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From the ground up: Centering community and living wages in economic development

Arts & Culture, Health

Dignified wage jobs. Vibrant and safe gathering spaces. Meaningful community engagement opportunities. That’s what people in the Armijo neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told Partnership for Community Action (PCA) they wanted to see in the city’s South Valley seven years ago.

Today, that vision has become a reality. The Social Enterprise Center (SEC) at Partnership for Community Action’s Community Engagement Campus is a 17,000 square-foot alternative economic development model that brought hundreds of construction jobs and more than 60 permanent living wage jobs to the South Valley. The $5.1 million project houses local food production and retail, a risograph studio, textile manufacturing, office space, an early learning center and a community engagement hub.

What it took to get there was no small feat, said New Mexico State Representative Javier Martínez, who served as executive director of Partnership for Community Action from 2016 to 2022.

Together at the table

For more than two decades, Partnership for Community Action has worked with and invested in underserved communities in New Mexico to build upstream, systemic solutions that address racial and economic inequality. The South Valley is home to more than 40,000 residents, 80% of whom identify as Hispanic/Latino, 17% white, 2% Native American and 1% African American. Flanked to the east by the Río Grande, the South Valley is home to hundreds of immigrant-owned businesses, small farms and thousands of families who can trace their roots to the region back to the 1700s.

Throughout its history, Partnership for Community Action has always valued working alongside community and building community movements.

But back in 2016, PCA was doing its work from a small building on a couple acres of vacant land. The idea of a social enterprise model was in development, but remained separate from the day-to-day mission of the organization, said Adrián Pedroza, now the national executive director of Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors), who was PCA’s executive director from 2007 to 2016.

Let's stay in touch Sign up for our newsletters SubscribeWhat brought the concept to the forefront was a community table process organized as part of Kresge’s FreshLo initiative.

And what at first seemed like perhaps a superficial project became part of a much broader movement, Martínez said.

“We all collectively looked toward our backyard and saw the empty land and thought ‘how do we turn this concept of a community table into something bigger?’” Martínez said.

“The process provided a space where we were able to dream with community, with families around what social enterprise could look like. To gather young people and parents and providers and caregivers to envision what healthy whole family well-being could look like,” Pedroza said.

What they heard was that people didn’t want another restaurant. They didn’t want a strip mall with big box stores. They wanted something different.

“That’s where the real work began,” Martínez said. “What was the something different that we wanted?”

After lots of ideas, the community collectively settled on a model that would provide living wage jobs accessible to a blue-collar workforce. Jobs that would provide a path to financial stability.

“We wanted to bring in manufacturing, which in the history of our country has been one of the premier paths to a solid middle-class life,” Martínez said.

From the ground up

Transforming a vacant plot of land into a hub that houses 40 manufacturing jobs takes dollars.

What Martinez and Pedroza both noted was PCA’s ability to leverage different streams of funding to secure the money needed.

What started as a small Kresge grant turned into multiyear funding through FreshLo. From there, the Kellogg Foundation invested $1 million, which PCA then leveraged to obtain $1 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce. They were nearly to their $2.5 million goal.

Then COVID hit. Construction costs skyrocketed, and the price of the building more than doubled. PCA had to decide whether to move forward.

“We knew that construction costs would only increase over time, so we decided to go all in. It took a lot of hard work, but we never gave up,” Martínez said. “We had a fundamental belief in what we were doing, and from national foundations to loans from Catholic nuns, we had to go after the most non-traditional funding mechanisms to get this done.”

And get it done they did.

A building that belongs to the community

Businesses bustling with activity, families meeting, people training, children playing in the childcare center – the building buzzes with energy each day, Nichelle Gilbert, executive director of Partnership for Community Action, said.

“The Social Enterprise Center was built alongside community, It’s the people in the space that bring it to life,” Gilbert said.

The SEC is anchored by Southwest Creations Collaborative, a cut and sew manufacturing facility that provides dignified employment to people who produce high-quality sewn soft goods and hand-crafted products.

What Southwest Creations Collaborative does is not only provide primarily women with the opportunity to earn an income and invest in their families, the business also takes the money that they earn from manufacturing contracts and puts that back into programming, Susan Matteucci executive director of Southwest Creations Collaborative, said.

Since 1994, Southwest Creations revenue has grown from $30,000 to more than $1 million, and business operations contribute more than $100,000 every year to support its social impact programs. Once operating out of a tiny church parish hall, Southwest Creations now has a dedicated workspace for its 35 employees, Matteucci said.

In addition to living wages and benefits, Southwest Creations employees also have access to on and off-site learning opportunities, including English as a Second Language classes, earning a General Education Diploma and pursuing higher education. On-site childcare is available for 25 cents an hour so employees can work and develop their skills while their children are cared for in a nurturing environment.

The SEC also includes an on-site childcare and also serves as a training hub for home-based early learning providers in the area.

Gilbert noted that the organization works with over 50 home-based childcare providers to provide business development programming and mentorship opportunities.

The nucleus of the building, however, is the community engagement center.

“The vision for the SEC is rooted in the community engagement center. A place where leaders come together to share stories, build movements and drive solutions toward a strong, healthy New Mexico. The space fosters genuine connection, ownership, and a profound recognition of the agency and power of community,” Gilbert said.

After opening nearly a year-and-a-half ago, the building has already had a tremendous impact in the South Valley, Gilbert said.

Thinking about the future, Gilbert not only sees opportunities for further development and growth focused on community needs, but also opportunities for PCA to provide technical assistance to organizations statewide.

“It is possible to center community and equity in impactful economic development strategies, as demonstrated by the SEC—a catalytic proof of concept. In just over a year, the impact has been significant, including dignified wage jobs, relationship-based access to capital, business development, and guaranteed income. This is just the beginning.”