The Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County was started in 2012 as the Doña Ana Quality of Life Initiative by a group of community members concerned with the economic and health statistics in southern New Mexico. The founders were interested in finding out directly from community members about what a good quality of life would look like and how we could get there together.
The founders included now County Commissioner Billy Garret, County Commissioner Dr. David Garcia, former Doña Ana County Health & Human Services department manager Sylvia Sierra and Community Outreach Coordinator Claudia Mares, former staff for U.S. Senator Bingamen Jake Rollow, Mary Ann Galindo, and Leonel Meraz. They teamed up with Randy Harris, founder of the local organization Great Conversations, and began holding community dialogues to gather data in several of our county’s unincorporated towns, municipalities, and the City of Las Cruces. They found that people had a wealth of knowledge about the history, infrastructure, and needs of their communities.
Residents were asked to identify priorities for the Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County. Across the county, their top concerns were: public transportation; services for youth & improved education; road/water/electricity infrastructure; services for elders; public safety; and health/healthcare.
The Great Conversations also shed light on the broken trust between communities and local government, and a common belief that there was little hope of fixing long-standing issues.
The Quality of Life Initiative was able to secure the sponsorship of the J. Paul Taylor Symposium in 2012 and 2013 to gather more information and have people come to consensus on an initial action to take.
Meanwhile, a group of local leaders from both government and non-profits attended a week long training organized by the Empowerment Congress in Los Angeles, with funding from the Kellogg Foundation. The Empowerment Congress started in Los Angeles in 1991 by County Board of Supervisors member Mark Ridley Thomas in an effort to unite his district in the wake of the civil unrest/riots, begin healthy civic dialogue around difficult issues, and inform his policy making. His office still supports the Empowerment Congress today; a staff representative is designated for each issue based committee to report back, and the Empowerment Congress comes together annually for a leadership development conference.
Our Doña Ana County representatives decided to bring back the name Empowerment Congress and adapt it to fit our local culture, history, and geography.
At the 2013 symposium, the Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County was established. It was decided that public transportation needs would be the first topic addressed by the newly formed group.
In order to address transportation needs, Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County would use the Engage for Change model created by Billy Garrett, which is a series of questions for community and local government representatives to ask of themselves in order to tackle a problem and collaboratively create a solution. The Engage for Change model is inspired by the Capabilities Approach developed by scholar Amartya Sen.
With seed funding provided by Kellogg and fiscal partnership provided by the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico, the Quality of Life Initiative became the Ocotillo Institute for Social Justice, with Empowerment Congress being its principal program. Some Quality of Life Initiative members formed the transitional board of directors for Ocotillo, while others became the initial steering committee for the Empowerment Congress.
Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County kept the same name and intentions of the Los Angeles Empowerment Congress, and in practice adapted much of it to fit local conditions.
The congress meets monthly for workshops, problem-solving, networking, and to create a space for locally-grown ideas.
An effort is made to ensure that Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County includes a mix of Spanish and English speakers, people who live across different rural towns and Las Cruces, representatives of local organizations, government, and independent community members, and that people are from various ages and races.
We strive for diverse representation to reflect our communities and because we believe there is strength in inclusion and that cross-sector engagement and collective impact will yield long-lasting solutions to improve quality of life across the county.
When people enter the EC space, they become first and foremost a community member before the are an elected official, a mom, an executive director, a nurse, a democrat, or a republican.
We believe that everyone has expertise to share, that a circle is the best shape in which to learn from others, and that we already have the talent and resources to address our biggest community challenges. We need only to properly leverage them.
In an era of divisiveness and political polarity that does not spare Southern New Mexico, we believe in the power of collaboration and democracy to create healthy civic dialogue, positively transform community, and improve the lives of individuals and their families. We believe this because we see it happen on a regular basis.
The strength of the Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County lies in its design and in its independence from any single issue, elected official, or organization. Its priorities are determined by its members and not by its fiscal sponsor, funder, or anyone else. Simply, there is no other group like it that exists in Doña Ana County. We welcome all new members and new ideas for a shared vision of a healthy and vibrant Doña Ana County.