The Latinx Leadership Initiative at Boston College School of Social Work

Administration August 2023 PREMIUM
The Latinx Leadership Initiative (LLI) at the Boston College School of Social Work focuses on training graduate-level social workers to collaborate with Latinx communities and develop effective solutions for complex social issues.

Collaborative Solutions for Complex Social Problems

The best way to solve complex social problems is to work with the people who experience those problems every day.

For 10 years and counting, that philosophy has guided the Latinx Leadership Initiative, an award-winning program in the Boston College School of Social Work.

Since 2013, the LLI has prepared more than 230 graduate-level social workers to collaborate with Latinx communities nationwide, giving them the skills to help individuals and families access culturally and linguistically appropriate education, social services, and healthcare.

“LLI students are trained to think critically about complex issues impacting Latinx communities across the country and to collaborate with the people most affected by these issues, to come up with effective solutions,” says Rocío Calvo, the founding director of the program. “We walk side-by-side with the community. We don’t walk in front of them. We accompany this process.”

The LLI routinely receives funding from federal agencies and large healthcare organizations to design interventions aimed at improving the physical and mental well-being of Latinx communities in Massachusetts. These projects, carried out in conjunction with community partners such as Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston Public Schools, and the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, often overlap with the program’s mission to equip students with the skills to address pressing social issues facing the Latinx population in Boston and beyond.

In 2021, for example, the program received a $600,000 grant from the Mass General Brigham healthcare system to develop the workforce of bilingual and bicultural social workers in Massachusetts. Fourteen LLI students have already completed the program, which provides stipends and professional development workshops to fellows as they work in community health settings that predominantly serve Latinx communities.

“The interventions of this grant target the systemic issues that prevent Latinx social workers from developing their careers and Latinx clients from accessing adequate care,” says Calvo. “The workshops help students learn how to navigate systems to overcome the barriers that often prevent Latinx social workers from advancing in their careers.”

The LLI follows a cohort-based model in which students navigate the challenges of social work together, supporting each other in and out of the classroom. As a group, they take classes in Spanish and attend seminars to reflect on their internship experiences. They often stay in touch after they graduate and form such strong bonds that they become each other’s family, in a way, according to Calvo.

“The students need to be surrounded by people who share their experiences, the way they see the world, and what they value,” says Calvo, who adds that more than 120 alumni have become the first members of their families to earn graduate degrees. “You bring the language, the knowledge of the community, and the willingness to work with the community,” she tells students. “You are perfect as you are, and we will change the educational structure so you can thrive.”

The program’s approach to educating Latinx students, one of only two demographic groups that experienced an increase in college attendance from 2010 to 2021, has drawn national attention.

The Center for Diversity at the Council on Social Work Education, the sole accrediting body for social work programs in the U.S., named the LLI a Model Program for Diversity Education. Excelencia in Education, an advocacy group, recognized the LLI with a top award for accelerating the educational success of Latinx students in a graduate program.

LLI students and alumni agree that the program has uncovered the rich history of the Latinx community, improved their self-confidence, and equipped them to better serve Latinx clients in communities nationwide.

“The LLI cohort has been transformative as a centrifugal force in my academic experience,” says student Melissa Bustillo, a native of El Salvador who ​is particularly interested in creating policies and programs that promote equity for people whose first language is not English. “To be able to use my native language, my Salvadorian culture, and my perspective as leadership strengths bolsters my learning and development as a social worker.”

Taiga Guterres, who graduated in 2022, says a course called “Social Services with Latinx Populations” informed his work at the Mass General Hospital Chelsea Healthcare Center, where he completed an internship as a member of the LLI. Guterres ran group therapy sessions for Latinx parents of LGBTQ youth, who, he recalls, often struggled to align their religious beliefs with the gender identity of their children.

“I was able to bring conversations I had in the classroom into other people’s cases or my own,” says Guterres, whose internship was supported by a $15,000 fellowship from the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, in partnership with the MGB healthcare system. “The LLI really taught me to have a culturally sensitive approach to the work.”

2016 graduate Jessica Gutierrez says Calvo inspired her to create an affinity group for young immigrants in the Somerville, Massachusetts, public school system. Gutierrez grew up in El Salvador and immigrated to the U.S. at 13, but felt out of place in her new home until she set foot in her first class with Calvo and joined the LLI.

“It was the first time in my life where I felt that my story was important,” she says. “She inspired me to believe that I can do more, that I am valued, and that I shouldn’t be hiding from who I am.”

Gutierrez and Guterres are now part of a network of over 200 LLI alumni in 26 states and four countries, many of whom support current students as internship supervisors and mentors. Other graduates work with Latinx families in law clinics, public schools, hospitals, community health centers, and correctional facilities, using the skills and strategies they’ve honed in their evidence-based courses to respond to the unique needs of their clients.

“LLI alumni are everywhere,” says Calvo. “While starting in direct service roles, many have transitioned into leadership roles from which they are transforming the way we work with Latinx communities across the country.”

As she looks ahead to the future of the LLI, she emphasizes the need to stick to the philosophy that has guided the program for the past decade. “The soul of the Latinx Leadership Initiative doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the community,” says Calvo. “We are the stewards and we have the responsibility to accompany these communities.” 

About the author:

Jason Kornwitz is the senior writer and editor for the Boston College School of Social Work. He studied journalism and philosophy at Northeastern University.

Share with:

Product information

Post a Job

Post a job in higher education?

Place your job ad in our classified page on the HO print & digital Edition