On advocacy: Casa De Esperanza

For Omar Leal ’15, there is no “typical day” at Casa de Esperanza, a Latina-led organization that aims to end domestic violence. On a day-to-day basis, he might be fielding questions, translating documents or recruiting volunteers. He once helped a woman file for divorce because she couldn’t understand the papers, and another time, he called a government office on behalf of a man who didn’t speak English.

While these various tasks may not seem to be directly related to ending domestic violence, Leal believes in the importance of a comprehensive approach.

“Dealing with this big issue of domestic violence—and really anything that is a big issue that affects an entire community—it’s not just about going for that big goal and saying, ‘Domestic violence is bad, don’t do it,’” he said. “It’s also about creating stronger communities in and of themselves.”

Casa de Esperanza was founded in St. Paul in 1982. Over the past three decades, they’ve opened a shelter, started a 24/7 crisis line, hosted workshops, won substantial grants and produced a National [email protected] Network that counsels similar programs across the country. As Teresa Wiltz writes in Stateline Weekly, state governments are not equipped to effectively deal with domestic violence. Instead, nonprofits with culturally appropriate programming aimed at specific groups, like Casa de Esperanza, are the most successful.

“I think a lot of nonprofits and a lot of organizations… tend to have a top-down approach,” Leal said. “Like, ‘Let me tell you everything that you need to do. Let me tell you everything that you need to know. Let me tell you how to make your community better.’”

In contrast, Casa de Esperanza not only offers specific information about domestic violence, but also allows members of the community to direct its operations. “They allow people to decide for themselves what they want to do for the community, and they’ll offer them the resources to be able to do that.”

Marissa Kurtz ’15, who also volunteers at Casa de Esperanza, believes in the power of what she calls a “multidimensional approach.” According to Kurtz, the organization doesn’t only train people to respond to domestic violence, but also empowers the entire community. “It attacks domestic violence in a very multi-layered way where they’re not just focusing on one single group of people in the [email protected] community, gender or age,” she said. “It’s all-encompassing.”

Kurtz began working at Casa this past summer in youth programming. She educates young women ages 11 to 18 about domestic violence statistics, emphasizing the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships in any context, not just romantic. She believes in the importance of empowering youth to be advocates within their own peer groups and families. As Casa de Esperanza’s website says, “It is the community that will end domestic violence, not Casa de Esperanza or any other system or organization.”

In addition to their enthusiasm for Casa’s programming, Leal and Kurtz enjoy the experience of being involved off-campus. They both appreciate the experience of connecting with the [email protected] community in the Twin Cities. “That’s something that’s really important to me,” Leal says, “because that’s the community I left back home.”

Better still is the opportunity to make one-on-one connections. “There’s this one guy who always comes in and asks me to put cars on Craiglist,” Leal says. “I start to get regulars who come in and look for me.”