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The Short Story: Esperanza y Respeto

The UW’s School of Education and the Centro Hispano of Dane County are partnering to reduce inequities in access to mental health access within the Latinx community.

“There is no health without mental health, and there is no advancement in health without systemic change.” This is a model by researchers Hector Adames and Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas, which underpins Esperanza, a partnership between Centro Hispano of Dane County and UW–Madison’s School of Education. With a $1 million grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program (WPP), Esperanza’s five-year goal is to combine both groups’ expertise and resources to increase mental health services for Dane County’s Latinx community.

Since 1983, Centro Hispano has been a guiding force in Dane County. “Centro’s really a sacred space where our community can be themselves, can develop leadership skills, and can develop a sense of belonging,” explains Karen Menéndez Coller, Centro’s executive director. “When this opportunity came up,” she says of the UW partnership, “it was like the stars aligned.”

Well-being is critical to Centro’s mission, and mental health services are just one aspect of wellbeing that Centro has been looking to increase. With the WPP grant, Centro — in partnership with UW–Madison — can expand mental health services in all aspects of their work, from youth programs to adult services. The community is already benefiting: Centro was able to hire bilingual psychologist Alyssa Ramírez Stege MS’14, PhD’19.

Ramírez Stege is also an assistant professor in the UW’s counseling psychology department, where she developed a two-year graduate certificate to train heritage Spanish-speaking students in providing bicultural mental health services. But it’s more than just providing care in two languages; it’s understanding nuance and floating between the two — translingual, not bilingual. “There’s an intertwining of clinical strategy as well as language issues” with translingualism, says Stephen Quintana, the partnership’s UW colead. “Clients may remember trauma incidents if they’re currently speaking Spanish, if they experienced those incidents when Spanish was dominant. Clients may feel a little bit more in control by talking about those in English because [the language is] one step removed from that [experience].”

While Ramírez Stege leads the UW’s efforts in curriculum development, Evelyn Cruz ’02 — Centro’s director of program development and evaluation — leads the design and implementation of the community-level mental well-being strategies, and oversees the collective impact of this work in the community. This is just one way that Esperanza differs from past UW community partnerships: the two entities have equal seats at the table. “There’ve been instances where people from the UW have ‘volunteered,’ ” Quintana says, “but then have really been conducting their masters or dissertation work.” Another thing that makes Esperanza different is that it was cocreated from the start. “We were wanting to create something together,” Coller explains. “We’re both understanding that we don’t have the answers, but we want to create the solutions.”

Although the folks mentioned here are certainly crucial, Coller emphasizes that this partnership could not exist without the community itself. “The community has played a significant role,” Coller says. “We understand the community has assets and does not need to be quote-unquote fixed.”

Both Coller and Quintana hope the Esperanza model can pave the way for stronger connections between the UW and the community: “community-based,” says Quintana, “as opposed to ivory towers where we decide what the critical issues are but rely on the community to be able to articulate.” After all, that is the Wisconsin Idea — the belief that the work done at the university should extend beyond the ivory towers to serve all communities.

This story originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Badger Vibes. Learn more about this monthly email newsletter from WAA, and sign up for the mailing list.

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