Luis Iza: Building Bridges for Immigrant Families

To honor Hispanic American Heritage Month, Philanthropy Roundtable is highlighting The Open Door NJNY. Philanthropy Roundtable believes the American spirit is generous, with neighbor helping neighbor to uplift entire communities. To propel further investment in entrepreneurial approaches that strengthen communities, we are highlighting leaders and initiatives that cultivate local civil society and support the values that transform lives. The Roundtable recently spoke with Luis Iza, executive director and co-founder of The Open Door, which serves immigrant individuals and families in the greater New York and New Jersey areas. They offer ESL, computer literacy and GED prep classes.

Q: Tell us a little bit about The Open Door. What’s your mission, history and focus?

This is our 13th year, so Open Door became a teenager this year. Our mission is to help immigrants become part of our mainstream society. We do this through English classes, computer literacy classes and GED prep classes.

Open Door is the second nonprofit that my wife and I founded. The first one, Operation Exodus, helps the children of immigrants in Washington Heights. Seeing the pain of the children is what led us to talk about and think of ways of trying to prevent or reduce that pain. My wife and I saw it up close when we adopted a child from that community. He was nine years of age. His birth mother, possibly not having proper guidance as to how to adjust to our country, got into a lot of trouble.

We hired a new team member this year who comes from the corporate world. After her first day, she said, “I see that this is much more than an ESL program.” People come here from work tired but happy, and they leave happy — including the volunteers.

Q: You have a unique personal background. Could you share some of your own story with us?

I’m the grandson of Cuban immigrants. That influences my thinking a lot. I came to this country in 1961, so I’m an adopted American. I think the whole idea of one life influencing another life is really powerful — the difference one individual can make on another. The challenge is not so much people sharing their material wealth, but their intellectual wealth. It is so important for people to share their hearts.

We build bridges, but we’re bridge crossers as well. There are a lot of cultural bridges in our society, but very few people cross them. That’s reality. In America, there are fairly new rivalries between different countries. Within The Open Door, that doesn’t exist. We say that we are familia, and we are familia. Our students say, “This is the first time that I made a white friend.” I know that there’s a lot more that needs to be happening, but I believe we’re on the right track and focusing on the right things.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about how you help bridge the language barrier and why that’s important?

The reality of all immigrants, not only Latino immigrants, is that once you arrive in this country, the children quickly become English-dominant. If the parents don’t catch up, they experience a big gap here, which can lead to a lot of troubles or misunderstandings between the generations. Strengthening families — that’s a big piece of what we do.

The reality of all immigrants, not only Latino immigrants, is that once you arrive in this country, the children quickly become English-dominant. If the parents don’t catch up, they experience a big gap here, which can lead to a lot of troubles or misunderstandings between the generations. Strengthening families — that’s a big piece of what we do.

That experience is personal for me. When I was a boy, I would translate for my mom with doctors. Back then, there were very few translators in hospitals, for example. I heard a lot of things that a nine-year-old boy should not be hearing. I should have just been playing or doing my homework.

Q: Related to that, who do you typically serve? What are they like?

The mass of them are between 30 and 50 years of age. The vast majority are Latino. We have 15 countries represented from Latin America.

Their education level varies. We have some Venezuelans who are highly educated in their home countries. But the majority of the others have a fourth- to sixth-grade education in their home countries. So that has forced us to develop our own GED program, because the curriculums out there assume that the student finished eighth grade, but very few of our students have.

Q: What does your volunteer base generally look like?

We have young professionals and a few people with gray hair, like myself. They come from churches, and they come from different walks of life. They’re finance people, marketing people. We have a few educators in our midst, and our volunteers are from a range of ethnic backgrounds as well.

One of our current staff members, Brianna Remache, is of American Ecuadorian descent, and is a scientist with Pfizer. She volunteered a few years back, and we’re really proud that she’s back on staff part-time, successfully leading one of our sites.

Q: Do you have a compelling client story that demonstrates Open Door’s impact?

The story of Casiano. His business is Franco Fruit Carving — he’s an artist. He started with us in our GED program. Casiano was a little intimidated the first day, and I encouraged him to stick with it and not leave us, and he did stick with it. He didn’t have his business at that time, and I encouraged him to do it. He’s now a successful businessman. He even opened up a subsidiary of his business in Mexico. So he’s doing well, and we’re really proud of him.

Q: What kind of metrics have you had, in terms of benefits to individual clients?

In 2021, 100% of our students reported improvements in computer literacy, and 75% said they have more confidence in speaking English. Seventy-five percent said that they improved in GED math. Seventy-five percent reported that they could communicate better with teachers, doctors and other authorities. And 85% of students ranked the sense of community at The Open Door 10/10. Classes have helped 85% of the students in their workplaces.

Q: Where’s The Open Door headed in the future?

We just opened up a new location in East Harlem. The goal is that every three years, we’ll open up a new site. We think that the combination of education and community is powerful. Here in the New York area, we want to continue to expand along the subway lines, and we’re doing two models. We’re doing a model where some of our sites are close to where they live, and other sites are close to where they work. And both are doing surprisingly well.

Q: If money was not an object for The Open Door, what would you imagine for your organization? What’s your big goal?

We would love to be an incubator where people spend a year with us, we train them in our system, and then they can do their thing. If we’re able to open up a new site every three years, each site winds up having a capacity of about 150 adults because of the space limitation. We’re only tapping a small percentage of the need.

The unmet need is huge. New York’s immigrant population is very underserved. Forty-nine percent of New Yorkers speak languages other than English. We have the world here.

The Open Door is included in the Philanthropy Roundtable’s Opportunity Playbook, where you can find more information about their impact and programming. If you are interested in helping to accelerate this organization’s impact, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson. America’s future is bright, yet dialogue, refinement of ideas and commitment to our country’s values and principles is fundamental to our future.

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