For Latinx Heritage Month, we had the privilege of sitting down with one of our longtime ParentCorps facilitators, NYC early childhood social worker Ruben Fermín. In this conversation, we learned more about Ruben’s experience facilitating ParentCorps’ Parenting Program (a group-based program designed to support pre-K families to promote children’s early learning and development), his 26-year career in social work, and – importantly – how his Latinx identity shows up in engaging caregivers as partners.
Melissa Santos: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you grow up? Share what you feel is an important part of your identity.
Ruben Fermín: I was born in the Dominican Republic, and came to the States when I just turned eight years old with my brother and sister. I grew up in Washington Heights, on 180st between St. Nicholas and Audubon Ave. I say that because it’s an identity growing up there.
I was young, but I came into a situation where I had room to grow, with open arms, and a community. I went to PS 115, in District 6. I went to middle school and high school in Washington Heights. In college I ventured out, and I decided I wanted to pursue a career in social work.
I identify as male. My pronouns are he/him. I’m married 23 years, and I have three children – a 21 year old, 17 year old and 10 year old. I want to highlight that because it’s a major part of my narrative, too.
MS: You started touching on how you ended up in social work. What led you to social work, and why this profession?
RF: Right out of college I went to work for victim services – that was the name at the time. Two days into my job, I am in front of a judge advocating for a domestic violence survivor who was really being put through hell by her abusive partner – but also by the court system and by ACS. I had no idea at the time of the magnitude and the context. I curiously began to question and learn about the systems at play in the life of a human.
I stayed [in victim services] until the opportunity presented itself at the DECE [NYC Department of Education Division of Early Childhood Education]. I realized that I wanted to devote my career to early childhood and families.
MS: I just learned so much more about you. What is your connection to ParentCorps? How did you become involved with ParentCorps?
RF: I like that the values and belief system behind ParentCorps are very parent-centered, family-centered. ParentCorps offers a lot of information to parents that is actually evidence-based. To me, the combination of it being family-centered, early childhood centered, and evidence-based – right away those things really grabbed me.
I didn’t want to facilitate a program patronizing parents. In my career, once in a while I had to do mandated parenting groups – which I learned from, but I just felt that there was no autonomy there.
MS: You wanted something more partner-based – where parents were partners in the experience rather than being mandated to participate.
RF: For me, it’s about trust. I got to meet the folks at ParentCorps, who were wonderful. Your coaching was terrific, and I was kind of nervous because it was something new.
MS: I still remember how it all transpired. You had to facilitate the Parenting Program after only four hours of training, as opposed to our usual three days. You rose to the occasion. Thinking back to your work with ParentCorps, how do you think your identity showed up in your work with parents?
RF: Well, number one, I ran Spanish speaking groups, so my identity showed up culturally.
My identity as a father was also important because, especially in the Latino community or communities of color, I think fathers don’t often have the chance to participate because of work-related commitments. There’s also this misperception that fathers don’t care.
A lot of the families in the groups that I ran shared the spirit of the experience of being immigrants in New York City or the United States – navigating coming in and having to assimilate but not lose [their identities]. My identity showed up as a Latino who was able to listen.
MS: You talk about these different parts of your identity and how they showed up in the parenting group. How did it impact your facilitation approach and your relationship building with families?
RF: I think my identity was key. Once I got over the initial jitters of sticking to the [program], it helped me to be myself, to connect and deliver the [content] in a way that was personable. Part of ParentCorps, the spirit of it, is that you connect. My identity, it gave me a deeper connection and understanding, so that parents took that leap of faith in sharing and expressing emotions.
MS: I remember you all built a really tight-knit group. So much so that they didn’t want the sessions to end. What have you enjoyed most from facilitating parenting programs? Any memorable moments?
RF: One day, there were three generations in one room one day. I think we had a grandparent, a mom, and an adolescent daughter who were all helping take care of a child. To me, that demonstrated that generational aspect of parenting.
At the beginning everyone is very nervous, but then suddenly someone finds the strength to share a very painful memory of growing up, and suddenly it opens up the opportunity for support. So I love the idea that how I facilitate allows families to support each other. Because it’s not about me.
That’s always been the goal: that people find each other to break their isolation, and help each other advocate at their schools.
And of course, the ceremonies [at the end of the program]. In one case, we conducted groups in both English and Spanish and got them together to say “Hey, we may not communicate the same language, but we are in it together.” I think it helped that site build community across cultural and racial lines.
MS: Thank you so much for reflecting on your experience with ParentCorps. Being that you’ve been in the field for 26 years, how do you envision change in the communities you are in?
RF: I love the magnitude of such a question. When we are on the ground, in the community and in the schools, we see what’s really going on. People are connecting. At the end of the day, if you walk the street and you walk and talk to people, you learn that everyone is getting along and everyone is fighting a battle. That’s what drives me. I don’t get caught up in this doom.
MS: You’re about building connection.
RF: Yes. Then you start working together.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Melissa Santos is a ParentCorps Specialist.