At a time when migrants are popping up in many public conversations, some of them heated, two Fordham professors have published a book that gives the mic to the migrants themselves—offering a window into their under-the-radar successes and what they’ve done to give back to their adopted country. 

Mutuality in El Barrio book cover

Their focus is women and children who came to New York City from Mexico and found their way to the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service in East Harlem. There, they received holistic support that not only met their immediate needs but also empowered them to improve their circumstances, help others, and be leaders.

The agency “has been doing really effective work with diverse communities in a very complicated city and … developing power in a community that is typically disempowered,” said Fordham theology professor Brenna Moore, Ph.D. She and Carey Kasten, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish at Fordham, are co-authors of Mutuality in El Barrio: Stories of the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service, out this month from Fordham University Press. A book launch takes place May 20.

Creating Pathways Out of Poverty

The Little Sisters of the Assumption, a Catholic order, founded its East Harlem agency in 1958 to create opportunities for families to escape poverty. The first executive director was Sister Margaret Leonard, GSS ’67, who codified the agency’s idea of mutuality.

It called for forming mutually enriching relationships with clients, “eschewing a binary framework of helper and helped in an effort to cocreate new realities in East Harlem that benefit all parties,” the book says.

That meant listening to migrants’ stories, offering mental and spiritual support, and unlocking their strengths over the long term. Sometimes it meant bringing them together so they could address common problems, like mold in their public housing. Former clients often return as volunteers and staffers or serve other New York City organizations in leadership roles.

Participants in the parenting and child development program  at LSA Family Health Services.
Participants in the parenting and child development program at LSA Family Health Services. Photo courtesy of LSA Family Health Services

What mutuality is not, Kasten said, is “looking for immediate effects.”

“It’s willing to be in conversation with someone for years and understanding that sometimes it does take that long,” she said. “The things that people are asked to do when they come to this country don’t take just a week.”

Success Stories of Migrants

Eight Fordham students worked on the book project, gaining research experience by helping Moore and Kasten with interviewing migrants the agency served over the past few decades. The students included theology, Spanish, and communications majors, as well as students in the Graduate School of Social Service. Most migrants quoted in the book used pseudonyms.

The interviewees included Sonia, a onetime teenage mother whom the agency helped navigate prenatal care, develop parenting skills, and enroll in a pre-nursing degree program. The nuns also called upon her to provide nursing care to another Little Sisters client in her building.

And they stuck with her through crises—like being jailed on a false accusation from her child’s father, who had beaten her. The sisters prayed and sang hymns outside the jail overnight, giving her hope until charges were dropped the next day. She later moved to Florida, married, raised three children, and became head nurse in a hospital’s radiology department—at one point, overseeing the care of an ailing relative of Sister Margaret, who Sonia said is “like family.”

Another young mother, Yolanda, gained parenting skills through the agency and later joined its staff after earning her bachelor’s degree. “They began supporting me, motivating me,” she says in the book. In the words of another client: “They make you see what you don’t see in yourself.”


Chris Gosier is a senior editor in the marketing and communications department and associate editor of FORDHAM magazine. He can be reached at (646) 312-8267 or [email protected].