Hands-on training for colonia leaders emphasizes role of government in solving problems

Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley director
Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley director

Cris Rocha, a community organizer with La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), welcomed the group and Norma Aldape, a LUPE member and resident of Colonia Olivarez Acres, donned an Uncle Sam hat and name tag to embody the U.S Constitution. She described the inalienable rights stated in the Bill of Rights: “I affirm the believe that the United States were created for and by the people. Who are the people?” The enthusiastic crowd proudly responded, “Us!”

More than 30 colonia leaders in the Rio Grande Valley participated in the education workshop focused on the role of government, part of the Land Use Colonia Housing Action (LUCHA) leadership development and training program developed with our partners at LUPE, A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE), [bc]Workshop and the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville. LUCHA is a model to mobilize leaders of low income communities across the state and country, and we’re excited to work with our partners at the Texas Organizing Project to soon offer similar trainings in Houston, that will eventually be led by established neighborhood leaders based on the colonia example.

Acknowledging the expertise of colonia residents on the challenges they face on a daily basis, the LUCHA training enhances leaders’ skills in community organizing, political deliberations and power building techniques. This builds knowledge about how to fight inequality in drainage systems, building codes and public services that are woefully inadequate compared to the region’s more affluent areas. After completing the LUCHA program, colonia leaders are better prepared to work with city, county and state officials and national leaders to develop new solutions for the most pressing issues of inequality, from land use to housing to infrastructure, in the Rio Grande Valley.

Aldape and other leaders discuss the Constitution and the three branches of government.

The latest workshop informed leaders about their right to engage in the political decision-making process and support their understanding of navigating that process. The format actively engaged colonia residents with important technical information in a simple and understandable manner that included visuals, group activities, personal testimonies and an educational role-playing activity that explained the checks and balances of government. Three youth volunteers wore paper masks representative of the current executive, legislative and judiciary branches (pictured at top). When describing the differences in federal, state, and local authorities, variously sized balloons were used as props to visualize each level power over the others. These cues connect the dots for the participants and reinforce their knowledge with simple but effective activities and exercises.

In addition, personal testimonies from experienced community leaders about their success organizing and engaging with different levels of government helped link the presentation to the local context of the problems facing the colonias. Nelly Curiel, a LUPE member and LUCHA program participant, described the personal benefits she has gained from the trainings, such as improved public presentation skills and more confidence when engaging in specific topic areas. But she also stressed the benefits for her colonia. Curiel’s neighborhood has gained better roads and the installation of public lighting due in large part to the impact of community organizing. She hopes her neighbors see the example of her civic involvement and continue the trainings, so they too can be prepared to advocate for their community.