Working Effectively with Latino Parents

Genevieve Martínez García

Genevieve Martínez-García

So you have everything set: your curriculum is selected, the schools are on board, the sessions are planned, and you are ready to implement your sex ed classes with Latino youth. Still, you want to engage the parents and invite them to a parents’ night and orientation, conduct other activities with the families, and ask them to fill out the consent form. You contact all the parents–call them up, knock on their doors, send reminders–and yet they do not come. Sound familiar? Many educators have expressed their frustration when reaching out to Latino parents. Many are unable to recruit them, retain them, or reach them at all.

When implementing a program–any program–in the Latino community, what are the best practices to actively engage all members? I asked this question to 14 well-established direct care providers with extensive experience in the Latino community in Maryland. These providers included after-school program facilitators, managers of youth positive development programs, ESOL counselors, home-visitation nurses, clinicians, and sexuality educators. Almost all of them considered themselves Latinos, either foreign- or US-born.

They all acknowledged the challenges of working with the community, but they eagerly shared lessons learned after years of working in it. Bear in mind that the specific community they worked with is mostly foreign-born and recent migrants from Central America. Your community might look very different and, as a result, could face other challenges.

7 Ways to Work Effectively with Latino Parents

  1. Recognize their time challenges. Lack of time may be the culprit for lack of participation. Latino parents often work two or even three jobs around the clock; spend endless hours transferring from bus to train to bus to get to their site of employment, market, and home; and they also manage a house with children and probably other relatives. So, getting them out of the house and into a meeting, education session, or any other activity is very hard.
  2. Offer them something they can’t resist. Yes, free food is always attractive, but for parents struggling to navigate the system or pressed for time, food may not be the key to their hearts. If you are inviting them to a meeting, education session, etc., give them something they really care for; this may vary by community. Sample topics may include orientation on immigration or legal issues, how to fill out the deferred action paperwork so popular nowadays, an expert presentation on a health issue, or how to access social services for which they may be eligible. Build in time in your agenda for extra content.
  3. Make events easy to attend. Babysitting, food, transportation, accessible location, and convenient times are key to reduce the burden of getting to the event venue. However, convenience is subjective. Some parents might be available during the days when other might prefer evenings, weekends, or others weekdays. Consider multiple meetings at different times or venues if necessary and possible. Get to know what they ne
    ed, and factor it into your event planning.
  4. Think beyond the “in person” meeting. More and more Latino adults are actively using smart phones and mobile apps. Use them wisely to update them about meeting events and outcomes. You keep them in the loop even if they do not attend your events. But don’t forget to keep the already engaged parents informed and connected through social media and texting.
  5. Saying it in “Español” helps but is not the whole story. Being bilingual, bicultural, and sensitive to the community’s needs and history is important when establishing a relationship and communicating with the parents. However, even Latino outreach workers have had problems reaching out. Being Latino does not immediately translate to relating well with the community. There’s a great deal that comes from personality, establishing trust, and communicating well.
  6. Don’t be the new kid on the block. Working well with ANY community starts by building trusting relationships. In the Latino community, particularly the foreign-born, they need to feel respected and valued, that their participation will not lead to the possibility of deportation or ending up in a federal database somewhere, and that the program staff is honest in the work they do. Just like Rome, this type of trust is not built in a day. It takes years to settle in as a friendly and trustworthy member of the community. If your project is new and you are in fact a new face, consider partnering with an established organization or key individuals to handle community relations and help you navigate the cultural context.
  7. Knock, knock, knock! They might not come today, or tomorrow, but if you keep knocking on their doors and applying these bits of recommendations, they might just come one day and call their friends.

Remember every Latino community is different, with different acculturation processes, migration history, and socio-cultural context. Learn it, live it, and celebrate it every step of the way!

What are your lessons learned in working effectively with Latino parents?

Genevieve Martínez García is a Senior Researcher at Healthy Teen Network.

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