English Classes to Empower Immigrants


The Ecuadorian Embassy and Catholic Charities Community Services partnered with CWE to provide English and Citizenship classes


In recent years, New York City’s immigrant communities have come under increasing threat. The Consortium for Worker Education and our partners have responded with new and expanded Know Your Rights trainings, citizenship classes, legal aid, and other services. We have also worked with community organizations and unions to provide English classes to help immigrant New Yorkers be safe at work and thrive in their communities. These programs are supported through funding from the New York City Council.

English Classes for Immigrant Rights

Each community has unique needs and CWE works with established community organizations to develop programs that are tailored to meet those needs and have the greatest impact.
For example, in New York’s Ecuadorian community, many Green Card holders need support learning the particular English grammar and vocabulary necessary to traverse the citizenship process. The Ecuadorian Consulate reached out to Catholic Charities Community Services for help providing an English and Citizenship class in Queens, and Catholic Charities turned to CWE for funding to support the program.

In Astoria, Queens, the ANSOB Center for Refugees has been supporting the diverse immigrant communities of Queens for close to 20 years with legal services, English classes, job placement programs, and assistance with citizenship applications. After relying on volunteer instructors for English instruction, funding from CWE has allowed the ANSOB Center to hire teachers and make the classes more structured.

“We have Portuguese speakers, we have Spanish speakers, we have Arabic speakers, we have French speakers, we have Tibetan speakers,” says the ANSOB Center’s Executive Director and co-founder, Cathleen Joyce.


The ANSOB Center for Refugees provides ESL Civics classes in Queens to help immigrants learn the English they need to pass the citizenship test


The ESL Civics class prepares clients for the U.S. Citizenship test and interview. They learn how a bill becomes a law and who their elected representatives are, but also the technical vocabulary that could come up in the interview.
An applicant for citizenship can be asked far from everyday questions, including “Are you a communist?” or “Do you have a title of nobility?” One wrong answer – or misunderstanding – can prevent someone from becoming a citizen in today’s climate.
“We practice and have mock interviews,” says Joyce.

English Classes for Worker’s Rights

Often, language can be a barrier for immigrant workers in protecting themselves on the job. So when Teamsters Local 813 members at Arma Container asked union president Sean Campbell for English classes, it was a request he took seriously.
“It’s a safety issue,” says Campbell. “If you don’t speak English, then you won’t understand safety directions from English-speaking managers. If part of your job is operating heavy machinery, you need to be able to read any safety documentation associated with it.”


Arma Container workers celebrate the completion of their workplace English class


In 2017, the union reached out to the Consortium for Worker Education to provide the classes. The union, CWE, and company management met, and developed a series of classes that would teach English skills that workers can put to use on the shop floor.
CWE has partnered with several unions and employers on worksite-specific English classes, including for warehouse workers at Kinray Pharmaceuticals, dry-cleaning workers at Kingbridge Garment Care, and sanitation workers at Sims Municipal Recycling.


Kingbridge Garment Care employees participate in ESL class taught by CWE's Louise Wolf


English Classes for Women’s Rights

One week after Donald Trump took office and enacted a ban on travel from several Muslim countries, over 1000 Yemeni-American bodega owners closed their stores, walked off the job, and rallied at Brooklyn Borough Hall in protest. The action garnered national attention and was a coming-out party of sorts for New York’s growing Yemeni-American community, which is becoming increasingly politically engaged during the Trump era.
Building on the success of the strike, organizers discussed forming an organization that could harness the community energy and take it forward. They founded the Yemeni American Merchants Association (YAMA) and got to work on several initiatives, including English language literacy. Especially for Yemeni-American women, lack of English was a barrier to succeeding outside the home and becoming independent.
YAMA began discussions with the Consortium for Worker Education about an English class last year. The group piloted the idea with volunteer teachers to gauge interest, not knowing how many community members would participate.


Women from the Bronx's Yemeni community flocked to English classes provided by the Yemeni American Merchants Association and CWE


“Within two weeks, we had 40 participants – all women in the Bronx – who wanted this,” says says Dr. Debbie Almontaser, one of the organization’s founders. “When we started we didn’t even have furniture. They were sitting on the floor with notebooks. Once we had funding from CWE, we could buy furniture, whiteboards, materials, and books.”
A local mosque in the Bronx jumped at the opportunity to host the class. “They said ‘absolutely, this is an important need,’” says Almontaser. “They wanted women in their community to be civically engaged, educated, able to advocate for their children, and to become independent of their husbands, who work such long hours.”
Workforce development programs must be flexible and change to meet the needs of New York’s changing workforce. In each of these English classes, and the many others that CWE and its partners are providing across the city, New York immigrants are getting the tools to protect and advocate for themselves, and for their communities.