted as a ‘model program’ by CSWE, is the subject of an incredibly rare Spencer Grant awarded to a school of social work, and took center stage at “Sí Se Puede: Social Workers United for Latino Advancement,” a conference sponsored by the LSWO and the New York University School of Social Work.

“What’s unique about the LLI, is that it forms future social work practitioners and scholars to work with Latinx communities from an asset-based perspective, while also using this approach to design our curriculum,” Calvo told Innovate@BCSW last fall. “We teach in Spanish, a key cultural marker, and we’ve infused our curriculum with evidence-based literature on how to better serve Latino communities in social work. This approach serves to both equip students with the tools they’ll need to succeed professionally, while forming the kind of community that supports their academic success as they negotiate their presence on campus.”

During her keynote in Chicago and Hot Topic symposium and Faculty Development Institute at CSWE, Calvo delineated the real challenges that Latinos in the U.S. face, both in terms of receiving services from social workers, and also, in pursuing a career in the field. Latino clients report lower quality of care than any other group in the U.S., but only five percent of licensed social workers nationwide are Latino. Similarly, only five percent of full-time social work faculty are Latino.

To address these challenges, the LLI employs an asset-based approach that combines mentorship with community engagement and research with “a cultural way of knowing.” (Learn more about the program on our website). Spanish language classes are important too, but mostly in terms of how they help students to explore issues in Latinx identity. “The Latinx community is very diverse. However, we tend to perceive Latinxs on uni-dimensional terms,” says Calvo. “For instance, too often the Latinx experience is neatly conflated with the immigrant experience. While that can certainly be a part of it, people also need to remember that a large portion of the U.S. territory belonged to Mexico just a few decades ago, and that many Latinxs are native to this country and speak English as their first language. As social workers we need to be more nuanced in how we understand the Latinx experience in this country. We need to start wrestling with issues of intersectionality (ethnic identity, language, race, religiosity, socioeconomic opportunities, and acculturation) if we want to be effective in working with a large variety of populations that need to be understood beyond pan-ethnic markers of language and culture.”

This idea of a variety of populations is critical to understanding the program’s framework; in fact, the LLI could provide applications beyond its own core group. CSWE, for one, is intrigued about the possibilities for translating the paradigm to apply to other groups as well.

“What’s really exciting about the LLI is that, while I share a devotion to its focus on Latino populations, I also believe it is a model that can be transferable to empowering other underrepresented groups gain a foothold in social work education and practice,” said Yolanda Padilla, the Director of CSWE’s Center for Diversity and Social & Economic Justice in a conversation with the blog last spring. “I envision a range of unique approaches emerging from diverse groups themselves that reflect their own lived experiences and perspectives.”

Stay tuned to this space for ongoing updates on the LLI and Calvo’s growing national role. Initial results from her Spenser Grant are likely to be published in 2017.

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