When I asked Hilary Stern how she was inspired to work for Casa Latina, the immigrant aid organization, she offered “the Jewish answer,” explaining, “my grandparents were immigrants and…if they hadn’t made that decision, my life would have been completely different. I’ve really benefitted from their struggle and their decision to come to the United States,” giving “my parents and me much better opportunities.”
She always related to her grandparents’ hard work, Hilary says, and heeded her grandmother’s advice to get an education.
“They can’t take that away from you,” she says, quoting her grandmother’s advice.
With a Master’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language, Hilary lived in the “other” Washington in the 1980s, teaching Central American immigrants, and was “inspired by their struggles,” she says, and also inspired by Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution, which in its early days encouraged and created education for all. She went there to teach “during the
idealism of the first 10 years after the
After a few years she returned to Seattle with her oldest daughter — “I decided I needed my mother,” she says — and continued her work here.
While running adult education programs at the YMCA, she met a new wave of immigrants who “were really very lost here,” she says. As mostly single adults looking for work and without community support, many became homeless. Hilary and some friends decided to start the support organization that became Casa Latina, where Hilary has served as executive director for 17 years.
The organization continues with its initial goal of serving day laborers, “a huge focus,” she says, but they now serve families and women who are domestic workers. Casa Latina educates and empowers these workers so they can control working conditions, safety and pay.
“We give them basic personal protective equipment, too,” Hilary says, and they hold English classes so clients can better communicate with employers.
Casa Latina markets its services primarily to homeowners, many of whom are Jewish. “Right before Pesach is one of the most busy times,” Hilary says, adding that the organization is supported by numerous Jewish volunteers and donors.
She further notes Casa Latina’s increasing role in providing in-home help for the elderly and its role in “the care crisis coming down the pike as the population ages,” she says. Its clients provide an “interesting intersection between [an] older, aging, mainly white population and a younger immigrant population.”
The organization differs from most social service agencies as it is “very accountable to the workers” and functions more like a union. Workers meet weekly to talk about “a whole variety of issues,” Hilary says, including transportation, politics, and the organization itself.
“For instance,” she told me when we spoke earlier this month, “this week they’re preparing to meet with the mayor.”
While more involved with fundraising than direct service, Hilary gives updates at the meetings, particularly about the construction of the organization’s new building at 17th and Jackson in Seattle. She goes to Olympia to testify before the state legislature and travels around the country to Domestic Workers Alliance conferences and others.
Hilary grew up in Seattle and attended Nathan Hale High School when there were few Jews there. Both her grandmother and her mother went to Garfield and her son will graduate from Roosevelt this June. Hilary’s parents, the Sidels, were founders of Congregation Beth Shalom and in 1973 Hilary was the first girl to become a Bat Mitzvah there on a Saturday. She is still a member there. (B’not Mitzvah were on Fridays for the first years of the congregation’s existence.)
“My job is really fun and I spend most of my time at work,” Hilary notes, adding that she loves to spend time with her kids, but “I’m going to be an empty nester soon, so I’ve got to get a life.”