By Tania Chavez of La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE))
San Juan, TX—Colonias can be found all along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Hidalgo County, Texas holds the largest concentration of colonias in the U.S., with over 1000 unincorporated neighborhoods. Here, in the Rio Grande Valley, colonias lack the most basic necessities, such as sewer systems, street lights, and safe, affordable housing.
La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a member organization of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, is a non-profit organization rooted in the belief that people have both the responsibility and obligation to organize around the issues that most impact their lives. LUPE organizes low-income colonia residents working to achieve fair housing opportunities and dignified living conditions by preparing community members to advocate for the rights of colonia residents before county, state, and federal government in order to create lasting social change.
LUPE has engaged community residents by organizing through the house-meeting model. Our model involves working with colonia residents to develop their leadership skills to facilitate discussions around the power of collective action, and to work with fellow residents to take action on infrastructure issues before the county government. Community organizers facilitate house meetings in the colonia neighborhoods to alleviate some of the limitations encompassed in those neighborhoods, such as inadequate public infrastructure.
Additionally, when hiring personnel to work with community residents, we assure they are culturally competent to engage with the community. This means being bilingual is a requirement, as our border community is over 90% Hispanic. Developing relationships with community members is critical to assure acceptance by community residents. Acceptance provides a sense of security that allows them to open their homes to host house meetings with their friends, neighbors, and families.
A strong community organizing model is critical to support our Theory of Change. Partnerships with other community organizations are key to developing strong campaigns. Partnerships broaden capacity and power to influence both local and regional policy and engage with and counter federal policies that affect our communities.
The first and most important partners are those immediately affected by the issues, colonia residents. Learning from their personal experiences allows community organizations to truly bridge cultural barriers. We cannot aim to change a policy without having those affected by the issue inform the campaign.
Second, Equal Voice Network members like ARISE and Proyecto Azteca, who share the same vision to improve the lives of colonia residents, are critical to building a sense of urgency. When you bring an issue to any government structure as a collective of organizations, it allows you to amplify the need of the community and then to negotiate for allocation of resources.
Lastly, it is important to include cross-sector collaboration from experts on the issue we are trying to address, whether it’s a policy think tank or architects who can help inform county planners on specifics of colonia infrastructure issues.
When all partners become shareholders of a unified vision, it allows for effective collaboration. Moreover, partners must reach a level of trust to assure everyone is holding up their end of the commitment. When working together to create power, it’s ultimately the community residents who will benefit from the outcomes of effective collaboration.
Community organizing is one of the hardest jobs. It is labor intensive, and emotionally and physically draining. But it is also one of the most rewarding jobs because the collective creates systemic change. The lives of colonia residents and the generations that follow will be measurably improved.
Tania Chavez is the Fund Development and Systems Strategist at La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). César Chávez founded LUPE, a community union rooted in the belief that members of the low-income community in Texas have the responsibility and the obligation to organize themselves. Through their association, they begin to advocate and articulate for the issues and factors that impact their lives. For more information about LUPE’s leadership model and colonia organizing efforts, visit www.lupenet.org.