Carola Otero Bracco helps new immigrants and host communities better understand and accept each other
Often, when people immigrate to the U.S., it’s assumed they’ll assimilate, or become “Americanized”—whatever that means. But Carola Otero Bracco, CEO of Neighbors Link Network, has a different take on that.
To her, it’s more important that people become integrated into the community. And she’s referring to more than just immigrants. As she explains, “Assimilation implies we’re making everyone the same. That isn’t really what we should be interested in achieving. Rather, we should be striving for integration, which means we learn and benefit from each other’s cultures. With that in mind, our affiliates offer programs and services for the whole community, not only the immigrant community.”
To that end, Neighbors Link affiliates offer a number of outreach programs that educate both immigrants and the longer-term residents of host communities. These include, for example, promoting cross-cultural understanding and conversations for established residents—no matter their ethnic background—to help them understand why immigrants come to the country.
The organization has also reached out to police departments throughout Westchester County to provide them with cultural-competency training. Thus far, this includes some 450 local officers. It has also received a grant from the county to provide 1,100 Department of Social Services employees in Yonkers, White Plains, Mount Vernon and Peekskill with similar training.
Neighbors Link Northern Westchester, based in Mount Kisco in New York’s Westchester County, additionally offers programs that help the immigrant community better understand American customs and laws. This is in addition to operating a job bank for both day labor and more permanent work and promoting skills-training programs. It has also partnered with the Westchester Community College to offer English-as-a-second-language (ESL) education.
This focus on education is key, Bracco notes, to help immigrants further the goals they had in mind when coming to the U.S. “Parents come to us with their young children to learn about how the school system works in this country and how to help their children succeed academically. This is very important, because some parents might have a low level of education themselves,” Bracco says. “We also have an afterschool program where we work with about 85 children in an academically rigorous environment and a summer program for around 100 kids that again has quite a bit of academic rigor built into it.”
Neighbors Link Northern Westchester, which was established in 2001, has become so successful that it spawned Neighbors Link Network. This organization helps other communities establish programs similar to Neighbors Link Northern Westchester, such as Neighbors Link Stamford, now celebrating four years of operation. Other towns and cities are also looking into building their own Neighbors Link programs.
When Bracco’s parents came to the U.S. from Bolivia in 1960, she traveled as a carry on—in her mother’s belly. To the family, including her seven older siblings (she now also has a younger sister), their arrival was a bit surreal, beginning with their first experience with an escalator at the Miami airport.
“They had never been on one before, so my mom put one foot forward, one hand on the handrail and went up the escalator. She was teaching my family how to use it—and they watched and learned. This is an interesting story about what it can be like for a family that has so many new things to account for,” Bracco says.
It’s also a metaphor for what many new immigrants to the U.S. face: new customs, new languages, new experiences—a new way of life. For her part, Bracco is doing everything she can to ease this transition. After 12 years working in the private sector, in 2004, Bracco began volunteering at Neighbors Link Northern Westchester stuffing envelopes. Within less than a year, she became a board member of the organization. Shortly thereafter, she was named the executive director.
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