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Dinosaurs and Upstarts: Organizational Change at CASA Latina

Dinosaurs and Upstarts: Organizational Change at CASA Latina

When staff turnover is high, how can a capacity for change be cultivated?

by Hilary Stern
I don't want to sound defensive. It's not that I think everything is perfect the way it is now, but we have to look critically at the student suggestions. We can't implement them all." I couldn't believe those words were coming from me. But actually, I was feeling defensive. As far as the staff was concerned, the whole program was up for negotiation.

We were discussing the results of a series of student focus groups. Thinking about what the learners had said, one person suggested that we change our classroom arrangement to rows of desks facing the teacher so that students could hear the teacher better and not be distracted by their neighbors. I dismissed this idea as contrary to our philosophical approach to popular education. Another staff member suggested that we add a conversation program. We had tried that four years ago and, besides, the public library located a few blocks from us now has a conversation program. Why not just send our students to them? I had an argument for every new suggestion. Was I becoming a dinosaur, resistant to change?

Five years after having co-founded CASA Latina, I am the old-timer here. I have seen our community-based organization, which is committed to educating and organizing the Latino seasonal worker population that lives in urban Seattle, grow from the dream of a small group of activists into an institution. Our education programs now reach more than 700 people a year and include English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes for adults and children, family literacy, and theater of the oppressed workshops. We also run an entrepreneurial business program.


High turnover is a common phenomenon in many adult basic education (ABE) programs, whether it results from the use of volunteers, AmeriCorps members, unstable funding, or part-time, poorly paid staff. CASA Latina is no different. Most of the people who work here are AmeriCorps members. AmeriCorps is a national service corps begun just five years ago. In exchange for a year of service, members receive a living allowance of $700 a month and an educational award of almost $5,000 to be used to pay for higher education. This puts them in a difficult economic situation, ameliorated only slightly by the fact that it is temporary. Therefore, every fall, we have experienced a complete turnover in staff as five new AmeriCorps members replace their predecessors.

Every new team of AmeriCorps members begins their year of service with a refreshing burst of energy. They are excited about the work and see many possibilities for developing the programs at CASA Latina. As the year wears on, their savings diminish and they start fashioning their post-AmeriCorps plans. New projects at work become the last thing they want to spend their time on.

Last spring, five of our seven full-time workers were going to leave in a few months. Those leaving were in the process of withdrawing from their jobs, psychologically as well as professionally, tying up loose ends and documenting their knowledge for their successors. They did not want anything new thrown their way, anything that would require new efforts. For example, we had been given the opportunity to fill a new position earlier than we had planned, and I suggested that we do it. Emotions in our staff meeting ran high. The AmeriCorps members complained that they could not handle any new projects. They felt that they were overworked already. Adding another person and another project in this case, rewriting the curriculum for the intermediate ESOL class would create more work for everyone. Never mind that the purpose of the project was to save them work while increasing the quality of our classes. They were so stressed that anything new seemed like a threat. The long-term impact of a new project did not really matter to them because they were not going to be here. The staff, almost all about to turn over, was resistant to change.

This year, why were the roles reversed? Why was the staff promoting organizational change, while I was the one putting on the brakes? I have a reputation for being a person who has more ideas than anyone could possibly implement. What had happened?

Uphill Battle

The acronym CASA in CASA Latina stands for Centro de Ayuda Solidaria a los Amigos, which means Center for Help in Solidarity with Friends. We work with people who are in distress: immigrants who are poor, homeless, and exploited. Most of the individuals we help will never be able to solve their own problems unless changes occur in the social structures that keep them poor. We are often discouraged by the immensity of our students' problems and by the numbers of people waiting to be helped. We get frustrated by not being able to fix the world all by ourselves.

Last year, in addition to almost total staff turnover, we did not have a mechanism through which we could air our frustrations. This year, I changed our class schedule so that we now hold classes four mornings a week instead of five. On Fridays, we close down to the public and meet as a staff to reflect on the larger purpose of our work as well to talk about our day-to-day frustrations. We leave our offices and go to a nearby cafe for a couple of hours. Our reflection meetings have included journal writing, open-ended discussion of our feelings and reflections on the week, discussions of an article or a chapter of a book, role plays as spokespeople for immigrant rights, and rehearsals of presentations to be given to our board of directors. These reflection meetings have not only made us more single-minded in our understanding of the purpose of our work, they have drawn us closer together as a staff. We are considerate of each other, we like each being with each other, we want to help each other out. This collective support makes us stronger as a organization and more open to taking on the risks of organizational change.

Staffing a program with volunteers or with AmeriCorps members will never result in a stable workforce. AmeriCorps members can only stay two years, at maximum. This year, however, only two of our nine full-time workers are leaving; most AmeriCorps members are signing on for a second year. Since most of the staff are staying, organizational progress does not have to stop. This year, the staff is promoting organizational change because they have a developed a shared vision through our weekly reflection meetings and because most of them will be here to follow through on plans for change. Now, the question remains: Why am I, the director of the organization, resisting change?

Old Timer

As the old timer here, I am the only one who has lived through all of the changes and growth this organization has experienced. I am becoming impatient with all of these youngsters regardless of their ages who think they are discovering our problems for the first time. It seems as if I am having the same conversations over and over again, but each time with different people who have even less of a sense of the history of CASA Latina, of solutions tried but abandoned.

I know the only way to reduce this feeling is to have less turnover. To do that, I need more paid staff positions, and a nurturing, challenging work environment where people are supported in doing important work. One of our AmeriCorps members is staying on as a paid staff member because I was able to raise enough money to fund one more full-time position. Next year, two members who are staying on will leave unless I can find more funding to fund their positions.

I dream about a staff that has little turnover. I imagine that together we could follow through on all of our grand schemes and really make things work, instead of making changes that get half lost with the next generation of workers who start all over again. But if we had all been here since the beginning, would we all start to feel the same way that I sometimes feel: that I've worked hard enough, made enough improvements, and now want to enjoy the fruits of my labors? I'm afraid that we might. We need those upstarts who have little sense of our history to question the status quo and make us defend and rethink our programs.

Three Ingredients

I am realizing that, for an organization to remain responsive and flexible, it must have three important ingredients. First, it needs regular time set aside for collective reflection and vision making. It also needs the stability of long-term workers who can see the change through and understand it within the context of the organizational history. And, last, it needs an influx of new energy from people who are not necessarily invested in maintaining the status quo.

CASA Latina has that magical mix this year. I hope that we are on the way to having it in the future, as I fund more and more positions and realign our ratio of temporary volunteers to permanent staff. In the meantime, I can build community over and over again so that we are able to push forward a little more each year.


About the Author

Hilary Stern is the executive director and co-founder of CASA Latina, a community-based organization in Seattle, Washington. She has 14 years of experience working in adult education with Latino immigrants. She is bilingual and bicultural and has worked in community organizing and education in Nicaragua, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. Hilary has an MA in TESOL.