Valeria Rodriguez- Empowering Families
Since co-founding the non-profit Empowering Families in Scottsbluff, Valeria Rodriguez has been connecting residents to resources and to each other through a foundation in trust. Empowering Families’s mission is to build a stronger and more welcoming community through education, civic participation and individual empowerment. They’re work is focused in Scottsbluff precincts 3 and 4, the southeast part of town with a majority minority population rich in cultural diversity, but tending to lag behind other parts of the city in some measures of engagement such as voter turnout.
Building trust through authentic relationships
Rodriguez and others at Empowering Families build their work by creating authentic relationships while canvassing, assisting with local soup kitchens where they connect with community members and hear about issues impacting their lives. Through these relationships and trust, Empowering Families is able to successfully host other events like its recent COVID-19 vaccination drive where over 100 people, nearly all people of color, were able to get vaccinated.
In doing their work, Empowering Families also brings others along, such as students at Western Nebraska Community College, to make connections they might not have otherwise had.
“When we partner with organizations and bring students in, that’s often their first time in ‘that side of town.’ We still have that language of being another side of town, but we’re working for it to be more inclusive,” said Rodriguez.
Offering opportunities to volunteer in the neighborhood provides visitors with the opportunity to have positive experiences, including the delicious food, that opens their eyes to the assets in the community.
Changing the narrative of “that side of town”
For Rodriguez, the work of building bridging resources and connections is personal, from her own experience being an immigrant and seeing a need for immigrants to be connected with resources. She hopes to reduce the divide seen in the “that side of town” narrative by centering the voices of community members in the neighborhood to share their stories with leadership in order to build a more inclusive, welcoming community.
Like many communities in rural Nebraska, Scottsbluff’s shifting demographics- namely a growing share of the population identifying as people of color- presents increased urgency to prioritize representation in community leadership and civic life that is inclusive of all residents.
Overcoming challenges through respect, education, and shared work
To set the stage for connection, Rodriguez emphasizes the importance of respect, built through conversation and shared work. “We might not see eye to eye on certain issues, but we can agree on the changes we want to create in the community,” she said.
For Rodriguez, making personal connections with members of the Native American community, a group with whom she had few prior connections, and inviting others in her circle to build on those connections is how she builds bridges that can translate into policy changes in the community.
Rodriguez believes that lack of cultural competence can be a barrier to positive change. When individuals in leadership positions dismiss lived experiences of racism from other community members, it takes a lot of education and positivity to counter.
“I’m going to continue to do this work to empower community members and uplift their stories and experiences so that we can create the community we want to see for ourselves and our future generations.”