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The Legacy of Richard Oulahan

Esperanza Unida’s mission and transition

May. 14, 2008
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  In many ways the heart and soul of the near South Side could be found in the numerous ventures organized by Esperanza Unida’s longtime executive director, Richard Oulahan, who died on Friday.

  “Rich really was the voice of progressive Milwaukee,” said Mayor Tom Barrett in a statement. “His contributions to our community leave a lasting impression of his dedication. Rich will be dearly missed.”

  State Rep. Pedro Colon (D-Milwaukee) said that Oulahan’s sense of a broader social mission set him apart from other leaders.

  “He knew that he had to fund things and work with the government, but he wasn’t going to compromise his principles,” Colon said. “He was committed to working-people and to those who were down and out. He was a total asset to our neighborhood.”

  Oulahan’s mission was to provide training for steady, family-supporting jobs, from asbestos removal to car repairs to welding to child care.

  Along the way, he helped to develop a new job-training model, one that was self-sustaining because the labor done during training not only taught workers new skills, but brought in revenue to Esperanza Unida. The organization then reinvested that revenue in new job training and educational programming. The model was studied and implemented around the country and held up as a success story, even when some of the ventures—such as a restaurant—didn’t work out as planned.

  “You have to be willing to say this is a lifetime commitment,” Oulahan was quoted as saying in 2001 when asked to offer advice to other community organizers. “You can’t back out once you start. You have to be in it for the long haul and believe you’re going to make it work.”

  More than 2,300 workers have been trained by Esperanza Unida: top-notch welders, customer service representatives, child-care providers, auto repair specialists, roofers and more. Oulahan’s philosophy was to train workers to get beyond entry-level positions so that they could become independent—an important difference from newer welfare-to-work programs that merely seek to place people in entry-level jobs.

  Guided by its sense of a social mission, Esperanza tailored its programming to fit the community’s needs. The 13-week courses provide students with intense but effective training, and a high school diploma isn’t required. Spanish speakers are welcome. The organization helps place graduates in jobs, and follows up to help graduates make the transition to full employment. And, importantly, classes are free and available to anyone who is willing to work hard.

  Staff and graduates repaid Esperanza Unida with their loyalty.

  “Richard’s dream was a big dream,” said Oulahan’s longtime ally, Tony Baez, now the president and CEO of the Council for the Spanish Speaking.


  Oulahan’s involvement ended in 2005, when he suffered a serious brain aneurysm. In his absence, the board of directors made controversial and damaging decisions, such as slashing programs—including a temporary employment agency run by Oulahan’s brother, Pepe—and laying off longtime workers. Hundreds of Esperanza Unida supporters wanted a new slate of directors to be appointed quickly to turn things around and reassure funders who had been comfortable with Oulahan’s leadership.

  Eventually, the agency was taken over by Robert Miranda, the editor of the Spanish Journal, and ties to many of its longtime supporters have been severed.

  Miranda said that the agency is still struggling to rebuild and pay off its debts.

  “We are still in crisis,” Miranda said. “We are rebuilding.”

  Esperanza is still able to train about 80-85 workers a year, down from about 160 in 2000, and has a 70%-75% job placement rate. Miranda said about 80% of its revenue comes from its job-training programming, such as car repairs and sales, Dumpster repairs and child care.

  But Miranda is also moving Esperanza Unida in new directions. He initiated a sister-city relationship with Manisa, Turkey, and hopes to involve Esperanza workers in contracts generated by it. He also plans to send workers to Turkey to learn new, green technologies, such as creating and repairing solar panels and converting traditional car engines so that they can also run on natural gas.

  Miranda is working to launch more green technology programming locally, which will make Esperanza Unida graduates more marketable in a changing economy. He wants the car repair experts to become certified green-collar mechanics, and to have welders work on flex-fuel gas tanks. Miranda also is trying to establish a recycling and refurbishing venture for construction sites to cut down on waste. He said that Gov. Jim Doyle and Mayor Barrett both support green-collar initiatives as a way to expand Wisconsin’s economy.

  “We are moving forward with green technology,” Miranda said.

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