Uniting Milwaukee’s Latino Community

Photo of Al Castro 25 October, 2017. Al Castro, the health research program director at Milwaukee’s United Community Center, will help the 2018 Wisconsin Idea Seminar participants learn about elder and memory care services tailored to Latino communities in the Milwaukee area and the importance of supporting pipelines that prepares young bilingual and bicultural students for careers in the health sciences. The United Community Center is a destination of the 2018 Wisconsin Idea Seminar.

Al Castro is a passionate social worker who brings humor and empathy to his work as the Health Research Program Director for the United Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Thousands of individuals benefit from the United Community Center, which focuses on serving the Latino population on Milwaukee’s south side. Castro plays an important role in advancing the missions and programs of the center, while also spreading the Wisconsin Idea as he connects people from UW with the work of the United Community Center.

How does the Wisconsin Idea animate your work? As a Latino professional dedicated to strengthening and empowering the Latino community of Milwaukee, I am delighted to be able to help facilitate a valuable educational field experience for UW faculty, so they can in turn supplement their classroom teaching with on-the-street community based knowledge and contemporary experiences of culturally based services happening by Latinos and for Latino residents in our city. This provides a unique “bi-directional” learning experience for UW faculty, to learn and hear directly from community organizations and community members as to innovative efforts happening to improve educational and health outcomes, and of existing disparities impacting our Latino community.  The Wisconsin Idea Seminar provides a valuable forum for community organizations and groups to showcase the assets in place, and innovative responses to health disparities happening, as a counter to only hearing about what is wrong with our urban Latino community. We hope that what is learned and experienced by the Wisconsin Idea Seminar participants will further their academic abilities to impart to UW students the value of an “asset based” perspective of underserved communities, as opposed to a deficit-based perspective.

United Community Center is a comprehensive social service agency that serves Milwaukee area Latinos with wide-ranging programming – including K-8 charter school, an art gallery, senior center, human services, youth prevention, and much more. What are some issues in the Latino community that the UCC is currently uniquely poised to address? UCC is able to respond to the unique educational needs and opportunities for Latino students to help prepare them for advanced college education or technical education experiences, through a variety of academic and support programs.  As a charter school specializing with Latino students (Bruce Guadalupe Community School), UCC serves over 1,300 students from K3 to 8th grades.  Strong collaborations with area universities, private high schools, corporate and business support, and parental involvement provide solid foundations for our Latino youth to instill the desire and stamina to go to into advanced education.  In 2018, UCC will be opening a new middle school (Acosta Middle School) to provide education in the technical trades to provide an early immersion STEM experience for purposes of increasing the number of Latino students to seek trade/technical skills, with the goal of meeting area employers’ needs and demands for such a workforce.

UCC is poised to respond to the increasing opioid abuse crisis, through its long-established substance abuse/mental health programming in the Human Services Department.  With the resources of an outpatient clinic, day treatment program, and residential treatment, UCC is able to provide this array of options for adults impacted by the opioid abuse crisis happening locally and nationally. With bilingual staff and culturally competent programming, UCC is uniquely poised to engage Latino patients struggling with this disease.

Being located in the heart of the Latino community and serving the largest population of older Latino adults, UCC is responding to an increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias through its Latino Geriatric Center programs.  However, a need for culturally competent and locally based living facilities exists for those older adults whose dementia care is beyond the scope of family members and current programs.  UCC is in the early stages of exploring an alternative care facility (a community-based residential facility) designed specifically for memory care of older Latino adults, in collaboration with Capri Living Communities.

A dearth of Latino, bilingual health care providers is well-known in Wisconsin, in light of the Latino population being the fastest growing population in our state.  UCC is collaborating with Carroll University in implementing a “pipeline” model of introducing middle school students into the health sciences, the PASOS program.  This provides an opportunity for selected middle school Latino students to spend time on the Carroll campus and observing health sciences classes and labs, and hands-on learning about such careers as physical therapy, occupational therapy, nursing, and physician assistants. The goal is to have the students continue this experience through the high school years, and facilitate admission to Carroll University (guaranteed admission) upon graduation from high school.  These middle school PASOS students represent future medical/health care professionals who would dedicate careers in caring for their Latino community residents.  We hope this becomes an effective model that can be replicated with other universities, such as UW, in the near future.

An individual giving a presentation
Photo courtesy of Al Castro

What advice do you have for students who are considering careers in the health sciences? To understand that people’s health are impacted by more than genetics and personal choices. Our health risks and outcomes are also impacted by where we live, learn, work and play (called the “social determinants of health”).  A person’s health is affected by the impact of the physical environment, the social/community environment, the educational environment, the economic environment and the health/health care environment in which one lives and interacts with daily. For a student considering a health science career, I would suggest getting involved as a volunteer or with special projects with community health programs, health clinics, hospitals or community services programs that are responding to identified needs or causes in their community to get a more direct exposure to what health sciences looks like directly with people or communities, and what this type of career can offer to a student, and see what might fit with one’s own values and passions, prior to fully committing into years of studies and expenses.  Spend time going to talk directly with persons already in the health sciences, not just on campus, as well, during this exploration stage. Hear what got these persons excited and committed into their careers in health sciences, and how they are trying to impact identified social determinants of health in their communities.

How do you define community engagement?  Community engagement is the process of academic and health researchers working in collaboration with, and through, identified community groups or persons in partnerships to more effectively learn about or have an impact on mutually agreed upon health issues and disparities. As I described how a person’s health is impacted by a variety of determinants of health, effective and sustainable changes and interventions at the community and individual level requires engaging those in the front lines or in the community to help identify what is needed and what will work and who is best to be involved to impact those determinants of health. The community groups are viewed as “equals” at the table, and a process of “bi-directional” learning is promoted, so that both the research/academic and community partners learn from each other and share their resources and expertise for a mutual purpose. This differs greatly from “helicopter research” in which investigators drop in, do their data collection or study, and then leave to publish their results, but do not leave behind a more informed an empowered community.

Can you tell us a little about your work as a Research Ambassador for UW-Madison? As a Research Ambassador, a portion of my time is dedicated to supporting and guiding UW-Madison researchers or faculty who are planning to conduct health research or related health promotion activities in the Latino community of Milwaukee.  Through collaboration and financial support from the Collaborative Center for Health Equity of the ICTR office in UW-Madison, I (and another UCC staff person) act as the “boots on the ground” connection to such UW researchers or faculty. Obviously, UW research staff do not usually live or work in the Milwaukee community, but yet may have a strong interest in conducting studies or programs to identified groups in our city. My role involves orienting such researchers about our community and how their proposed project may resonate with the Latino community and critical health issues from the perspective of the community. I have the opportunity to help researchers shape or modify their planned research project into ways that will hopefully increase engagement and acceptance by the Latinos in our Milwaukee community. I also help introduce the UW researchers to other community organizations and individuals who also provide services or educational programs in the Latino community, to connect them with each other in research opportunities, and thereby expanding the engagement of other community organizations and providers in health research that may help meet their own missions and objectives.

Individuals on bikes near the United Community Center
Photo courtesy of Al Castro

Considering elder care delivery at UCC, what are you most proud of? I personally I am most proud of our 10 year old Latino Geriatric Center.  Opened in 2007, it is the only Latino specific center responding to the needs of Latino adult dealing with the challenges and changes of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.  The Center is able to offer an adult day center for Latinos, in which programming is done in Spanish, in culturally appropriate and effective methods and environments, and provides support and relief to Latino family caregivers who are often confused and overwhelmed with the increasing demands of daily care for a loved one.  Along with the day center, we also offer a memory clinic that can conduct memory screening and cognitive evaluations for older Latino adults who do not speak English, and we are then able to connect these patients and family caregivers with appropriate resources and support (within UCC and within the community they are familiar with).  This Latino Geriatric Center has led to new partnerships and collaborations with other organizations and institutions (Alzheimer’s Association, Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, UW schools, Medical College of Wisconsin, and others) who also share the passion and mission to respond to Alzheimer’s disease in the community.  At this point, UCC offers the only Latino serving specific dementia adult day care program and memory clinic in Wisconsin, and, as the former director of the Latino Geriatric Center, I am very proud of having been a part of developing and providing this unique program in Wisconsin.

What is something that you love about the state of Wisconsin? I cannot say enough about the admiration and appreciation I have for the variety and beauty of the natural resources Wisconsin has to offer…from its national forests, woodlands, parks farmlands, rivers, lakes and glacially-formed geography, to the vast amounts of recreational and learning opportunities this state provides.  Being a transplant to Wisconsin as a child from a rather dry and hot state (Texas), I have come to fully appreciate and often take advantage of the natural world Wisconsin offers (hunting, fishing, touring, hiking, biking) with its change of seasons and what each season offers in adventures and opportunities. I only wish everyone else could get out to fully enjoy this amazing state!

Who or what inspires you? What inspires me in my work and life is the resiliency and drive in people, from children to older adults, especially from underserved groups or ethnic minorities in our country.  My original family members were Mexican-American migrant workers from Texas, and I admire how my parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and other families that traveled back and forth each year (and many settling in Wisconsin like us) were able to tap into their personal resiliency, family connections and community support, to make the adjustments (which were many!) to survive, make a living and obtain better educational opportunities for their children here.  This resiliency and internal drive to find and make a better future for themselves and the children, in the face of adversity, racism, poverty, language and social barriers, causes me to admire persons, groups and organizations (such as UCC and other similar groups) who have succeeded, and in turn,  work so hard to open the doors for others who follow.  As a former social worker for over 25 years, I was constantly impressed with this resiliency and drive I would see in parents, families, and children who were faced with serious social, emotional, legal and financial challenges but with the right tools and support, so often were able to overcome these obstacles to maintain their families together or get past the trauma or addictions and other crises.  I believe our role and responsibility as helpers and professionals is to be able to effectively tap into this resiliency and drive in people and communities to overcome these type of challenges, focusing on the assets and capacities, not just the deficits in people and groups.

Al Castro earned his B.S. degree in Social work from Carroll University and completed a M.S. in Business Management from Cardinal Stritch University.


Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.