“People come with dreams and hopes and sometimes it takes a helping hand to open a door so they can soar,” says Ruby Azurdia-Lee, President and CEO of CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio).
The organization offers that helping hand linguistically and culturally with relevant resources and services focused on Latino families. They also help immigrants and low-income families from all walks of life who dream of a better future.
An immigrant from Guatemala, Azurdia-Lee has had a few goals in her professional life – none of them small tasks. Reducing racism was the objective during her time with the Saint Paul Foundation. Reducing poverty was her focus while at the Northwest Area Foundation. Now at CLUES, her calling is to strengthen the capacity of Latino families to be healthy, prosperous and engaged in their communities.
Why does she do the work she does? “[I need to be] where I can be part of making a difference, and whatever I can contribute to that is what drives me and makes me come to work each day,” Azurdia-Lee says.
Why does she think many Latinos and immigrants do the work they do? She believes many are employed in part-time and low-wage jobs because they don’t have access to better training and ladders to opportunities.
According to a 2014 Minnesota Compass report, the state has a fast-growing Hispanic population – climbing from 54,000 in 1990 to 271,000 in 2013. Yet high school graduation rates for Hispanic students are low – 58 percent, compared to 80 percent for the state average. And the median income of a Hispanic-headed household is $18,000 less than the overall state median. About 1 in 4 Hispanic residents live in poverty, which is double the rate for all Minnesotans.
“Many of our clients work 15 hours a week with no access to health insurance or vacation or retirement funds or other benefits. And with low wages they have to work three jobs to make ends meet. Then youth are more often alone at home and there is a domino effect,” she explains.
She also notes the difficulty in getting voices representing communities of color to policy-making tables. “We talk about Latinos as the workforce of tomorrow, but in policy-making there is limited intentional direction about how to engage those groups. It is hard to have people of color participate at the table because they are out there working,” Azurdia-Lee says.
CLUES is powered by more than 700 volunteers. One of its programs helps Latinos and immigrants improve their English. Another program pairs about 65 youth with corporate mentors to help achieve academic success. Mentors check in on science projects and SAT exams, but mostly give them exposure and access to opportunities for higher education. Students in the program have had a 100 percent high school graduation rate. CLUES also provides a free tax service run by volunteers, advises clients about how to best invest a tax return, and offers information about how to get access to capital.
“For me,” Azurdia-Lee says, “it is about opening doors for others, in particular Latinos and immigrants, whatever country they come from.”