States passed a record number of anti-illegal immigration laws in 2011. Five states (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah) passed bills modeled after Arizona’s Senate Bill (SB) 1070. Although the United States Supreme Court deemed three sections of SB 1070 unconstitutional in June of 2012 (including the provision allowing law enforcement officials to stop and arrest individuals on the suspicion that they are undocumented immigrants), Section 2B remained. This section requires law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of individuals who have been stopped, arrested, or detained, when there is suspicion that the individual is in the country illegally. This has caused fear among immigrant communities and eroded relations with law enforcement.
Against this backdrop, a group in the Granada community of Phoenix is improving the quality of their neighborhood. In 2009, residents in Granada, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, decided to attend city-sponsored classes through the “Good Neighbor Program.” The program was designed to provide information and support to growing Latino neighborhoods, in part through the formation of Block Watch groups. Out of that program, Vecinos Unidos Siempre (Neighbors United Forever) was formed in January 2010 by Latina immigrants in Granada to unify residents and enhance their neighborhood.
United for Neighborhood Improvement
In the words of a Vecinos Unidos Siempre member, “Our motivation came, in part, from the need to counter the stereotype that Latino immigrants are in the United States to ‘take.’ We see ourselves as being here to help and improve the community. We see everyone as equal and are committed to work hard, get ahead and bring about more security and unity in our community.” The group successfully applied for Block Watch grants for neighborhood improvement. Gail LaGrander, the Project Coordinator of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative in Phoenix called Maryvale on the Move, met with Vecinos Unidos Siempre in early 2010 as she was attending neighborhood meetings to build relationships in the Granada community. She quickly learned that Vecidos Unidos Siempre were major players for community change. Aiming to engage community members on healthy eating and active living initiatives, Gail found that the Latino community was an enthusiastic supporter of Maryvale on the Move. Members of Vecinos Unidos Siempre have been involved every step of the way. They have helped shape and prioritize Maryvale on the Move’s objectives, including increasing utilization, safety, maintenance, physical activity programming and funding streams for city parks.
The story of Cielito Park exemplifies the power of partnership between Maryvale on the Move and Vecinos Unidos Siempre. As their only green space, Cielito Park is very important to Granada residents. Unfortunately, Cielito Park is deteriorating and includes poorly maintained amenities, dim lighting and no programming for children and families who frequent the park. There is also a homeless population that takes refuge in the park, giving parents the perception that the park is unsafe. At the end of 2011, the city council released $1.2 million in bond funds to renovate Cielito Park. Gail immediately contacted the parks and recreation department to learn how decisions would be made to allocate funds within the park. It was great news when she learned that a steering committee from the community would be appointed to make funding decisions, because she knew several community members through Vecinos Unidos Siempre that would be perfect for that committee, along with the principal of the adjacent primary school, an elementary school district governing board member, and a local pastor. All were appointed, and Gail was also invited to serve. The steering committee would not only make recommendations on how the funds would be distributed but would also take part in updating the master plan for Cielito Park that dated back to 1966. The first steering committee meeting, in March 2012, was to assess the needs of the park, at the request of the parks and recreation department. Going door to door to hear directly from residents, the three committee members from Vecinos Unidos Siemprre collected most of the 150 completed surveys. Vecinos Unidos Siempre is also contributing to the park renovation in other ways. The group was recently awarded a $10,000 Neighborhood Block Watch grant to organize a youth-based community arts project, “Our Park, Our Art.” Improving the aesthetics and sense of place and involving the neighborhood youth in the process are just two ways the community is investing in and taking pride in Cielito Park.
A Common Cause
Despite the success in the park, the anti-illegal immigration policies continue to create many individual and community-level stressors and challenges for residents in Granada. For example, Vecinos Unidos Siempre had successfully partnered with law enforcement to attend meetings to improve their neighborhood. However, the relationship and trust they had built over time has been disrupted when their neighbors were targeted by law enforcement officials with devastating consequences for a number of families. Working with the Parks and Recreation Department of Phoenix has also presented challenges. For example, in the spring of 2012 Maryvale on the Move learned that the parks and recreation department had sold about 2 acres of a nearby urban flatland park to a developer for private use. As a result, Maryvale on the Move convened a committee of community stakeholders that is pursuing a collaborative effort with the parks and recreation department to develop a review and public notification procedure that would be implemented prior to any future sale of public park land. Despite these trials, the group looks forward to transforming Cielito Park into a safe, attractive and vibrant place for Granada residents.
Gail LaGrander has expressed how fortunate she is to work with the talented and committed women of Vecidos Unidos Siempre. “These women have organized against the odds; they have grown so much in their confidence and ability to make their voices heard and to speak with power and poise.” The group is currently participating with eight other teams in a year-long training program provided by nationally-known immigrant rights advocates to further develop their collective leadership skills and power and their capacity to engage in grassroots community organizing to bring about social change. One member describes her motivation to do this work, “As women who have responsibilities related to their children, school, the home, jobs, etc., it can be very demanding. But we are committed to make our neighborhood and community a better place for all.” The members of Vecidos Unidos Siempre organized themselves around a common cause of neighborhood improvement. With Maryvale on the Move, they are tapping into training and experiences that further develop their leadership skills that are leading to greater advocacy efforts and community transformation beyond the life of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative.