Last week the Marguerite Casey Foundation invited 400 people from across the country to travel to Los Angeles. The Foundation had created a space for sharing and collaborating on a national platform for all of those families who have been typically ignored by the political powers that be. For three days, Americans who think seriously and responsibly about our possibilities as a nation shared struggles, ideas, and resources in a conversation that crossed gender, race, and culture.
Elsa Gonzalez was one of those who perhaps journeyed the furthest to reach the meeting. Elsa lives in Green Valley Farms, a community of about 1,000 people deep in the heart of south Texas. Although she had spent her entire adult life struggling—successfully—to raise her family, and although she had often offered a hand out to neighbors in need, she was new to the experience of community organizing.
The South Texas Adult Training and Resource Center (The START Center) had invited Elsa to join a neighborhood team that would study the challenges that faced Elsa’s community—most notably, the flooding that occurs each and every time that there is a significant rainfall.
After years of fighting the despair that crept into her heart each time she had to return to her flooded home, the idea that someone else—and someone not from the neighborhood—cared about her and her neighbors was like a tonic. The notion that she, Elsa Gonzalez, was being asked to lead this neighborhood team, was exhilarating.
And now she was in Los Angeles, surrounded by hundreds of people who dared to play the role of advocate, angel or saint from hundreds of other communities that were routinely ignored by the nation’s leaders.
After the second day, Elsa was exhausted, overwhelmed by the energy, the enthusiasm, the hope. She skipped a session to simply rest in her room.
As she sat there, considering it all, a hotel maid knocked on her door, wanting to clean the room. The two women began to talk, both Mexican, both poor, both mothers looking for away to change things. Elsa’s home was flooded by rainwater; the maid’s home was flooded by rats and roaches. Elsa staved off despair; the maid was on the verge of giving in. “What can I do?” she pleaded, and Elsa, the new community advocate, told her, “I will help you,” and took down the woman’s name and phone number, left her room and returned to the 400 saints and angels who were downstairs, looking for help for her new friend.
“Ya le hice un compromiso,” she said, “This is now what I do.”
There are those who would dismiss her action as piety, or, at best, charity. Elsa might well agree with that. And she might well note that the very first step in organizing for change is forging a bond. The most effective of those bonds reach across gender and race and—in this case—geography.