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.”

Why does Civic Health matter?

Strong Democracy
Our country’s system of governance relies on the civic knowledge and participation of the people to govern effectively. Through cultivating relationships with our neighbors and engaging in discourse and action on shared priorities, we cultivate the habits and mindsets central to sustaining a democratic society.

Health and Wellbeing
Increasing evidence suggests that civic health is at the heart of thriving communities and overall well-being. Time spent with friends, family, and neighbors make a living in a place meaningful, but is also linked to improved mental and physical health. Even seemingly small actions, such as having dinner as a household, giving a ride to a coworker, or organizing a block party, are civic actions that contribute to health and wellness, especially in times of need.

Economic Prosperity
Civically healthy communities position residents, neighborhoods, and towns for economic prosperity. Job seekers often find opportunities through social connections and entrepreneurs rely on their networks for mentorship and investment. Cities and towns that create a sense of belonging for all residents and come together to make smart investments in the community are better positioned to attract and retain a talented workforce. Representative power, inclusive engagement, and connections that bridge different groups within the community help ensure that development provides equitable access to opportunities for all people and all geographies.

Community Development
Civic health is important to completing community projects that increase quality of life and solve local problems. Whether it be building workforce housing in Stuart or renovating Gene Leahy Mall in downtown Omaha, successful efforts are powered from within by volunteers who rally around a common cause. Democratic involvement in these communities extends beyond managing differing opinions, but rather builds the capacity to work together and sustain action on important issues.

Nebraskans are eager to see upcoming generations form good civic habits and a care for the community around them. People across Nebraska work hard to provide opportunities for youth to be involved in community life because they believe it is an important facet of a person’s character and ultimately living a good life.