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A Passion for Persistence

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By Steve Uhler, photos by Keith Trigaci, styled by Ashley Hargrove, hair and makeup by Laura MartInez, shot on location at Sellers Underground, 213 W. Fourth St., sellersunderground.com

Teresa Granillo is on a quest to help empower more young Latinas through the pursuit of higher education, making progress one amazing woman at a time.

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The morning of Nov. 9, 2016—the day after the U.S. presidential election—was one of the worst mornings of Teresa Granillo’s life, but not in the way one might expect. It began in Austin with the ominous portent of rainy weather, slick roads and a nation awakening in collective shock about the single most jaw-dropping overnight political upheaval in American history. As the executive director of Con Mi Madre, an Austin-based nonprofit group that works with Latina girls and their mothers to help prepare them for college and beyond, Granillo was on her way to work, driving to a morning conference. She’d been up late the night before, watching the election results.

“I had this Mini Cooper, which I loved,” she says, “[and]as I was driving in the rain, it died in the middle of the road. You can take whatever interpretation you want from that.”

In the months to follow, a broken-down car would prove to be the least of Granillo’s worries. During the course of one historic election night, Latino families throughout Texas and beyond suddenly found themselves vulnerable to a whole new paradigm in national policy, one that threatened the very existence of Con Mi Madre’s core constituency.

“I remember waking up the next day and I was like, ‘We’ve got to fight for these people in any way we can,’ ” Granillo says. “We had a mother-daughter conference set on November 12, and we weren’t sure how many families were going to show up. The staff had just come back from a week of campus meetings at schools with the girls, and they reported back how many of the girls were upset. They couldn’t do the curriculum that week. We had to stop and just do straight-up crisis intervention, there was so much emotion. Families were coming up and moms [were]talking about how scared they were. I just kept communicating that, ‘We’re going to continue to be here. We’re going to fight for you.’ ”

Things went from bad to worse when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents began staging a series of local raids purportedly aimed at illegal immigrants in the Austin area, a so-called “sanctuary city.”

“That set a whole other level of fear running through the organization,” Granillo recalls. “Basically, our job became responding in the most positive way we could. We started holding information sessions about families knowing their rights. We were able to switch perspectives and say, ‘OK, today, we’re not doing education curriculum. Today, we’re going to take care of you as a human being.’ ”

Almost overnight, what had previously been a successful local education-outreach program was abruptly transitioning to a makeshift trauma center for Latina kids and their extended families. Suddenly, the new normal at Con Mi Madre seemed anything but normal.

Six months later, Granillo—relaxed, radiant and looking much younger than her 34 years—is sipping coffee at an empty desk in a bare, freshly painted white-walled office that will soon become part of Con Mi Madre’s new Eastside facilities. In the months to come, the cavernous space will become a hub of activity, with computer stations, staff, volunteers and conferences. But on this late spring day, the smell of fresh paint still lingers in the air. Despite a hectic schedule juggling moving preparations with graduation celebrations, award ceremonies, conferences and strategy meetings, the aftereffects of the November election are still at the forefront of Granillo’s attention. Asked how things have been going since those chaotic, transitional days, Granillo’s usually upbeat demeanor shifts into sober reflection.

“It is heartbreaking to have young girls, middle-school girls, terrified that their families are going to be broken up. In that regard, it’s been really hard. It makes the work that we do so much more important and necessary than ever before,” Granillo says. “We had another conference right after the raids in Austin. We thought, ‘Nobody’s going to show up for this.’ It started slow that morning, then, family by family, they all started showing up. One mom pulled me aside, hugged me and thanked me for continuing to have the program in all of this mess because it was the only place she felt she could bring her daughter. Her little girl could forget all the other stuff that was going on and not be afraid to be with Con Mi Madre. It was a safe place for her daughter to come.”

Stirring her coffee, Granillo allows herself a small, reflective smile. Taking a deep breath, she suddenly brightens, recharged. There is work to be done.

Granillo’s work actually began long ago and more than 900 miles away, in her hometown of Tucson, Ariz. Granillo was raised in a modest two-bedroom townhome, and by the time she was in middle school, her parents had divorced, her two older brothers had left home and it was pretty much just she and her mother from then on. Working full time as an administrative secretary to support her daughter, Granillo’s mother faced daunting economic and cultural obstacles.

As a child, Granillo was athletic, independent and relentlessly persistent, traits that still define her.

“Teresa was amazing at a young age,” recalls her mother, Penny Davis, who’s now remarried and living in Mesa, Ariz. “She was a joy to me, kind and generous and very busy with school and sports. Teresa was very driven. If she decided she wanted to do something, she worked hard and got it.”

But young Granillo didn’t necessarily always live up to her mother’s wishes or expectations.

“I was so happy to have a little girl and looked forward to buying her pretty dresses and dolls. But she had different ideas,” Davis says. “She enjoyed playing sports, exploring in the desert and climbing trees. Teresa was very self-sufficient.”

She was also whip-smart, consistently earning high grades at school and, more importantly, praise from her mother.

“I always did great in school,” Granillo confides. “It was my safe place. I knew that no matter what happened, I’d get positive accolades from that.” Like many Latinos and Latinas in that time and place, none of Granillo’s family had received a college education.

“There was no expectation that I was going to go to college. There just wasn’t. But from my mom, it was different. She wasn’t very explicit about it, but I would say she recognized that she was stuck in life because she didn’t have an education,” Granillo says. “She hit a point where she recognized that and said, ‘You’re going to go get an education.’ ”

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Despite her academic acumen, Granillo faced a barricade of obstacles entering adolescence and public high school. Wanting the best for her daughter, Davis managed to get her transferred to a nearby private Catholic school after freshman year. With a move away from her familiar classes, teachers and classmates, Granillo found herself alienated and adrift in a different world. She rebelled.

“I didn’t like that school,” she says, reflecting. “I couldn’t relate to the kids. I felt like such an outsider. I was embarrassed because of my socio-economic status and never had people come over to my house from that school. I became angry.”

After two years of frustration and badgering her mother, Granillo quit Catholic school during her junior year and retreated back to the comfort zone of her old public high school, her familiar circle of friends and a world of limited prospects.

“What stood in my way more than anything was the community, the people that I hung out with sometimes,” she says. “I was working a lot during high school and got a car so I could get to my jobs. So, you can imagine as an adolescent with a car and a lot of jobs and a mom who worked full time, there was plenty of opportunity to be around people my mom didn’t know about. I got involved with some kids, and we would steal—alcohol, clothing. … I was in a rebellious phase, hanging around with the wrong crowd, getting into trouble.”

Today, when Granillo shares this part of her life with high-school-age girls, it’s often the one element of her story they most identify with and relate to.

“It wasn’t until recently [that]I realized that and started using it. I did a talk at East Austin College Prep, speaking to these kids about the road to post-secondary education,” Granillo says. “And my message to them was, ‘It’s not always straight, and don’t fear if you haven’t taken the straight path. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen.’ I was wearing a suit that day, and I said, ‘How many of you in here think this woman standing in front of you drove the getaway car for alcohol runs?’ They saw me in a different light after that. All of a sudden, I got street cred.”

Granillo’s flirtation with misdemeanor behavior in high school may have also gained her street cred with her peer group, but her increasingly risky behavior alarmed her mother, who sought out professional counseling. There was a YWCA in town with a therapist who would take on one client pro bono, and Granillo’s mother successfully lobbied to get her into the program.

“I got to benefit from somebody in that field working with me, and I was fascinated,” Granillo says, still visibly wide-eyed. “How did this woman get in my head and help me see things in a different way? I wanted to understand, and I wanted to help other kids like she helped me.”

Granillo began aspiring toward a healthier future vocation. In terms of what drew Granillo to psychology, it was simple.

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“My life,” she answers, with a spontaneous, self-aware laugh. “Trying to understand why in the world things happen the way they do. Why do people act the way they do? I just had so many questions about that, and I thought, ‘Maybe if I study psychology, I’ll understand some of that.’ ”

In addition to a watchful mother and an insightful therapist, Granillo had a third ace in the hole: She was still scoring stellar grades at school, a fact that did not go unnoticed. A perceptive science teacher sensed the possibilities within her. Taking Granillo aside one day, she firmly announced, “You need to do something with your life. You are too smart.”

“She saw me through a lens I didn’t see myself through,” Granillo says. “I was in her physics class and loved it. She loved the fact that I was really good at science, and she wanted to see this young Latina do something with her life. It made me stop to think about things like, ‘If this super-smart woman who I look up to sees me this way, am I really utilizing my skills in the right way? Is my life on the right track? Am I hanging out with the right people?’ ”

Granillo reflects on the recurring motif of people who helped her on her journey.

“I’ve had angels all along my path that have said, ‘You know what? I see something in you. I’m going to help you whether you’re looking for help or not,’ ” she says.

After high school, Granillo attended the University of Arizona, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and received her first boots-on-the-ground social-work assignment with a local nonprofit named Our Family. Granillo found herself thrown into the deep end of the pool.

“I co-facilitated a class for parents whose kids had been taken away by CPS,” she says, wincing at the memory. “I was a child. Those parents ate me alive. They were like, ‘What do you know about being a parent?’ And I didn’t know anything.”

But by the end of the class, the group had grown impressed with Granillo’s passion and commitment.

“I saw this transformation in these parents, in their way of seeing the world, their responsibility for caretaking,” she says. “I realized, ‘This is where I need to be.’ ”

After graduation, Granillo took a year off, applying to various colleges and universities to continue her education while simultaneously continuing her social work with underserved children. Impressed with Granillo’s credentials, the University of Michigan offered her a full six-year scholarship, including a joint study in social work and psychology, with an emphasis on Latina adolescent mental health, an ideal mixed curriculum for Granillo’s talents.

But being offered a full scholarship at the University of Michigan was a bittersweet blessing. It meant leaving home and her steadfastly supportive mother.

“We were super close. We were each other’s support network,” Granillo says wistfully. “She was very proud, but also not very happy about me leaving. I joke that I had claw marks on my back when I left.”

Six years later, armed with her master’s degree in social work and Ph.D. in social work and psychology, Granillo pondered her next move.

“I was coming in to the market when the demographic shift started to really hit home for a lot of places, where they [realized], ‘Oh, we’ve got a lot of Latinos!’ Social services were expanding, and my area of focus was Latinas and Latina well-being and mental-health issues. I specialized in working with children,” she says.

Granillo began receiving invitations from several institutions, including an offer from the University of Texas School of Social Work to become a tenure-track professor. Embarking on a scouting expedition to check out the Texas terrain, she discovered an oasis of possibilities.

“Coming in from Michigan, I was so excited to be in a place where I saw tons of Latinos,” she says. “And the lifestyle was exciting for me. I’m a runner. I’m very active. I was sold. I wanted to be here.”

She moved to Austin in 2011.

One afternoon, during her first year as a tenure-track professor, Granillo passed a tiny office tucked away on campus that was adorned with a small sign reading, “Con Mi Madre.” Intrigued, she stepped inside and, in effect, she never left. Con Mi Madre began as a volunteer program of the Junior League of Austin in 1992, when it was called the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program at UT’s School of Social Work. At that time, a Latina child in Texas had a less than 1 percent chance of receiving a college education, with many ending their formal education by the 8th grade. The program was originally designed to help encourage young Latina girls about to enter high school to continue their education into college. The initiative teamed mothers and daughters together to attend weekend conferences focused on college selection, financial assistance, applications and enrollment guidance.

The organization changed its rather austere name to Con Mi Madre in 2008, officially becoming a stand-alone nonprofit the following year. By the time Granillo arrived on the scene, the organization had accumulated an untapped treasure trove of priceless data pertaining to Latino families and their unique challenges. It was catnip for Granillo. She immediately began volunteering, immersing herself in the data and becoming UT’s liaison with the Con Mi Madre program.

In 2013, then-executive director and co-founder Sandy Alcala announced her impending departure, and the organization began searching for her replacement. Cookie Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin and a founding board member of Con Mi Madre, had long been a fan of Granillo.

“I first met Teresa in a meeting at UT with the dean of the School of Social Work,” Ruiz says.

She and her fellow board members were immediately impressed with Granillo’s depth of educational knowledge and expertise related to the girls and their mothers, the focus of Con Mi Madre’s mission.

“When I left that meeting, we knew we had just found our next executive director,” Ruiz says. “She’s the living embodiment of the organization’s aspiration.”

It was a perfect match. As executive director, Granillo proved a quick learner and an adept multitasker, collating valuable data into compelling case studies, learning the delicate art of fundraising, networking, speaking at community meetings, as well as working with entrepreneurial companies, philanthropic organizations, community leaders and school districts.

“Con Mi Madre was destined to find Teresa,” Ruiz says. “Her work is best described as a calling. Through her leadership and expertise, Teresa is changing the lives of a generation of Latinas, one amazing woman at a time.”

Under Granillo’s leadership, Con Mi Madre has made great strides. It has expanded its constituency from 6th-graders all the way through college-age students and beyond, now serving nearly 800 mother-daughter teams a year, with an impressive 77 percent of the program’s youth participants going on to college. Since its launch, Con Mi Madre has nurtured more than 3,500 young Latinas through the process of enrolling in college. But the real proof of Con Mi Madre’s impressive success is in the proverbial pudding. Itzel Okumura, now 21, graduated from Texas A&M University last year, and attributes a lot of credit to Con Mi Madre for getting her there. Okumura first learned of the organization as a young student in middle school.

“My teacher told me, ‘There’s this program so you can go to college. You should check it out.’ Being in 6th grade, college was the last thing on my mind,” she says. “But in my parents’ minds, it was something important. So, my mom said, ‘Let’s go ahead and do that,’ and I’ve been with the program ever since,” Okumura says. “The workshops were great. They didn’t just speak about college, but on how to pay for it, exploring different ways financially through scholarships, grants and loans. I got the opportunity to learn more about colleges and learn more about myself.”

When asked what she enjoyed most about her time with Con Mi Madre, Okumura gets unexpectedly emotional. “I love the name of the program,” she says, pausing a moment to blink back tears. “Growing up, I didn’t really engage with my parents. Going to workshops was really great for me to spend time with my mom. She went to all the workshops for the parents. It was very interactive, and I think with that, our relationship really grew. We’re a pretty tight-knit family.”

Still closely tied to Con Mi Madre, Okumura currently works as a volunteer several days a week, and intends to continue her education through a master’s program at Texas A&M.

“My major is psychology, but I want to do industrial psychology, applying my psychology background to the business world,” she says. “My dream since I was young was to work for NASA, and I’m currently trying to get an internship there.” Okumura’s younger sister, Lizbeth, 17, a senior at Austin’s Akins High School, is also a Con Mi Madre convert.

Like her older sister, she hopes to attend Texas A&M after high school. “It was actually because of Con Mi Madre that I became hooked on going to A&M,” she says. “One of the things that they do is take you to visit colleges. Me and my mom and sister went with the group. It was an amazing experience, a very beautiful campus.” She already has her eyes on the prize. “I want to major in forensic science and minor in pre-law. I hope to be an FBI agent,” she says, noting she enjoys the mother-daughter team dynamic of Con Mi Madre. “It’s brought us closer, working together. We’re both learning along the way, and if I don’t understand something, [my mom]can explain it to me. Or, if sometimes she doesn’t understand something, I can help. We both work together.” One fortuitous ripple effect of Con Mi Madre’s program is that while working in tandem with their daughters, mothers often find themselves becoming more empowered in the process.

“Now we’re seeing all the moms who go back to school themselves, moms who turn what they do on a daily basis into a business,” Granillo says, “moms who take it up a notch in their own career and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to go for that promotion now!’ Now we’re putting it into our program. We’re starting to build an actual curriculum for that because we’re seeing what we’re doing for girls is working for moms.”

The more data and experience Granillo accumulates, the more passionate she becomes about the possibilities for Con Mi Madre’s future.

“It’s the perfect recipe, taking our cultural practices and using that as a strength to propel these kids into getting an education,” she says. “We need this everywhere.” In May 2016, Granillo participated in a three-minute fast-pitch competition for Philanthropitch Austin, proposing an expansion of Con Mi Madre outside the Austin region into Hays County, and won.

“Now we’ve been a full year with Hays County, and it’s going incredibly well,” Granillo says. “Simultaneously, the more I go out in the community speaking about our program and the impact we’re having, the more phone calls we receive asking, ‘How do we get your services?’ So, we’ve built out a strategic plan and are going to San Antonio. Then we’ll be expanding into El Paso starting this fall.”

Granillo has also been approached by a school district in her home state of Arizona.

“It’s happening quickly and in a way we didn’t anticipate,” she says. “We’ve focused on Texas and I want to stay deep in our reach here, but I [can]think of places in California, Arizona, Michigan and up and down the East Coast that could utilize our services. I want Con Mi Madre to be a national name.” In the months since November’s election, Granillo has been gratified that, rather than distancing themselves from Con Mi Madre, community members and organizations are stepping up to the plate.

“They’re saying, ‘Now more than ever,’ and stood behind Con Mi Madre,” Granillo says. “We’ve got to help these girls. There are more obstacles in front of them now than there were before—and there were plenty before. So, let’s do what we can to push them forward because they’re our future. … When I go to a mother-daughter conference, and a senior comes running up to me saying, ‘Dr. Granillo, I got accepted into a college!’ her life has changed, and she recognizes that. And we didn’t do it for her. She did it, she and her mom. We were able to help them along the path. What more could you ask for? To change the life trajectory of not just this one girl, not just this one mom, but for generations to come, there’s not one thing more inspiring than when I see that moment. They made it!”

Next year, Con Mi Madre will celebrate 25 years of service in Austin. Starting this month, the organization will officially begin operations in its new Eastside facility. But, as always, the ongoing mission at hand takes top priority, and Granillo remains tirelessly persistent in her quest to empower more young Latinas through continuing their education.

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Not surprisingly, Granillo’s mother remains as proud as ever of her never-say-die daughter who went from driving getaway cars for beer runs to helping countless other Latina girls achieve dreams they previously didn’t know they had.

“Her work at Con Mi Madre is amazing,” Davis says. “I am so proud of what she is doing, and the organization is a perfect fit for her. As a single mom, I think this organization would have been very helpful to me.”

Despite a seismic shift in national policy, there’s little doubt Con Mi Madre will continue its success and expansion. And Granillo will still obsessively compile data, initiate new strategies and carry the torch for Latinas to pursue a better future, remaining steadfast and undeterred by the winds of political change.

Regarding the fate of Granillo’s beloved Mini Cooper that gave out on Election Day, sadly, it was pronounced DOA at the repair shop and has since been replaced by a shiny new Jeep, ideal for Granillo to take her two dogs, Sophia and George, down to the Lady Bird Lake trail for their almost daily run. The vehicle is easy to spot. Look closely and you’ll see a simple, lone bumper sticker affixed to the back, adorned with a single word that says everything you need to know about Teresa Granillo: persist.

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