Nonprofit programs come and go in City Heights, sometimes leaving behind many of the low-income residents they’re intended to help.

Virginia Angeles lives in City Heights. She worked on one of those programs, identifying problems like mold, lead and cockroaches in the homes of poor families and teaching them that, as tenants, they had the right to get the problems addressed.

After three years Proyecto de Casas Saludables exhausted its funding, meaning it would have to end like so many other nonprofits. Angeles was an outreach worker known, in Spanish, as a promotora. But she was also a resident of the community that would lose the program. She and the other promotoras refused to let that happen.

So they took the program over, taking its name and the recognition they’d earned among their neighbors, and refashioned the project and its goals.

I sat down with Angeles to talk about her motivations, the role she sees for her program in City Heights, and the challenges of directing a small nonprofit in a sea with so many big fish.

Why did you take over Proyecto de Casas Saludables?

It is not the same thing to see a program end as someone who comes to work in a community from the outside as it is for a resident, for someone living in the community.

As someone living in the community, you know your neighbors, you know your children’s friends and their parents. You know who lives in those houses and who that program is helping.

When the program ended, we said, programs can’t come and go. We can’t have a program that ends after three years, leaving families vulnerable again. If families are referred to a program or an agency, or to a clinic, and then a program ends, what happens?

Funding finished and the program was supposed to end, but you as members felt like you were just getting started. Was that strange to you?

It was terrible. We thought, they can’t just say goodbye. One of the things I told the other promotoras was, we are the faces of this program. We’re the ones the community got to know. We were frustrated, sometimes angry, because we were the ones who lived in the community, and if it ended, we knew people were going to ask us what had happened with all that we’d started.

That’s when it became personal.

We had two options: say, I’ll go to another agency, find another job, and not answer the community’s questions, or go out into the community and say, how can we keep this going.

So what did you do?

We got some grants, and we asked, okay, we’ve already helped people know their rights as tenants to address household conditions, but what if they don’t know their rights as immigrants, their rights to healthcare, their employment rights, and their rights to education?

We started a leadership academy, a series of workshops on those topics, and we educated people about them.

Proyecto was no longer just about asthma and household conditions. It was about providing an educational platform in the community so people would become less fearful of community engagement.

What are its goals?

If I feel healthy and capable of caring for my family, I’m better able to integrate myself into the systems that surround me.

But there’s this mentality that we’re immigrants, so we expect to have to wade through a long process to interact with the systems of this country. If we learn how to navigate these systems, we can operate so much more efficiently as a community.

Proyecto tries to be an organization that’s a little more assertive about why you should participate in your community. The whole world asks us where we’re headed. We’re headed toward getting residents to feel comfortable participating in the systems –educational, housing, health, and others — of their communities.

You use promotores. What is a promotor?

It’s a person who believes in him or herself and has undergone training — a person who can advocate for the improvement of their community.

How do they do that?

The promotor goes out and gets to know people who live in the community. They promote the leadership academies and spread the word among other residents, holding meetings, setting agendas for them. We don’t have the concept of a promotor who knocks on a door and hands out fliers for a clinic. They’ve taken on more of a leadership role.

Your nonprofit is directed by City Heights residents, and most of your promotores are too, which isn’t always the case in City Heights. Does that make a difference?

Absolutely. That’s a huge difference.

We may not all speak English, but we learn, we think, we’re intelligent people, and we can run an organization that can be on a competitive level with other nonprofits in the community.

Our focus is education, and that takes a lot of time. So we’re doing much longer term work, because we want to stay in City Heights. We don’t have as many programs as other organizations, but we have something that is long term.

Is it difficult as a small nonprofit to secure funding?

We’ve applied for lots of funding, but have not gotten the response we need. We’ve gotten small grants. I don’t know if they don’t trust us or if they don’t think we’ll succeed.

Is that because with grant applications, you have to quantify your impact in numbers and data?

Yes.

How do you measure your impact?

We’ve graduated many people through our leadership academies. Each one has attracted more than 100 people. We can’t follow up with all of them, because we don’t have staff or funding. But we do know we’ve improved their ability to engage their communities.

You can’t always measure that in numbers, unfortunately. How do you measure when a person begins to believe in themselves? When they feel motivated to go out to clean their streets and get involved in their children’s schools?

You can’t. In several years we’ll be able to say that in City Heights, there’s a group of residents saying, this is what we want for our community. Time will determine those things. And we’ll still be here as residents.

— Interview conducted, translated and edited by ADRIAN FLORIDO

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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