At a challenging time for migration, two Fordham University professors have published a book that gives the microphone to the migrants themselves—offering a window into their under-the-radar successes and what they’ve done to give back to their adopted country.

The authors’ focus is on women and children who came to New York City from Mexico, and found their way to the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service in East Harlem, NY. There, they received holistic support that not only met their immediate needs, but also empowered them to improve their circumstances, help others, and become leaders.

The agency “has been doing really effective work with diverse communities in a very complicated city and … developing power in a community that is typically disempowered,” said Fordham theology professor Brenna Moore, Ph.D. She and Carey Kasten, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish at Fordham, are co-authors of Mutuality in El Barrio: Stories of the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service, which was published this past spring by Fordham University Press.

A parenting group at the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service celebrating convivencia, or growth through relationships, in the 1990s (photo provided to Fordham University by Carey Kasten)

Creating Pathways Out of Poverty
The Little Sisters of the Assumption, a Catholic order begun in France, founded its East Harlem agency in 1958 to create opportunities for families to escape poverty. Its first executive director was Sister Margaret Leonard, a 1967 alumna of Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service, who codified the agency’s idea of mutuality.

In addition to meeting clients’ immediate needs, such as food and medical care, this idea called for forming mutually enriching relationships with them, “eschewing a binary framework of helper and helped in an effort to co-create new realities in East Harlem that benefit all parties,” as explained in the book.

That meant listening to migrants’ stories, offering mental and spiritual support, and unlocking their strengths and aspirations over the course of long-term relationships with the agency. Sometimes it meant bringing them together so that they could address common problems, like mold and other deficiencies in the public housing where they lived. Former clients, having gained skills and confidence, often return as volunteers and staffers, or serve other New York City organizations in leadership roles.

What mutuality is not, Kasten said, is “looking for immediate effects. It’s willing to be in conversation with someone for years and understanding that sometimes it does take that long. The things that people are asked to do when they come to this country don’t take just a week.”

Participants in the parenting and child development program at LSA Family Health Services (photo by LSA Family Health Services for Fordham University)

Success Stories of Migrants
Eight Fordham students worked on the book project, gaining research experience by helping Moore and Kasten with interviewing migrants that the agency served over the past few decades. The students included undergraduates majoring in liberal arts fields—theology, Spanish, communications—as well as students in the Graduate School of Social Service. The migrants’ accounts appear throughout the book, mostly under pseudonyms.

The interviewees included Sonia, a onetime teenage mother whom the agency helped navigate prenatal care, develop parenting skills, and enroll in a pre-nursing degree program. The nuns also called upon her to provide nursing care to another Little Sisters client in her building.

And they stuck with her through crises—like being jailed on a false accusation from her child’s father, who had beaten her. The sisters prayed and sang hymns outside of the jail overnight, giving her hope until charges were dropped the next day. She later moved to Florida, married, raised three children, and became head nurse in a hospital’s radiology department—at one point, overseeing the care of an ailing relative of Sister Margaret, who Sonia said is “like family.”

Another client, Yolanda, a young mother from a small town in Mexico, gained parenting skills through the agency and later joined its staff after earning her Bachelor’s degree. “They began supporting me, motivating me,” and encouraged her to continue her education, she explained in the book.

In the words of another client, Lina, a mother of four: “They make you see what you don’t see in yourself.”

By Chris Gosier, Research News Director for Fordham Now, Fordham University

This story was originally published on and is shared in Connections with permission from Fordham University.