The EC began in 2012 as the Dona Ana Quality of Life Initiative by a group of community members concerned with the economic and health statistics coming out of our region and interested in finding out from communities themselves what a good quality of life looks like and how we can get there together. That group included now County Commissioner Billy Garret, then staff for U.S. Senator Bingaman Jake Rollow, NMSU staff Rocio Benedicto and Paul Gutierrez, former Dona Ana County Health and Human Services department manager Sylvia Sierra, and many others. They teamed up with Randy Harris, founder of the local organization Great Conversations, and began holding community dialogues in each of our county’s colonias and the City of Las Cruces to gather data. They found that people had a wealth of knowledge about the history, infrastructure, and needs of their communities and that the top priorities across the board included: public transportation, services for youth/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. In each community they heard neighbors refrain, “we are the bastard stepchild of Dona Ana County.”
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 with it. 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. These leaders included County Commissioners David Garcia and Billy Garrett, Sylvia Sierra and Claudia Mares of County Health and Human Services, Sister Chavela of the Sisters of the Assumption in Chaparral, Maryann Galindo, La Union Townsite President, Leonel Meraz, Radium Springs leader Rafael Reyes, Sunland Park leader, and America Terrazas, Del Cerro Nuevos Horizontes leader. 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 Dona Ana County representatives decided to bring back the name Empowerment Congress and adapt it to fit our local culture and style.
At the 2013 symposium, the Empowerment Congress of Dona 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, the new EC 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