“Trusting Youth with Power” Al Éxito Partners with Latino Youth for Iowa’s Future
By Marlén Mendoza
Al Éxito, formerly known as Latinas Al Éxito (LAÉ ), was founded in 2006 to develop a mentorship model “focused on keeping 8th-grade girls engaged and successful academically.” At the time, the state of Iowa was experiencing high dropout rates among Latina girls as the Latino population in Iowa was increasing. In 2008, they expanded to serve boys and spread across the state and then in 2013, rebranded to Al Éxito.
Al Éxito offers opportunities for middle and high school-aged youth and young adults to get involved in their schools, communities, and at the state level. These range from out-of-school time programs focused on civic engagement, community service, college preparation, and mentoring to opportunities to serve on youth boards/taskforces to encouraging and supporting youth entrepreneurship.
Al Éxito’s work embraces a “pass it forward” ethos and a commitment to youth engagement, in which power is shared and young people are given space and supports to authentically design and lead the work.
“We use a youth participatory action model across all of our programs,” says Dawn Martinez Oropeza, Executive Director of Al Éxito. That means young people are viewed as peers to program leadership and are empowered to make decisions about programming and strategic direction.
In 2018, the organization launched a youth-led Taskforce on Mental Health that has succeeded in changing the way Iowa schools provide mental health supports to students.
It began when Al Éxito members identified mental health and stress as a serious challenge facing their peers. They decided to form a taskforce and collect state data to shine light on the issues. With funding from the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, the youth taskforce designed and conducted a statewide research survey of students’ challenges related to stress and mental health.
With the results of the study in hand, the youth-led taskforce drafted recommendations and presented them to the local school board, state legislators, and the Iowa Department of Education.
Now—as taskforce leader Orlando Fuentes, 17, told the nonprofit Healthiest State Initiative—schools “have guidance counselors who understand trauma-informed care. We worked with the school board on policies. We’re trying to make change happen.”
The effort earned recognition from the state, and Fuentes was awarded the Porter S. Dimery Sr. Youth Human Rights Award from the City of Des Moines.
Seeding Careers and a Diverse State Workforce
In 2017, Al Éxito youth worked with staff to design and launch drēm|sēd, a youth-led social enterprise that partners with local Latino-owned businesses, which are often the economic backbone of their communities. The business takes its name, drēm|sēd (“dream seed”), from the Mexican Proverb: "They tried to bury us but didn't know we were seeds.” Its young founders selected the name to signify its role in countering systemic forces that limit opportunity for local Latino youth.
At drēm|sēd, young people learn the ins and outs of running a business and the social, emotional, and interpersonal skills to speak with business owners, make a pitch, and establish relationships within the community. The business model centers on selling merchandise made by young people to local businesses. All revenue is then invested back into supporting the programs.
Its first CEO, Caroly Coronado, 18, had not yet graduated from high school when she helped launch the program. “She was sitting down with two PhD students and her voice was equally if not more important when the group created programs or drafted plans,” says Oropeza. Caroly is now attending college on a full scholarship.
“After joining [AL Éxito], they helped me build a resume and format it out…. With the youth-led business drēm|sēd, I learned how to talk to people and sell. I figured out how to create a marketing plan... It has really helped me build on what I would like to do in the future and build on my interests, to see what can be beneficial to me.”
- Orlando Fuentes, 17, Al Éxito Youth Mental Health Taskforce Lead and drēm|sēd alum
A Commitment to All
Al Éxito not only works with natural youth leaders, but actively seeks out young people who are typically not the first to volunteer and supports them to be leaders and to engage and train their peers.
“I knew that we needed to trust the youth with power and leadership and that they had a voice,” says Dawn Martinez Oropeza. When the organization hired the first high school seniors to run its Movimiento program, “they weren’t your typical students; they may have had a 1.7 GPA and would threaten to drop out every day. It took a while, but one of these students is now a third-year at university,” says Oropeza. “So, we don’t always pick the students that are standouts or born leaders… we pick the quiet students or the troublemakers. We look to see the potential of all students.”
“I joined Movimiento and that is where I was able to develop my voice. I remember I was a very shy person; I was never open to a lot of conversations; I never really talked a lot,” says Adrian Olguin, 15, of Grimes, Iowa. “Being a part of Movimiento Al Éxito, I learned to be more open and share my voice because my voice matters in a lot of problems that are happening right now. It really changed my life for the better, and they showed they really cared. When I was in school, I felt like I never had that.”
“I joined Movimiento and that is where I was able to develop my voice…
because my voice matters in a lot of problems that are happening right now.”
- Adrian Olguin, 15
In 2018, Al Éxito launched Al Éxito University to address declining college retention rates among Latinos, many of whom are first-generation college students. The program brings educators and students with first-hand experience in issues specific to Latino students in Iowa to lead workshops on applying to and succeeding in and through college. Al Éxito also created an LGBTQ+ youth group to provide support and mentorship opportunities for students.
Responding to a Changing Context
Over the last two decades, the state of Iowa has experienced a 130 percent increase in the number of Latino residents statewide. According to Latinos in Iowa (PDF, 4 pages), Latinos now constitute 6 percent of the total population, and a percentage that is expected to double by 2050. During the 2017-2018 school year, Iowa Public Schools had 19,659 English Language Learners (ELL), an almost 218 percent increase since 2000, according to the Iowa Department of Education.
The state’s education system is struggling to adapt and serve the rising number of Latino students it serves. Gaps in educational achievement among Latinos are stark: In 2018, while 92.3 percent of the total population had at least a high school education, only 64.2 percent of Latinos aged 25 and older had finished high school, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education.
With its grounding in authentic youth leadership, Al Éxito believes that it can fulfill its mission to close education gaps at all levels and enable academic and professional success for young Latinos across the state.
Reaching its goals, Al Éxito believes, requires providing holistic supports for young people—academic, social and emotional, mental health, and professional and civic engagement—and uplifting the family through a two-generation approach. Many of the afterschool programs have a parent track to get the family involved in their child’s leadership development and support them in the process. While a student attends an afterschool program, their parents may be down the hall in an informational workshop or class.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further changed the context in which Al Éxito operates. Since March 2020, Al Éxito has expanded to include serving and meeting the basic needs of the Latino community, including those who are ineligible for federal stimulus programs or local economic relief programs. As of September 2020, Al Éxito, along with American Friends Service Community and Proteus, has financially supported undocumented families with more than $150,000 to cover rent and monthly bills.
Its young leaders are working to keep their voices and their communities at the center of responses. They are also checking in on their fellow students and their families to identify and respond to basic needs, for example, by distributing hygiene and food boxes.
Al Éxito’s youth leaders have also identified another priority: ensuring that the shift to e-learning does not widen the existing education gaps. Many low-income Latino students face barriers ranging from access to reliable internet to support for learning if their parents are essential workers. In the fall of 2020, Al Éxito piloted a new approach to support students, designed by and with young people: Compa en Camino, an on-call line to provide students with support for online learning and basic needs during the school day.
Born and raised in the West Side of Chicago, Marlén Mendoza is an independent policy consultant to nonprofit policy and advocacy organizations. She provides research, support, and analysis on issues related to youth of color, youth in poverty, young adult mental health, and Opportunity Youth. Marlén received her BA from the University of Iowa and currently resides in the Iowa City area, where she is an active community organizer and advocate for the Latino community.