This guest blog was authored by Theresa Trujillo, Director of Community Organizing at the Center for Health Progress, a Colorado-based partner in the Center’s Building Community Capacity to Shift Health Care Investment  funded by the Kresge Foundation.

When we were kids, my dad would tell the story of the “Hueso Vecinal,” or the “Neighborhood Bone.” This Hueso Vecinal was a ham bone that his mama would toss into the pot to flavor her big batch of pinto beans. When the beans were cooked, someone would take the ham bone and throw it onto the neighbor’s roof. When the neighbors were ready to cook their pot of beans, someone from their house would climb up on the roof to get it – they’d use it in their beans, and throw it to the roof of another neighbor. The ham bone would keep making the rounds, house to house so everyone in the community could have flavorful beans. My dad explained, “when one person has flavorful beans, we all have flavorful beans.”

The coronavirus pandemic has starkly exposed inequalities in our state, especially for female-headed households, children, people with disabilities, indigenous and ethnic groups, immigrants, migrant workers, older people, and other socially-marginalized groups. In times like these, when governments fall short, mutual aid and neighborhood response become lifelines not just for the most vulnerable, but for entire communities. Ordinary people all around us are stepping in to fill the gaps in their neighbors’ needs, and with great passion and ingenuity.

In a time ripe for innovation, Center for Health Progress has launched phone trees in Pueblo and Fort Morgan. A growing group of women from immigrant and mixed status families have become member leaders. They don’t typically consider themselves to be organizers, but they’re organizing their communities one call at a time. These calls started as wellness checks, just the chance to contact neighbors and friends to see how they were doing in the first weeks of quarantine. Now, they are documenting COVID-19 related issues on the ground, identifying themes across our base, and connecting people to resources to meet their immediate needs in the moment. To provide tools for this effort, we’ve developed dozens of resources for community members, including multilingual guides for accessing health care and direct services, and launched a relief fund to provide grants directly to individuals with significant needs identified through the phone tree. They are also leading vaccine equity efforts in our community. These women from immigrant and mixed status families are the perfect people to work in these in-between spaces where mixed messages, failed leadership, and historic neglect have left folks more isolated, angry and confused about how best to protect themselves and their families. These same communities are being dismissed as “vaccine hesitant” but, the truth is that access is the real barrier. Folks are mostly eager to be vaccinated but concerned about missing work or consequences to their immigration status. 

Partners have been critical to our success. In Pueblo, the local Boys & Girls Club stepped up to provide technology to students without devices to learn online. We’re also registering families for local food banks and providing much needed Spanish-language interpretation. Catholic Charities of Pueblo has been a great support for immigrant families and we’ve strengthened our relationship with Pueblo Community Health Centers.

This new structure is an opportunity to directly connect to immediate, “downstream” needs in the community, while simultaneously building collective, systemic, “upstream” analysis and capacity of community members. We are building this infrastructure so that we can match community members with member leaders around issues they both care about. As issue-based groups grow, we will support leaders to agitate and activate around systems change that will meet community needs more directly. It’s not rocket science, it’s harder!

We are cultivating community and building power that will serve us far into the future! And, none of this would have been possible without the TA support of Community Catalyst and the flexibility of our funder, the Kresge Foundation. They’ve made space for this critical work to happen and even in the isolation of physical distancing, we are learning how community sustains us and gives us strength beyond ourselves. Figurative ham bones are flying all over the place, and our connections and relationships are expanding and maturing. May the strength of community continue to drive us toward shared power. Adelante!