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Willona Sloan, Strategic Storyteller10/18/2019


Christine Cordaro leads the Arab Mothers ESL (English as a Second Language) and Life Skills program, which serves primarily immigrant women who are of Arab descent, living in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco. 

In 2010, Christine, who had just achieved certification to teach English as a second language, was contacted about volunteering as an instructor for the fledgling program. 

"There was really no funding for it at all, and there was basically no program," Christine said of the class, which had mostly existed as a social club since the 1970s. 

Christine Cordaro: 2019 Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident LeadershipShe began volunteering, teaching English as a second language and life skills, with the goal of helping women to navigate daily life in the neighborhood, the city, and in American society. 

Christine also differentiates instruction by dividing the curriculum into three levels: basic, mixed beginner and advanced. At each level, Christine incorporates life skills, which can include lessons on handling money, taking public transportation, participating in student-teachers conferences and advocating for better schools. 

"They are getting involved in their own children's education and becoming involved in their kids' schools. We go to City Hall and they witness how bills are made," Christine said. "They get involved in the local community." 

To date, more than 20 women from Christine's classes have enrolled at City College, five women secured paid employment, five women have obtained U.S. citizenship, and six women are attending citizenship classes. 

One illustrative example of civic engagement involves the creation of a "poop map." Christine read a story in the community newspaper describing how a San Francisco transplant created a map to document the poop she saw on the city's sidewalk. Christine loved the idea. 

She used the lesson as a way to teach practical skills such as reading a map, reading street signs, and creating documentation, as students were instructed to record what they witnessed in the neighborhood, from fighting, to drug dealing to prostitution, over a six-week period. 

"Most of these women don't drive, so they have to walk through this. Their kids have to go to school through this, and they have to walk their kids to school," Christine said.

Using the results of their documentation, the women then crafted letters to city officials, including the mayor, district supervisor, chief of police, and local precinct captain. The first response was from the local police captain, who came to the class to address the women's concerns. "They were just so surprised that somebody would pay attention," Christine said.

In addition, in response to the students' work on the project, the program was awarded $7,500 in discretionary funding by the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development.

Christine Cordaro teaches a young woman wearing a hijabChinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), a NeighborWorks network organization, owns the residential building where the program now meets. CCDC has provided funding for childcare services so that the students can focus during the class, and it helped the program apply for a NeighborWorks America grant for $5,000, which it won. CCDC also nominated Christine for the Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership. 

"Christine always puts her students at the center of their own education," said Diana Pang, CCDC's resident community building supervisor. "There is a huge civic engagement component that is very natural because Christine really believes that education is a practice of citizenship; it is a practice of democracy." 

This is Christine's third career. She had previously worked as a biologist, and in the technology field, before earning an MBA, and working in the investment field. After volunteering with the Arab Mothers ESL & Life Skills program for eight years, Christine says she is now ready to hand over the reins and transition from the classroom. She will be taking on a program manager role. 

The program just won a new grant for $150,000 that will provide funding for two teachers, and two childcare providers. Christine credits staff members from CCDC for helping to develop the funding proposal and help her to navigate the city's funding process. "We worked really hard on making this a reality," she said.

As part of the funding process, Christine brought her students to the Board of Supervisors' hearings and budget committee meetings to provide testimony about their experiences with the program. 

Christine's tireless work has opened doors for her students and helped them to feel more connected. 

"That's what it's all about: helping people feel like they are part of, not just a community but a country, a country that they now live in [where they can] be happy, productive citizens. And, that is hard," Christine said. "I have learned that it is not one step. It is many, many, many little steps, and you can't change something overnight. It takes one step at a time." 


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