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Lo Peor Que Pueden Decir Es No: A Story on Program Alignment

Working with historically underserved communities, particularly first-generation, low-income, and Latine individuals, has brought to light pervasive stereotypes. People often claim that these communities don't ask questions or lack knowledge about certain processes.

When I have been told these assumptions, I instantly ask follow-up questions: “How do we know this?” “Why aren’t they asking questions?”, “Is it only historically underserved communities who lack knowledge and do not ask questions?” The answers always included the buzzwords “best practices” and “research”. Ultimately the programming and decisions made followed these stereotypes and did not matched the lived realities of the communities.

Understanding Lived Realities

Before we dive into the details, it's crucial to define "lived realities." This term encapsulates the unique experiences, challenges, and aspirations of individuals within a community. Recognizing and respecting these aspects are fundamental to creating programs that genuinely address the needs of underserved communities. It's about acknowledging and comprehending the unique experiences, challenges, and aspirations of the people within a community.

Principles of Alignment

  1. Community Engagement and Collaboration: Programs are most effective when they involve the community from the outset. Engage in open dialogues, listen actively, and build collaborative relationships.

  2. Cultural Sensitivity and Inclusivity: Recognize and respect diverse cultural backgrounds within a community. Ensure that program design is inclusive and respectful of different perspectives.

  3. Flexibility in Program Design: Lived realities are dynamic. Design programs that can adapt to changing circumstances and needs, allowing for flexibility in implementation.

  4. Continuous Feedback and Adaptation: Establish mechanisms for ongoing feedback. Regularly assess the program's impact and be willing to make adjustments based on community input.

Personal Story

As a proud Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian, I was raised with a value deeply ingrained in my family—asking questions. "Lo peor que pueden decir es no” (The worst they can say is 'no,’) my mother would emphasize, highlighting the importance of utilizing my right to inquire. This lesson became a guiding principle throughout my life.

Off to college, I went, excited about the prospect of graduating with minimal debt. However, my enthusiasm was dampened when I discovered that my initially generous financial aid package had been replaced by loans. My mother's advice echoed, "appeal, challenge—lo peor que pueden decir es no (the worst they can say is no.)" The process seemed straightforward on paper: pay the balance, appeal, and get credited if successful. Yet, the reality was starkly different for a low-income student.

Unable to afford the thousands required to clear my bill and faced with a registration hold, the university's outlined process became a barrier rather than a solution. Their well-intentioned clarity did not align with the lived reality of low-income students. Taking a break wasn't an option; statistically, it often led to dropping out. I felt that taking a break was admitting defeat and letting not only my parents but my community down. During this time, the early 2000s, both my sister and I were told we did not belong in college by our peers citing we were only there because of affirmative action. This was far from the truth as we had both worked extremely hard to earn our acceptances. In 2006, being first-generation and low-income was seldom discussed, and the decision to appeal felt like outing myself as "too poor for college." I reluctantly took out student loans, a decision that continues to impact me today.

Challenges and Solutions

Fast forward to the present, and the challenges persist. Consulting with institutions and non-profits reveals gaps in programmatic engagement. Community feedback often seems elusive. Addressing these challenges requires proactive community engagement, local liaisons, and iterative feedback loops to bridge communication gaps.

Community Involvement

Stressing the importance of involving community members in the program design and implementation process is essential. Through town hall meetings, focus groups, or digital platforms, creating avenues for direct community input ensures programs remain relevant and responsive.

Benefits of Alignment

Organizations that align their programs with lived realities experience immediate positive impacts and long-term benefits. Increased community trust, better resource utilization, and sustainable, lasting change are just a few advantages. Strengthened cases to funders become possible with enhanced resource usage and attendance.


Embracing the concept of aligning programs with the lived realities of communities leads to positive change that genuinely impacts lives. Let's continue this vital conversation on community-centric program design, actually listening to communities on the needs they are identifying and resources that would meet said needs.

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