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Lourdes Gouveia: Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence

December 18, 2015 Leave a comment

One of the smartest and kindest people I know, Lourdes Gouveia, has stepped down from directing the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains or OLLAS, a program she helped found at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  A sociologist by training and practice, she and her program have helped the university, policymakers and other stakeholders in the state better understand the dynamics of the ever growing and more fluid Latino immigrant and Latin American population.  OLLAS has become a go-to resource for those wanting a handle on what’s happening with that population.  She is very passionate about what she’s built, the strong foundation laid down for its continued success and the continuing research she’s doing.  Though no longer the director, she’s still very much engaged in the work of OLLAS and related fields of interests.  She’s still very much a part of the UNO scene.

 

 

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Lourdes Gouveia: Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico
When sociology professor and researcher Lourdes Gouveia joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha faculty in 1989 it coincided with the giant Latino immigration wave then impacting rural and urban communities.

Little did she know then she would found the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains or OLLAS in 2003. She recently stepped down as director of that prestigious center she’s closely identified with.

The idea for OLLAS emerged after her field work in Lexington, Neb. documenting challenges and opportunities posed by the influx of new arrivals on communities that hadn’t received immigrants in a century. She focused on the labor trend of Latinos recruited into meatpacking. While doing a post-doctorate fellowship at Michigan State University she came to see the global implications of mobile populations.

“It really did become a transformative experience,” recalls the Venezuela native and University of Kansas graduate. “It gave me a whole new level of understanding of issues I had been working on. It opened opportunities I had no idea we’re going to be so influential and consequential in my life. These were colleagues as motivated as I was to try to understand this tectonic and dramatic shift going on of increased immigration from Latin America accompanied with an economic recession in the United States.

“I learned a tremendous amount. It just opened a lens that gave me confidence to understand this shift in a larger context.”

 

When Gouveia returned from her post doc she accepted an invitation to head what was just a minor in Latino Studies at UNO.

“I said yes but with a condition we explore something larger. Many of us were beginning to realize the minor was just not enough of a space to understand, to educate our students, to work with the community on issues of this magnitude.”

She led a committee that conceived and launched OLLAS and along with it a major in Latin American Studies.

“OLLAS was built upon a very clear vision that Neb. and Omaha in particular was seeing profound changes in the makeup of the Latino immigrant and Latino American population. Neither the university nor the community, let alone policymakers. were sufficiently prepared to understand the significance of those changes and their long-term consequences or respond in any informed, data-driven, rationale way. That message resonated with people on the ground and at the top.”

Lourdes Gouveia (far right) is the Director of OLLAS at UNO. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

Lourdes Gouveia (far right) is the Director of OLLAS at UNO. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

 

 

Significant seed money for making OLLAS a reality came from a $1 million U.S. Department of Education grant that then-Sen. Chuck Hagel helped secure.

From the start, Gouveia says OLLAS has existed as a hybrid, interdisciplinary center that not only teaches but conducts research and generates content-rich reports.

“Community agencies, policymakers, students and others tell us they find enormous value in those research reports and fact sheets we produce. That is a mainstay of what we do. It’s done with a lot of difficulty because they require enormous work, expert talent and rigor and we don’t always have the resources at hand. Yet we have maintained that and hope to expand that.”

She says OLLAS is unlike anything else at UNO.

“We’re an academic program but we’re also a community project. So we’re constantly engaging, partnering, discussing, conversing with community organizations, even government representatives from Mexico and Central America, in projects we think enhance that understanding of these demographic changes. We’re also looking at the social-economic conditions of the Latino population and what it has to do with U.S. immigration or U.S. involvement in Latin America.”

OLLAS also plays an advocacy role.

“We use our voices in public, whether writing op-ed pieces or holding meetings and conferences with political leaders or elected officials. We use our research to make our voices heard and to inform whatever issues policymakers may be debating, such as the refugee crisis.”

Gouveia says the way OLLAS is structured “allows us to be very malleable, more like a think tank.” adding, “We define ourselves as perennial pioneers always trying to anticipate the questions that need answers or the interests emerging we can fulfill. It’s extremely exhausting because we’re constantly inventing and innovating but it’s extremely rewarding. We’re about to put out a report, for example, on the changes of the Latino population across the city. Why? Because we are observing Latinos are not just living in South Omaha but are spread across the city. As we detect trends like this on the ground we try to anticipate and answer questions to give people the tools to use the information in their work. That guarantees we’re always going to be relevant to all these constituencies.”

 

 

OLLAS faculty and staff

 

 

OLLAS has grown in facilities and staff, including a project coordinator, a community engagement coordinator and research associates, and in currency. Gouveia says, “I’m very satisfied we did it right. We thoughtfully arrived correctly at the decision we just couldn’t be a regular department offering courses and graduating students but we also had to produce knowledge. Our reports are a good vehicle for putting out information in a timely manner about a very dynamic population and set of population changes.”

She says OLLAS could only have happened with the help of many colleagues, including Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado and Theresa Barron-McKeagney, “who shared enthusiastically in the mission we were forging.” She say OLLAS has also received broad university support and community philanthropic support.

“There was resistance, too,” she adds. “It’s a very creative space that breaks with all conventions. Like immigrants we create fear that somehow we’re shaking the conventional wisdom. But I think our success has converted many who were initially skeptical. I think we’ve pioneered models that others have come to observe and learn from.”

One concern she has is that as Latino students in the program have increased UNO’s not kept apace its hiring of Latino faculty.

A national search is underway for her successor.

“I feel very good about stepping out at this time. It surprised a lot of people. As a founding director you cannot stay there forever. Once you have helped institutionalize the organization then it’s time to bring in the next generation of leaders with fresh visions and ideas.”

Besides, there’s research she’s dying to get to. And it’s not like this professor emeritus is going away. She confirms she’ll remain “involved with OLLAS, but in a different way.”

Visit http://www.unomaha.edu/ollas/.

 

Project Improve Aims to Make the Best of a Bad Situation with Illegal Immigrant Detainees

July 24, 2012 1 comment

 

No matter how you feel about the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S. you have to sympathize with parents whose only crime is living here without proper documentation who have the misfortune of being arrested and then detained in jail, all while awaiting deportation, and in the meantime finding themselves separated from family, including children.  We’re not talking about identity theives.  We’re talking about people holding down jobs and raising families and abiding by laws except for that murky no-man’s land called a border they breeched.  For years the nation looked the other way at what was essentially an open border but now it’s intent on closing that border and throwing back over it anyone who’s managed to cross it illegally, even those who’ve made productive lives for themselves and their families in America.  It’s cruel and unusual punishment that only adds to social disruption and incurs extra costs without really solving anything.  It’s purely a power play by the haves against the have-nots.  This is a story about a small program through the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that offers Spanish-speaking detainees some educational support services during their incarceration and that tries to provide a platform for parents to connect with their children.

 

 

 

 

 

Project Improve Aims to Make the Best of a Bad Situation with Illegal Immigrant Detainees

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

With immigration enforcement a national priority, jails are filled with individuals whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.

Out of sight, out of mind behind bars these civil offenders risk being lumped in with the habitually criminalized. Advocates say it’s all too easy to forget many detainees have been law-abiding, gainfully-employed residents. Many are parents. Once arrested and jailed they face separation from loved ones and home.

Being severed from family while the legal process drags on poses challenges the criminal justice and penal system are not necessarily well prepared to address without expert intervention.

With no programs serving its growing population of Spanish-speaking detainees, Douglas County Department of Correction officials asked the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for help in early 2009. OLLAS met with staff and detainees as a first step in creating a detainee-centered program.

Claudia Garcia, a UNO assistant professor of foreign languages, says she and university colleagues attended jail orientation and conducted two focus-groups with detainees in spring 2009 in order to assess concerns and needs.

“The situation of women, many terribly depressed because of being separated from their young children, was especially pressing for some jail authorities, who were sympathetic to these detainees’ situation,” says Garcia.

Beginning in the summer of 2009 OLLAS faculty launched Project Improve as a community service initiative at the Douglas County Correctional Center, 710 South 17th Street. The effort is focused on helping detainees discuss their predicament, connect with family and become empowered through education. The intent is to provide clients a non-punitive advocacy and support outlet.

Faculty engage detainees in writing, reading and discussion activities designed to promote introspection and self-expression. Garcia says on average 16 men and 11 women participate per session.

“Personally, what strikes me the most about the Latino detainees, especially the women, is their strength and good attitude, and also their ability to give each other support,” Garcia says. “I think we provide a space that allows them to reflect, process and articulate their personal journeys.”

OLLAS director Lourdes Gouevia says, “The inmates express their stories through various media and record messages and stories for their children.” UNO assistant professor of education Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni  says participants appreciate the opportunity to respectfully own their own experience: “This is a time for them to have an avenue to be themselves. They’ve told us we treat them with dignity, we treat them like human beings, we don’t look at them like they’re incarcerated.”

The experience has made an impression on the academics.

“It’s been a very intense and enriching learning process,” says Garcia, adding that it’s “one thing is to have an intellectual knowledge” of these issues “but it’s very different to talk, interact and become emotionally affected by the individuals going through these hard times. For me, the big eye-opener is the definition of criminal. Many detainees we work with have violated immigration law, but they are certainly not dangerous criminals. Most are just mothers and fathers who have tried their best to give their families a better life, and have been working without proper documentation.

“Most who come to our sessions are really engaged in a process of self-growth, using this time in jail to re-visit their own lives. They appreciate the opportunity to learn and be better people when they get out. It’s really a very moving experience.”

Brignoni says “it saddens us” that most of the detainees are presumably awaiting deportation. “We get a new group all the time because they don’t stay there.”

After a prolonged break, the project is presuming monthly sessions in December,

Garcia is impressed by DCDC’s embrace of Project Improve.

“It’s been a very welcoming institution. DCDC understands the importance of educational and support programs for their detainee population, and are very proud to have a diversity of volunteers go there and share time and knowledge with the detainees. The officers in charge of educational programs are very helpful and very clear.”

OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns

May 12, 2011 5 comments

As Nebraska‘s Hispanic population has grown significantly the past two decades there’s an academic-research-community based organization, OLLAS or Office of Latino and Latin American Studies, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that’s taken a lead role in engaging policymakers and stakeholders in Latino issues and trends impacting the state. I’ve had a chance the past two years to get to know some of the people who make OLLAS tick and to sample some of their work, and the level of scholarship and dedication on display is quite impressive. The following story for El Perico gives a kind of primer on what OLLAS does.  Increasingly, my blog site will contain posts that repurpose articles I’ve written for El Perico, a dual English-Spanish language newspaper in Omaha and a sister publication of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  These pieces cover a wide range of subjects, issues, programs, organization, and individuals within the Latino community.  It has been my privilege to get to know better Omaha’s and greater Nebraska’s Latino population, though in truth I’ve only barely dipped my feet into those waters.  But it’s much the same enriching experience I’ve enjoyed covering Omaha’s African-American and Jewish communities.

 

 

 

 

OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

Despite an ivory tower setting, the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is engaged in community from-the-grassroots-to-the-grasstops through teaching, research and service.

The far reach of OLLAS, established in 2003, is as multifaceted as Latino-Latin American cultures and the entities who traverse them.

“We work very hard to bring to the table the different voices and stakeholders that seldom come together but that must be part of the same conversations. We do that very well,” said director and UNO sociology professor Lourdes Gouveia.

“We’ve been able to construct a program around this very out-of-the-box idea” that academia doesn’t happen in isolation of community engagement and vice-versa. Instead, she said these currents occur together, feeding each other.

“The impetus for creating this center was driven by what informs everything in my life, which is intellectual interest right along with an interest in addressing issues of inequality and social justice and making a difference wherever I am. So, for me, OLLAS was a logical project we needed to undertake.”

 

 

Lourdes Gouveia

 

 

At the time of its formation Gouveia was researching immigration’s impact in Lexington, Neb. “It was clear to those of us witnessing all the changes going on we needed a space in the university that addressed those changes with kind of freshened perspectives very different from the old models of ethnic studies.”

Assistant director and UNO political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said, “We very intentionally created something that would have a community base and not talk down to it, but try to make it a part of what we do. We wanted our work to be not only politically but socially relevant and that has been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community.”

OLLAS produces reports on matters affecting Latino-Latin American segments in Nebraska, including the economic impact of immigrants, voter mobilization results and demographic trends. Gouevia said the office takes pains to distinguish the Guatamalan experience from the Mexican experience and so on. She said it can be daunting for Individuals and organizations to navigate the rapid social-political-cultural streams running through this diverse landscape of highly mobile populations and fluid issues. OLLAS serves as an island of calm in the storm.

“I think people take solace in the fact that when things get too muddled and when things are going too fast ,” she said, “they can turn to us, whether as an organization or as individuals, and say, What do you think of this?”

“We’re a resource for the community. When it needs perhaps more academic analysis of something, they look to OLLAS for that,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “I think one of the other things people see us as is a real resolute voice — not that we’re going to go out and be the advocates — but when they’re involved and things get crazy, they’ll call us here and say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ People look to us for guidance and support as they’re trying to build a foundation.”

Helping build capacity within Latino-Latin American communities is a major thrust of OLLAS. No one at OLLAS pretends to have all the answers.

“We recognize that while we may be able to provide some reflection, we’re not the complete experts about what goes on in this community. We learn an enormous from our community work,” Gouveia said. “We engage on a very egalitarian basis with community organizations and treat them with the respect they deserve as the fonts of knowledge they bring to the realities.”

 

 

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

 

 

“We’re actually very intentional about not assuming we know everything and that we have to lead everything,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “For example, we often don’t lead the community meetings, we sit in the back of the room and let others assume those roles of leadership because they have been leading. I think the fact we treat others as equal and we’re willing to listen to them has engendered genuine partnerships in the community.’

One of those strong partnerships is with the Heartland Workers Center, an Omaha nonprofit that helps immigrant laborers deal with the challenges they face. The center teaches workers their rights and responsibilities.

Benjamin-Alvarado said far from the patriarchal, missionary approach others have traditionally taken with minority communities, OLLAS looks to genuinely engage citizens and organizations in ongoing, reciprocal relationships.

“We don’t go in and bless the community and come back, Oh look how good we have done, because that would be the wrong message. That has been the model that’s been utilized in the past by a lot of academic institutions in response to these types of communities, and they resent it greatly. They’ve been burned so many times in the past. We make sure what we do is interactive and iterative, and so it’s not a one-off. It’s something we continue to go back to all the time. It’s this constant back and forth, give and take.”

 

 

 

 

He said he and Gouveia recognize “there are other people in the community with immense knowledge who can articulate the issues in a way that resonates with the community more than we as academics could ever do.”

OLLAS also reaches far beyond the local-regional sphere to broader audiences.

“Something I think people are surprised about is how globally connected we are,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “We are one of the major nodes of a global network on migration development both as scholars and ambassadors of the university. We’re all over the planet. It’s a demonstration of just how deeply connected we are.”

Gouveia said the May 14-15 Cumbre Summit of the Great Plains, which OLLAS  organizes and hosts, “fits very well” the transnational focus of OLLAS. The event is expected to draw hundreds of participants to address, in both macro and micro terms, the theme of human mobility and the promise of development and political engagement. Presenters are slated to come from The Philipines, Ecuador, Mexico, Ireland, South Africa and India as well as from the University of Chicago and the Brookings Institution in the U.S.

A community organizations workshop will examine gender, migration and civic engagement. Representatives from social service agencies, the faith community, education, government and other sectors are expected to attend the summit, which is free and open to the public.

“We work with all these publics very carefully so that the community feels really invited as co-participants in these discussions, not simply as spectators or a passive public,” said Gouveia, who added the programs are interactive in nature.

“We put local people with the sacred cows, we mix and match, and the panels take on a life of their own,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “An academic will be talking about something and a local will say, ‘Thats’ not the way it happens,’ and to me that’s music to my ears.”

Another example of the international scope of OLLAS is the summer service learning program that takes UNO students to Peru. Benjamin-Alvarado said the experience offers participants “an interesting perspective on urban Latin America. All of them come back completely motivated and transformed by what they learn and how they utilize their classroom lessons. These are not summer fun trips. the students work the whole time in a shantytown in Lima.”

This summer he’ll be a International Service Volunteers program faculty adviser/coordinator in either Ecuador or the Dominican Republic. He said the research and engagement he and Gouveia do abroad and at national conferences increases their knowledge and understanding, informing the analysis and teaching they do.

“Our college has said we’re a prime example of what’s now called the leadership of engagement,” said Gouveia. She added that the broad perspective they offer is why everyone from educators to elected officials to the Chamber of Commerce look to them for advice. “I’m very proud of how many people contact us. It’s a great feeling to know that we do fill a major void in this whole region to do this very unique combination of things,” she said.

Opening new spaces for learning is another mission objective of OLLAS. It has sponsored a cinemateca series at Film Streams featuring award-winning movies from Spanish-speaking countries. It’s involved in an outreach program at the Douglas Country Correctional Center, where UNO faculty provide continuing education to immigrant inmates. Gouveia and Benjamin-Alvarado said it’s about bringing compassion and humanity to powerless, voiceless people whose only crime may be being undocumented and using falsified records.

The scholars are satisfied that anyone who spends any time with OLLAS comes away with a deeper appreciation of Latino-Latin American cultures, history, issues. Benjamin-Alvarado said OLLAS grads are today teaching in classrooms, leading social service agencies, working in the public sector, attending law school. He fully expects some to hold key elected offices in the next 10 years. He and Gouevia feel that a more nuanced perspective of the Latino/Latin American experience can only benefit policymakers and citizens.

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