Hispanic Unity of Florida. The name itself almost sounds like an oxymoron — if it’s about unity, why is it just for Hispanics?
“That’s a great point to bring up,” acknowledged Katherin Gallego, marketing director for the 37-year-old non-profit. “And there actually is a conversation to change the name because of that paradox. The founding family was actually of Cuban descent, and the name came through that, and although it remains our biggest population, you may have noticed that we’ve been using HUF in our marketing, as we’re no longer limiting our services to the hispanic community.
“We’re really an organization devoted to helping all immigrants acclimate into the country and the community.”
In fact, HUF — Hispanic Unity of Florida — which covers all of Broward out of its Hollywood office on Johnson Street, now does 12 programs in four languages: Spanish, English, Creole and Portuguese, plus sign language.
Founded in 1982 as a haven for immigrants and refugees, HUF has grown to serve diverse and multicultural working families from the United States as well as more than 25 other countries. It provides a wide range of services to help its clients, from preschoolers to adults, successfully transition to a productive new life, focusing on its Vision: that Everyone is empowered to live their American Dream, and its Mission: Empowering immigrants and others to become self-sufficient, productive and civically engaged.
According to Gallego, there are three basic areas that the organization focuses on: education, civic engagement and economic development.
HUF has a pre-school on-site for 3-5 year olds, runs a Civic Engagement program to help with everything from citizenship preparation to social acclimation, and offers an array of financial courses to teach people how to earn and manage their money in their new county.
“For example, a lot of these families come from countries where credit doesn’t even exist,” she pointed out. “It’s tough to be an immigrant, which is why we want to empower them.”
Gallego should know. An immigrant herself at a very young age, she still remembers pieces of her own journey, and now, as a mother with a child the age that she was when she came here, she really feels for the people she helps. Having left a thriving corporate career to join the nonprofit world, she confirms daily that her choice was the right one.
“I would have loved for my parents to have known about this kind of place,” she continued. “The transition was difficult, and once you have that experience, you don’t forget. I relate and I understand. It stays with you.”
While courses and programs such as English as a Second Language and Pathways to Homeownership for first time home buyers are offered at HUF on a daily basis, Gallego feels that the real backbone of the organization, and one that may not be seen as easily, is the work on public policy and advocacy that goes on behind the scenes. And for that, she espouses the strength of HUF’s president and CEO, Josie Bacallao.
Gallego called her the Senior Program Director, so we asked her: Josie, what do you actually do here?
“In the not-for-profit world – and at HUF in particular – titles don’t mean a heck of a lot – and that – I have found is liberating and exciting,” said Bacallao. “Collectively, we do whatever we need to do to support our clients and move our work forward. That said, yes, each of us has a set of responsibilities. Mine, as President/CEO is both broad and specific. I work with and through teams and in some areas such as the Board of Directors and public policy & advocacy, I take the lead. I am the person ultimately responsible for strategy, delivering on our mission, talent management, funding and financial management.
“In the past few years, the agency experienced significant growth and we have subsequently refocused on our people and our systems. One of the projects I led in 2019 was the training and development of our management team, and reviewing our key processes. Above all other duties, I am responsible for what Jim Collins refers to as having “The Right Person in the Right Seat Doing the Right Work.”
Externally, I am the agency’s key spokesperson with not only media but also with the community and policy makers.”
HUF’s mission statement includes a pieces to have people become “civically engaged”. What does that mean?
“The ultimate measure of HUF’s work is this,” answered Bacallao. “Successful children, stronger families, civically-engaged individuals and a more inclusive and equitable community. As we work to strengthen families from within, the outer manifestation of our work is a stronger community. We serve individuals from more than 30 countries. Their journeys to the American dream is at times treacherous but always hopeful. Families are learning what it means to be an American. They learn the language, they pay taxes, they vote.
“But most have never lived in or know what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. The concept of civic engagement is new to them. Civic life – from serving on a school PTA to serving on a local nonprofit board or city committee to supporting a policy issue, is something they have never done.
“At HUF, we believe that to better integrate new Americans, our services must include civic engagement. For many, it all starts with becoming a U.S. citizen. Annually HUF assists nearly 7,000 individuals in their dream of becoming naturalized. Our 20+ centers in Broward and Miami-Dade County teach American history and government. Visiting elected officials share their own stories and the need for civic involvement. Partners like the League of Women Voters explain voter registration, vetting of candidates and the honor and responsibility of voting.
“In 2020, civic engagement for us will be a focus on educating our clients and the community on the 2020 Census and why this will be one of the most important civic acts they will engage in over the next 10 years.
It’s clear that Bacallao’s heart is in public advocacy. What are her current pet projects?
“Several years ago, our board of directors had the foresight to expand the agency’s work to not only include direct services to clients but to add public policy and advocacy as part of the agency’s work,” she explained. “While providing direct services remains the core of what we do, we understand that systemic change occurs at the policy level. We approached this new area as we do all of our work: we researched it, created a plan, created a board committee of experts to guide our work and reached out to professionals in this area.
“This will be our third year in working on policy and we have learned a great deal and we have much more to learn. Above all, we understand that this work must be a collective enterprise and so we work informally and formally with dozens of organizations on a variety of policy items. Our partners include United Way of Broward, Children’s Services Council of Broward County and the Children of Immigrant Families a coalition we helped to found. Other key partners include the Florida Policy Institute, UnidosUS and ESOL Florida among many others. Our policy areas link to our areas of work: education, economic development and civic engagement as well as social justice. We’ll be again participating this year in Broward Days in Tallahassee and our Children of Immigrant Families Group which is part of the Children and Families Impact Team, will be focused on five policy issues: native language assessment for English learners, state financial aid for DREAMers, the expansion of health services in schools, E-verify and affordable housing. As an agency, HUF will be following more than 15 policy items.”
The devoted staff at HUF believe that what defines a person is what they do with their life, and how they live it, and not where they were born.
“Our commitment to our mission and our clients is stronger than ever,” said Bacallao. “And our community and our many friends, funders, partners and volunteers continue to help and sustain us and our neighbors during these challenging times.
“No two people have their own American Dream,” concluded Gallego. “We’re here to guide them through the system and help each of our clients find their own.“