Concilio — a Philly cultural institution — celebrates 50 years

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Concilio — the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations — the oldest Latino organization in Philadelphia.

To celebrate, the city will play host to a number of events throughout 2012 — On July 14 and 15, Concilio will kick off Hispanic Fiesta at Penn’s Landing; on September 5, it will host its annual senior luncheon, and on Sept. 22, the group will present the annual Puerto Rican Festival Awards Gala.

On September 30, the Ben Franklin Parkway will fill with residents ready to celebrate the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, and Concilio will hold a closing ceremony to the Puerto Rican Festival Nov. 9 at its headquarters.

What’s the cause for all the celebración? Perhaps it’s the fervor with which Concilio has served the growing Latino population in Philadelphia over the years.

During an interview Tuesday, June 19 in Concilio’s headquarters — an old bank building at 705 N. Franklin St. — Julie Cousler-Emig, deputy director of Concilio, said that the organization’s programming has ebbed and flowed since its inception in 1962 based on the needs of the community.

“Back in ’62, there was nothing else,” she said. “This was existing social and fraternal organizations coming together.”

Originally, in order to combat concerns of police brutality against their members, Cousler-Emig said that 22 fractured social and community associations teamed up to create Concilio.

In 1967, the group officially became a non-profit group.

On a mission statement on www.elconcilio.net, Concilio touts itself as a “human service organization that provides a network of family support services to vulnerable families in Eastern North and Northeast Philadelphia.” Concilio serves more than 9,000 residents a year in communities from Northern Liberties and Kensington up through Fox Chase, Oxford Circle and Frankford.

The group is perhaps best known for founding the Puerto Rican Festival Awards Gala in 1964 and the Hispanic Festival at Penn’s Landing in 1981.

Over the years, Cousler-Emig said, Concilio has strived to be a place for “cultural pride, and a voice for the immigrant population.”

For a time, she said, the group worked to provide a welcoming center for new immigrants to Philadelphia. In the seventies, she said, Concilio offered drug and alcohol counseling and work programs.

However, as the community’s needs changed, Cousler-Emig said these services stopped, and Concilio now focuses on providing access to social services, foster care and housing initiatives.

ldquo;These programs have been here for more than twenty years,” said Cousler-Emig. “We will help anyone who comes into our office.”

In fact, she said, a lot of the work Concilio does now is related to foster care and adoptions and post-adoption services.

They work with about 80 children in foster homes.

Concilio also focuses its efforts on housing services like foreclosure prevention, as well as workshops for first time homebuyers.

Cousler-Emig said the group also works to be very accountable for its funding.

The $3.5 million organization — the annual funding of which is largely obtained through state and federal funds — is very concerned about its “fiscal health,” she said.

“All of our money is public dollars,” she said. “We need to be uber-accountable.”

Further exemplifying Concilio’s importance to the community, local filmmaker Benjamin Barnett, of Northern Liberties-based Media Bureau Inc., has been working with Concilio to create a retrospective film he’ll show at an upcoming gala for the nonprofit.

He said that while creating the film, he’s learned about the history of the group and has been interested in Concilio’s ongoing ability to connect many Latino communities throughout the city.

“That’s what’s most interesting,” he said. “All these different communities have come together under one flag, if you know what I mean.”

In fact, he’s become so interested in Concilio, Barnett said he hopes to make the retrospective film into a full documentary over the coming year — he’ll then submit the documentary to film festivals.

“Over 50 years in Philly…there’s just a labyrinth of intrigue there,” he said.

To learn more about the times and locations of this year’s Concilio events, visit www.elconcilio.net or call 215–627–3100.

Star Staff Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.