Esperanza: Hope for America’s Cities?

A documentary film project on the work of Esperanza in Philadelphia’s North End, funded by a grant from the Louisville Institute, as described in the following proposal.

Philadelphia’s Esperanza: Hope for American Cities?

Dr. James M. Ault, Jr.

If you were mayor of a major city looking to restore a center city neighborhood run down by poverty, unemployment, poor education performance, etc., would you invest in a faith-based organization founded by a group of Protestant clergy to undertake that job? How many cities would? 

Yet, Philadelphia’s Esperanza is an inspiringly successful example of just such work. Now a generation old since its founding by a network of Hispanic pastors in Philadelphia in 1987, it has made substantial progress on various fronts to improve life in the city’s largely Hispanic North End. Just on the education side, for example, it has built a strikingly successful charter high school, Esperanza Academy, which, despite open enrollments, has much higher retention and graduation rates than other high schools in the area. It now has a college, which is also demonstrating impressive results with its students, an arts education program whose graduates are finding fruitful careers, a new “cyber charter high school” to help meet enrollment demands its high school cannot meet, and just this past year opened its new middle school.

In addition, Esperanza continues to offer effective job and housing counseling and immigration advocacy services to poor residents of North Philadelphia.  (For the past four years its state-funded EARN center, helping welfare recipients re-enter the workforce, has had the highest performance rate of EARN centers in the city) And, Esperanza has partnered with local banks and institutions to enact a neighborhood revitalization plan which has already transformed the 5th Street market area. Just in terms of scale, in the past fifteen years Esperanza’s staff has grown from 99 to 321 (1006%), its operational budget from $1.9m to $33.5m (1650%), and its total assets from $2m to $58.8m (2746%)!

How did this happen? What lessons can be learned from exploring, in depth, how Esperanza, through its many branches, works? This is the main question our documentary film project will explore. And it will portray answers to this question through the intimate, character-driven storytelling integral to the project director’s cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking.  This will mean telling the personal stories not only of people affected in profound ways by various branches of Esperanza’s work, as well as those of Esperanza staff people touching their lives, but also those at the heart of the organization, leaders who have set, and continue to carry forward and adapt, its distinct organizational ethos and manner of working, that have been central to its success. This will involve exploring the question, for example, what members mean by “the Esperanza way” when they mention it in staff meetings?  Or, what it means, as one leader put it during a staff retreat, to embrace “our calling” to “serve the very least of these”?

Given Esperanza’s range of activities, and limits on the number of characters one can introduce and develop in any film, choices will have to be carefully made.  After consulting with the Rev. Daniel Cortés, Esperanza’s Executive VP and Chief of Staff, and Dr. Edwin Aponte, whose doctoral dissertation dealt with Esperanza, and after reviewing documentary footage of its work, I have decided to focus largely on Esperanza’s educational work, centered on its high school, but extending into its college and art education work. It seems clear from what documentary footage I’ve seen about Esperanza Academy, that we will want to portray, and reflect upon, some of the innovative methods they have developed to effectively educate youth in their community. Their “holistic” approach, paralleling, in a sense, their holistic approach to Christian ministry and theology, will be one dimension of this work to explore and effectively portray. Such lessons, I believe, will have widespread relevance across the United States and beyond.

In addition to its education work, I plan to film some of Esperanza’s longstanding immigration counseling and job and housing counseling services, as well. I will look for potential cross-over characters, that is, for example, families affected by their job counseling services whose children are now attending their schools.

I intend to follow staff directly touching the lives of, say, students, or those facing immigration challenges, into their relationships with leaders of their specific school or program. And, in addition, we will follow institutional and program leaders into their relationships with Esperanza’s central leadership, including its founder, the Rev. Luis Cortés, now President, and his brother, the Rev. Dan Cortés. Seeing and hearing how leaders come together to make their organization work, setting its tone and building and sustaining core relationships, I believe, will hold some important lessons to keys of Esperanza’s remarkable success.

Given the limits of budget and time, choices will have to be made along the way. Some of them will undoubtedly be tough, but I will consult with Esperanza leadership, Dr. Aponte, and other knowledgeable people, in making them.

To add to this complexity, it is important to recognize that Esperanza’s effective reach goes far beyond Philadelphia, in part through its National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and Conference in Washington, DC, for example, founded by Luis Cortés. Gathering leaders from around the country, and the world, every other year for this three-day event with talks, workshops and worship, the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast seems to generate rich conversations about important issues that inspire productive work around the United States and beyond. Though the next Prayer Breakfast is not until 2017, there is high quality footage from the one this past June, 2015, which will serve to provide vivid points of reference for reflections about this important dimension of Esperanza’s work from persons we will interview.

Bearing in mind that the average cost of one hour of PBS documentary programming is $1million, there are limits to what can be done, even with stringent cost-cutting and generous sweat equity, with our working budget of $22K attached. Nevertheless, with it we plan to do all the relevant filming for, say, an hour-long film on Esperanza and its work, and, in addition, create some compelling vignettes from this footage to raise funds to finish the film.  As is always the case with this more intimate, cinéma vérité style of filmmaking, one always films much, much more than one will actually use in any final film. Sometime even moving, telling stories must be cut. However, digital copies of all the footage we shoot, as well as effective passages edited from it, will eventually be made available to Esperanza for its own use (to use in shorter online pieces, for example). All our footage will be in HD422 1080, to 50mps, the highest standards of European television (higher than current American ones). 

For more about Esperanza visit their webpage here

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