2022 Empowerment Award: La Colaborativa
“COVID-19 has revealed gross inequities in our safety net systems. It’s now clear that the virus is not affecting all communities the same; ours is being devastated and we must come together to ensure our most vulnerable families are not left behind to fight this virus alone. Today, our focus is on helping our community to survive the pandemic – to keep families and children fed, housed, and receiving the medical care they need.”
– Gladys Vega, Executive Director
The phrase frontline worker is now inextricably linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, working its way into news reports, social media feeds, and lawn signs. But what happens when the concentration of workers in a single area is so high it becomes a frontline community?
This was the situation facing Chelsea during the height of the pandemic, where 80% of workers are essential employees. As these individuals provided the critical services that we all rely on, they were exposed to the virus at disproportionately high rates. Combine this with densely populated neighborhoods and a reliance on public transportation, Chelsea’s infection rate soared to one of the highest in the country. At the same time, as the retail and hospitality lockdown wore on, a significant number of community members found themselves out of work, and unable to pay for rent, food, and medical care. It was a community in crisis.
At the offices of La Colaborativa, Executive Director Gladys Vega – and her team of nearly 50 staff and volunteers – took swift action.
“We took a risk at the start of the pandemic and decided that we were not going to close shop,” Vega said. “We became a lifeline for our community. When COVID-19 hit, essential workers like airport workers and hotel workers didn’t have anyone there for them. We made them our business. We are all Chelsea residents, and we were going to stick with our community.”
Founded in 1988, La Colaborativa was already a trusted fixture in Latinx and immigrant communities, as was Vega herself.
Ronaldo Rauseo-Ricupero, a litigator at Nixon Peabody and Board of Directors Co-Chair for East Boston Social Centers, and a member of the Beacon Award Selection Committee first met Vega in 2013 during an embezzlement case involving the head of the Chelsea Housing Authority.
“Gladys is amazing. During the case, we really needed to have individuals from the Housing Authority describe the impact that the person’s action had on them, but it’s not easy to persuade someone who has real concerns about retaliation to come to court and testify,” said Rauseo-Ricupero. “Gladys was not only extraordinary in helping us find people who could speak to the impact specifically and personally, but also she was great at getting people to understand the overall framework of what we were trying to accomplish with the litigation.”
The community trust built and sustained by Vega and La Colaborativa made the organization an essential part of city and state officials’ efforts to contain the virus. Vega met daily with city public health officials to discuss pandemic responses, and she recorded public service announcements – in both English and Spanish – urging the community to follow public health guidelines.
At La Colaborativa’s offices, emergency response and services to the pandemic took a multi-faceted approach, which was anchored by the group’s food pantry. As more than 3,000 neighbors stood in line each week to receive food, diapers, and other household items, La Colaborativa staff and volunteers talked to individuals to make sure their housing and medical needs were being met.
“The pop-up food pantry became a one-stop place. Someone drops by with an emergency, and we address that emergency right then and there,” said Vega. “They get assigned three case managers that will connect them to housing, workforce development, and unemployment benefits. If they have children, we determine if they qualify for transitional assistance. If their housing is in jeopardy, we work with the city and state officials on hotel quarantine options and rental assistance programs. We also advocate for rental amnesty to families in economic crisis, and give access to legal counsel for people facing eviction.”
Throughout the pandemic, La Colaborativa also ensured that homes were places of safety for immigrant women. The pop-up pantry designated one day of the week for mothers and grandmothers, where women could receive food, diapers, feminine hygiene products, and well-being checks.
“We do a special day for moms so that we can have women talking to other women in case there is domestic abuse,” explained Vega. “We have a triage team of case managers that talk to moms who are there to pick up diapers or food and ask ‘what else can I do for you?’ We make sure they are aware that if they are the victim of a crime, and they are undocumented, we can help them get a visa if they decide to pursue a case against that individual.”
To keep the pantry and its delivery team staffed and running, La Colaborativa hired entirely from within the community, providing a paycheck to workers affected by the statewide shutdown.
This community lifeline during COVID poised La Colaborativa to have a transformative impact during the vaccine rollout. As community members wondered whether the vaccine was safe, they turned to La Colaborativa, the people who had been with them from the start.
“We advocated for and secured expanded testing for Chelsea residents at MGH-Chelsea Healthcare Center, so that anyone who is symptomatic in Chelsea can safely access testing regardless of immigration status or insurance,” said Vega. “And we took the same approach with vaccinations.”
When the COVID-19 vaccines were approved, La Colaborativa recruited and trained mothers to become vaccination ambassadors. They teamed up with doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital and went door to door to talk about the importance of vaccination with neighbors,
Rauseo-Ricupero credits Vega and La Colaborativa with Chelsea’s status as the city in Massachusetts with the highest vaccination rate.
“During the pandemic, the East Boston Neighborhood Health Centers teamed up with La Colaborativa because, as we know, that Gladys, and her whole team, is amazing,” he said. “She moved heaven and earth to make sure that the communities that were going to be the most impacted would be able to capitalize on the special clinics that they set up. She also had the advocacy skills and credibility to be able to have people from the Health Center and the Commonwealth invest their resources into it.”
Now, two years after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Chelsea, La Colaborativa is even more invested in the community. Construction is nearly complete on the organization’s new Chelsea Survival Center, it has expanded its job training programs to include a new carpentry apprenticeship thanks in part to grants from the Baker and Biden administrations, and they are reaching more community members than ever through a roster of Promotores, a group of La Colaborativa volunteers working to connect thousands of people to food, vaccines, medical care, emergency housing and voter education and registration.
“Chelsea is a leader in many ways in terms of civic participation, voter mobilization, and community education,” said Vega. “In a city that is largely made up of immigrants, people of color, and low-income residents, we have bucked the trends by creating safe spaces for all voices to be heard and all members of our community to be involved in shaping our city. The importance of civic engagement and the power of organizing as a united front is a cornerstone of our mission and day-to-day work.”
To that end, La Colaborativa is an anchor partner organization of Massachusetts Voter Table (MVT), a statewide coalition of community organizations that trains trusted leaders, provides voter data that fuel field programs, and regrants to community-based organizations.
“The model of parachuting into a community and mobilizing voters for a short period of time has not built power among BIPOC, immigrant, low-income, or young voters,” said Beth Huang, Executive Director of MVT. “To build long-term power, we partner with community organizations like La Colaborativa to integrate civic engagement with issue advocacy throughout the entire year, not a campaign cycle. La Colaborativa’s year-round Chelsea Voter Initiative has shifted power toward Latinx residents, public and affordable housing residents, and young people.”
With such a broad and deep presence, it is no surprise that La Colaborativa has expanded its reach beyond Chelsea to neighboring communities like East Boston, Everett, Malden, and Revere. It is a recognition that circumstances often require families to relocate outside of Chelsea, and a commitment to continue to serve those families.
“Everything we did, we did for the unconditional love we have for the people of Chelsea, but also because we grew up with many of these people,” said Vega. “City limits will not prevent us from staying connected with our growing base of members, providing services where there are needs, and uniting and empowering this large and ever-growing base of immigrant leaders in Massachusetts.”
When reflecting on the decision to recognize La Colaborativa with the Empowerment Award, Dan McFadden, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and a member of the Selection Committee reflected, “The Beacon Award Selection Committee is honored to celebrate and amplify La Colaborativa’s work empowering immigrant communities, by bringing attention to its decades-long work advocating for the survival, stability, and celebration of gateway cities like Chelsea, East Boston, Everett, and others. La Colaborativa has used the law and the courts as an important tool towards increasing equity. Their work to expand voting rights, increase access to stable and affordable housing, support pathways to citizenship, advance consumer protection and more, align closely with the long-held values of the Boston Bar Association, and is well-deserving of this recognition.”