Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
November 20, 2023
Ellie Adelman | The Village Institute
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Ellie Adelman. I’m the founder and executive director at The Village Institute, a holistic family development center designed with and for refugee families in northwest Aurora, Colorado. Our mission is to cultivate multi-generational ecosystems that uplift the power of refugee and immigrant families and bring them closer to their neighbors. I often talk about our work as three pillars to build wealth, worth, and well-being among refugee families, especially female-led families and young people from the community who are helping to navigate and support their families as early as age 11. A lot of our work focuses on building capacity within the community for building wealth, worth, and well-being. We have workforce training programs focused on mental health, health care, and early childhood education careers. We believe these are the foundation of raising happy and well families. We also have an early childhood education program on-site for preschoolers ages one and up. We have a teaching staff who speaks many languages and comes from many countries, so they can see their culture reflected at school. We also have youth programming that focuses on peer mental health, so the young folks who have been through our career training programs can obtain skills in their community doing work for wellness groups.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I spent the first decade of my career mostly working internationally. I spent some time working in global public health, especially reproductive health, education, and advocacy. I’ve done a lot of work in women’s and girls’ leadership development. I was working in a lot of communities where people had lived through extreme poverty, disasters, and violent conflicts that spanned multiple generations. I found myself wanting to learn how to do trauma healing and resilience building. When we’re talking about public health, when we’re talking about community development, that mental health piece is often not addressed in ways that feel culturally responsive. I went back to school for social work in Colorado, while at the same time working with refugee communities here as a therapist and a case manager navigator. In particular, I worked with a lot of single-mom families. Almost as a curiosity, I began asking some of these folks what their barriers were and what would make it easier for them. We ran a few community design sessions exploring different areas like women and youth, refugee services, affordable housing, and public health. We put people on teams and they came up with ideas for how to build something that truly supports those single moms and young adults, especially young women working so hard to care for their families and coming up against so many barriers. It snowballed and became The Village Institute. It’s had many different iterations over the three and half years we’ve been open, especially throughout COVID.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My story is connected to the stories of so many amazing women and girls, especially from my work in different countries around the world. I was raised in a family of a lot of really amazing strong women and a lot of really amazing supportive men as well. I come from a Jewish immigrant family, so our family history of being forced out of many places over many years is a big part of my commitment to supporting other communities that continue to experience that. My values align with the mission of the organization, those pieces of wealth, worth, and well-being. A lot of times we talk about social impact work, this concept that we shouldn’t be doing it for the money and should give people only enough to get by. For me, a big part of this work is to help build the financial resources and wealth-building pathways to be able to thrive. For us as an organization, and for the young women and families we work with, generational wealth-building is a big piece of what we stand for. We’ve got to build better support and resources for immigrant and refugee communities and communities of color to feel healthy, strong, and confident, and to know how to care for themselves and each other.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
We’ve had almost 90 women go through an early childhood education teacher training program. We’ve had more than 80 young people go through our health and mental health career development program. We’ve had 50 kids and their families go through our early childhood programming. Some of it is providing the tools, the resources, and the community building that those programs provide. There are also a lot of intangibles. We’ve had a lot of families come through our door and say they feel safe and supported in ways they haven’t in a very long time. There’s this sense of ownership that I feel a lot of times from the young women in our community. They walk in the space and know it’s their space, they can literally let their hair down and know it’s their own. I think there’s a self-confidence piece when we’re providing those skills and tools, but also a community of other women and supportive men. We give them the confidence to know they can do this, they’re strong, and they have these superpowers of being multicultural and multilingual. It gives the women, girls, and even our preschoolers the confidence and self-worth of knowing they belong here, and have a lot to contribute to their community and family.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
I’m inspired a lot by the women and young people who I work with now and have worked with for many years. Particularly there’s a group of young women I’ve worked with from the start of this organization. I’ve watched them grow into really amazing leaders, facilitators, and organizers and I’ve seen the ways that they’ve stepped in to share their ideas. Some of them now are working with us as peer facilitators in our programming. I think it takes courage for a young woman from a refugee family in the United States of America to tell me that I’m doing it wrong, as a white woman in a position of leadership and power. They’re spot on and so brilliant. They have this amazing way of bridging cultures and helping me understand what needs to happen to do this work of uplifting communities.
There are also some women in my family who stand out. I’m inspired by my great-grandmothers who came over from Eastern Europe to create safer and more prosperous lives for their families. I’ve ended up here because of them. We lost my dad’s mom this year. Growing up, she was always my role model. She showed up with love and did the simple work to make sure people were cared for and knew it. I channel her a lot. In the moments when I complicate things too much, I think about what my Bubby would do. Simplify it down: how do you do it with love, show people you care, and make sure they know it?
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I would love for The Village Institute to become whatever is needed to support women of all ages who have been such a big part of creating this organization. The projects we do have changed a few times over the past few years and I think they will continue to change. The vision for the future is that we’re able to continue to adapt so our community members can make it what is needed to continue uplifting each other. I want it to be able to be a space that is constantly responding to our community’s needs.
I want us to continue to be at the forefront of designing community-led impactful programming, and hopefully, we can help other organizations build those tools. As the young women and moms grow with The Village Institute and take on leadership, we want to grow with them and build new things for their families and communities.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
Any nonprofit director will tell you funding. I always try and reinforce that it is a question of redistribution of wealth and thinking about how our resources can be directed in meaningful, sustained, and community-driven ways to those who need the most support. I think the more prosperous we’re able to be as an organization, the less we have to think about penny-pinching and the more we can continue redistributing wealth and ensuring community members have access to building wealth for their families over many generations.
One of the other major challenges we have is this nonprofit industrial complex. It’s hard to separate ourselves from that reliance on funders, foundations, and donors. It puts staff in this position of being producers of the impact. We want staff to be representative of the community. And if staff is representative of the community, then staff and community are the same thing. That line in the sand puts nonprofits in a really ugly position of having to differentiate where we can devote funds. A lot of times where we need to devote funds is to support our staff and build their capacity. Being able to invest in staff wellbeing, development, and joy trickles into how we’re able to do our work really well.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
There’s so much brilliance, courage, talent, motivation, and drive within refugee and immigrant families. Oftentimes, when people think about supporting refugee communities they want to donate used furniture or clothing. It’s not about that, it’s about redistributing wealth. How do we invest in their talent, skills, and brilliance? That is often what’s most needed in communities. They have the skills, they just very often need the resources to be able to do what they do well, which is working hard and being resourceful to raise their families. Immigrants are entrepreneurs at a higher rate than any other community in the United States. We’re investing in the brilliance, the drive, and the motivation of refugee families.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all of the time.” – Angela Davis. I keep it on my wall for a reason.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
We are at a really exciting moment with our early learning programs. They’re serving as both early childhood education for our youngest community members and also a teacher training program for refugee and immigrant women. We are relaunching the program as a Montessori-style program with our amazing friends at Montessori On Wheels. Right now we are running a fundraising campaign to invest in early childhood education, particularly culturally-responsive trauma-informed programming for refugee and immigrant kids, as well as professional development for refugee and immigrant teachers. We welcome support for The Little Village campaign to raise up our littlest Villagers on their educational journeys.
At Orapin, we believe those who are working for the greater good should be known, supported, and celebrated. We help purpose-driven organizations transform their random acts of PR into a strategic, consistent approach that generates greater awareness and impact. If would like to be featured in INSPIRED IMPACT™, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.