Tania Chairez is the Founder & CEO of Convivir Colorado, an organization that supports immigrant youth as they find power in their migrant experience and use it to enrich themselves and their Colorado communities. Tania joined SVP Denver’s Evaluation Training Cohort in Spring ‘21. We sat down with her to learn more about her, Convivir and how a small nonprofit can capture meaningful impact data from its programs.
What motivated you to start Convivir and how would you describe its mission?
My lived experience as an undocumented immigrant really informed a lot of my understanding of the injustices happening with immigrant youth. I was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, about four hours south of the border, and then I was raised about four hours north of the border in Arizona which was not the safest, most welcoming space to be. I witnessed a lot of racism and xenophobia directed toward me and my family.
I started my career as a middle school English teacher in Arizona at a school that was close to the Tent City – a place where they would house undocumented immigrants. It was so hard to see how many of the students, even a generation later than I, still felt like they couldn’t be themselves and that they couldn’t envision themselves in this world. I was the first teacher they had that was publicly undocumented, and it was the first time they were able to talk about these things in the classroom. I soon realized there was so much more I could do that I couldn’t make happen from within the classroom. So, I moved to Colorado where my parents had moved after being unable to find work due to the state policies towards undocumentd immigrants in Arizona.
My first job in Colorado was as an advisor for college students, but, primarily, I had the entire caseload of our undocumented and DACA students. So, my job was to make sure they had scholarship money and the academic and personal support necessary to graduate from college. But, what I learned was that throughout their whole life’s trajectory, my students still did not feel safe and welcome and didn’t believe they could succeed in life. This is not their fault. It’s the system’s fault.
I realized I am a unique person as an undocumented educator and a community organizer. Why not use my background and skills to support our youth? So, I started asking questions, doing empathy interviews, and I went through the Moonshot edVenture fellowship which really helped set the stage for me.
We launched Convivir Colorado in February 2020. We support 6-12th grade students who identify as immigrants, refugees or first generation Americans – especially those in mixed immigration status families. As they become empowered and grow as leaders, ultimately they begin to see their migrant identity as their superpower. We do this in a variety of different ways. We have storytelling, artistic expression and community building which are all aimed at making sure that our students are living life to the fullest.
We are primarily based out of Aurora, a refugee resettlement city. Since we are just starting, we can’t begin to cover the needs of the student population in Aurora especially given all of the languages that they speak. Our ideal scenario would be to work with students all across Colorado – in particular from our rural towns and communities. Students in rural communities usually do not have resources, guidance or mentorships.
Convivir is functioning a lot by word of mouth so we have yet to expand. It takes capacity and it is just me right now.
Your nonprofit is very new – having been founded in February 2020. What has your experience been like thus far in founding a new nonprofit? The joys – the challenges?
The joys are that I have this unique opportunity to gather students and ask them what they want and then I can do my best to give that to them. I have never been in that position before because usually there are people above me and there are rules and bureaucracy and there are so many things you have to do in order to get what you want. So, this is an amazing spot where I can just go to a student – whether they are 12 years old or 20 and say, “Hey, I’ve got some money from a grant. What do you want to do with it that is going to support our immigrant, refugee and first-gen youth?” Our youth have so many good ideas. They are the experts of their own experiences. They know exactly what they need. That’s how we’ve created all of our programs.
Our students said, “We don’t have summer opportunities”, so we launched a summer program. Our students said, “I don’t see myself represented in any decision makers”, so we created a mentorship program. Our students said, “we don’t feel welcome in our schools”, so we launched an advocacy campaign. So, all of the things we are doing are based on the ideas the students generated..
On the flip side, the challenge is that I myself am an undocumented immigrant who also happens to be a bisexual brown woman. These identities have made it difficult to start a nonprofit because people with my identities are the least funded and have less social capital to use in embarking on our journey in launching a nonprofit. The odds are stacked against us. I sometimes feel that I’m trying to figure out things that other people already know. It is a constant learning experience for me, so that definitely has been the biggest challenge. I am still looking for my own mentors and my own guides as I’m trying to figure this out.
What has your experience been in the foundation/funding space?
It’s interesting because I saw very quickly that there are institutionalized ways foundations work regarding how they fund. But, I also think that the past year, with the Black Lives Matter movement and with the pandemic, has really provided an opportunity for organizations, including foundations, to really rethink the systems that they have and try to reimagine what it could look like. In Colorado, we have some organizations that are doing a good job trying to figure out what that means.
From the very beginning, when I was finishing up my fellowship at Moonshot edVentures, Moonshot connected me with funders that they thought would align with my mission statement. So, I had some very early connections with people that aligned with how I think. From there, the challenge is for me to try and practice my pitch, align how I talk about data and how I reflect our work, so that other funders can see that not only have I already been funded initially but also our work is amazing and worthy of their investment. I believe this past year has really pushed foundations to have fewer reporting requirements and shorter applications. There are lots of ways that I’ve seen people try to be innovative and so it is just a matter of continuing to do that until you reach somewhere that’s good.
What drew you to join the Evaluation cohort?
I realized I had so much to learn. I realized that data and evaluation and metrics sound really scary – particularly for someone who doesn’t live in that world. So, anytime I’m thinking about what metrics I’m using and what data I’m collecting, it feels a little tense for me. Am I doing this right? Is it what I’m supposed to be doing? So, for me it was not only just a learning experience, but it also is a great chance to examine how our organization functions in order to showcase what we are doing.
At the base level, are we functioning and are we being successful? So, I wanted to dip my toe in there and see if the metrics that I have can be changed to better support our students. So far, I’ve already started to change the things that I’ve been tracking and the questions that I’ve been asking. I am only at the beginning, but I can tell it is going to be incredibly helpful.
What have you learned thus far during the cohort that you are excited to implement at Convivir?
I will tell you a funny story. Prior to the evaluation cohort’s first session, they shared with us a survey – a pre-test of sorts. It’s an evaluation cohort so naturally they want to evaluate. So I was taking this pre-test, and I was feeling pretty confident about it. Then I checked my results and I got half of them wrong. I thought, “Oh my goodness. This is going to be terrible. I don’t know anything!” But, by now we’ve had a couple sessions and I’ve learned so much more.
I’m really starting to understand that there are so many different ways to evaluate the success of a program. And, the biggest question for me is this. I’m a very small organization and I’m very new, so my capacity is very limited. Therefore there are some really exciting evaluations I would love to do that would showcase our success even better, but I don’t have the capacity to do them. So, for me it’s been a learning experience in terms of figuring out how I can pick and choose evaluation methods and metrics that will be helpful for us in this particular space and time while planning ahead for a future where I can do some longitudinal studies and where I can orchestrate some more complex evaluations. So, I’m actually putting everything I am learning into a map: “This is what I want to do now. And, this is what I want to do in five years.”
You also were a participant in the Theory of Change cohort in the Fall of 2020. How did that experience impact your work at Convivir? Did it help you in preparation for the Evaluation cohort?
That cohort went super well. I think for me the most exciting piece was that I was able to create a design team that was representative of the people I work with. So, I had two board members, one community advisor, and two student leaders. I had the whole range of people giving input. All of them have worked with Convivir for a decent amount of time. So they were able to say, “Tania, this is what I heard you say before. Is this true? Can we put it in here? How does it fit here?” And, at the end we have a picture of this beautiful trajectory on how we can be functioning and what our theory of change is.
I’ve been able to share our theory of change with partners to show how we do things and I’ve been able to share it with funders who get really excited because we have a document outlining our vision and plans. And, for the evaluation cohort, it was very helpful to have our theory of change as a basis. Everything an organization does needs to be tied back to their theory of change including evaluation, so when we’ve talked about the different kinds of questions we want to ask, the kind of data we want to collect, it all has to align with that theory of change. I might not have known that this was as important without my theory of change cohort experience.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience with the Evaluation Cohort?
I think one thing that might go unnoticed, but is equally as exciting, is that when organizations come together for a long period of time, we end up not only learning the content that is being taught, but also about each other. So, I’m constantly bringing in the things that are being said from the Open Media Foundation, for example. And, from the Theory of Change cohort, I am now very connected to another cohort participant, Colorado Young Leaders. So, it feels like I’m learning from an entire network – not just SVP Denver – which is really nice because as someone who represents various under-resourced identities I often don’t have the opportunity to meet so many people doing amazing things. So, the SVP Denver cohorts have been a really wonderful networking experience.