Embracing ‘Color Theory’: Groups unite to promote underserved communities

Kim Obregon, owner of Mustard Seed Flowers , left chats with left Alex Horton, executive director of the International District Economic Development, which launched in 2019 (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Although the coronavirus attacked society without discrimination last year, it tore through the nation’s historically marginalized communities with particular ferocity, cutting down healthy people while simultaneously busting up the tenuous economic foundations that sustain them.

Then came George Floyd, the unarmed black man whose killing by police fired up protests across the country, generating a sustained wave of outrage against racial discrimination unseen in the U.S. since the civil rights movement decades ago.

Those two simultaneous crises may have created a perfect storm for building collective awareness about entrenched social injustice and economic inequity that low-income, minority populations have faced for generations. And that awareness, in turn, may be creating new opportunities to address chronic inequality, something Albuquerque-based nonprofits are now embracing in a collective effort to better assist the city’s underserved populations with resources and services to help those communities build back better than before.

The initiative, which now includes nearly a dozen organizations, is based on a new concept called “Color Theory” that aims to unite the city’s nonprofit groups in a collaborative process to connect lower-income, minority individuals and neighborhoods with the tools they need to build economic opportunity through entrepreneurship. It’s specifically focused on the most vulnerable urban populations, said Josué Olivares, executive director of the Rio Grande Economic Development Corp., which is serving as fiscal sponsor and coordinator for the Color Theory coalition.

Josue Olivares (Cq), executive director of the Rio Grande Economic Development Corp.
(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’re working together to create a collaborative system for connecting marginalized individuals and groups with a broad network of existing organizations and programs set up to assist them,” Olivares told the Journal. “We want to put those communities out in front to change the system so that more resources are directly allocated to them. … All the groups involved recognize that as critical to lift up families and to lift up the local economy in general.”

The coalition received a $1 million award in August from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to help build the initiative. The two-year grant will allow the coalition to hire a full-time coordinator, plus two community “navigators” who will work directly in low-income urban neighborhoods to reach out to individuals and groups to connect them with resources and services.

The navigators will focus on targeted areas around the city, such as the International District and the South Valley.

“The program is for everyone, but our priority is to reach out to three community groups in particular,” Olivares said. “That includes Spanish-speaking people, immigrants and refugees, and Native Americans living in the urban area. Those are the groups we consider to be the most vulnerable.”

New coalition

Outreach in underserved communities is nothing new. All the organizations involved in Color Theory have been working for years to connect marginalized urban populations with programs and services to build economic opportunity.

Vanessa Roanhorse runs Roanhorse Consultancy and is a founder of economic development group Native Women Lead. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

But pulling disparate organizations together into a central, cohesive umbrella that coordinates their efforts through a single, connected network, is novel, said Navajo Nation member Vanessa Roanhorse, owner of Roanhorse Consultancy and co-founder of the economic development group Native Women Lead.

“The organizations building the coalition have been doing this for years,” Roanhorse told the Journal. “What’s novel is that we’re all working together across our organizations to build community power through community entrepreneurship and economic opportunity.”

Most of the participating groups have long focused on building entrepreneurship to create jobs and wealth. That includes the South Valley Economic Development Center, the immigrant-oriented group Encuentro, and the Women’s Economic Self Sufficiency Team, or WESST.

Two newer organizations are also involved: the International District Economic Development Center, which launched in 2019, and Siembra Leadership High School, a charter that started in 2016 to offer youth alternative, hands-on learning focused on entrepreneurship and economic development.

The New Mexico Immigrant Law Center and the New Mexico Dream Team, which generally concentrate on public policy, are also participating.

Origins

Color Theory originally emerged from efforts by WESST, the South Valley development center and Encuentro to improve access to resources for underserved communities through cross coordination. They integrated their online networks so that clients working with one group could also tap into programs and services offered by the other organizations.

“We were all serving similar populations and working to increase our outreach to Spanish-speaking clients, so it made sense to collaborate,” said WESST Executive Director Agnes Noonan. “The average person isn’t plugged into all the resources in the community, and they get passed from one organization to another, especially when there are language barriers.”

WESST executive director Agnes Noonan.(Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Over time, their joint efforts broadened to include more organizations with a wide range of programs and services, eventually evolving into Color Theory’s comprehensive network of cross collaboration, said Julianna Silva, who previously worked with WESST and is now chief operating officer with the nonprofit Family Friendly New Mexico.

The system allows individuals to navigate a broad spectrum of resources through a single point of entry with assistance at every step of the way to meet particular needs, Silva said.

“The organizations interact with individuals throughout their journey,” she said. “Clients can start out with one organization and move onto another as we jointly walk them through a collaborative web of support.”

That’s critical for most low-income individuals, who often have limited time and resources to spend seeking assistance, and doubly so for Spanish speakers with low English proficiency, said Alex Horton, executive director of the International District development center.

“Entrepreneurs in low-income communities often take a day off from work to get help, and if they’ve gone to various organizations and aren’t getting the assistance they need, they kind of get deflated,” Horton said. “We’re making the whole startup ecosystem much easier for them to access services.”

Through joint collaboration, the nonprofits can also better identify individual and community needs and work together to meet them. And by placing community navigators directly in communities under the Kellogg grant, the coalition expects to significantly increase outreach.

“The navigators will spend the majority of their time with boots on the ground to connect with entrepreneurs,” Horton said. “They can help grow the support system and drive up the number of startups able to launch in those communities.”

Critical timing

Although the Color Theory

Alex Horton, founder of the International District Economic Development Center (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

coalition was emerging prior to the coronavirus, nonprofit leaders say pandemic-induced hardship and heightened awareness of social and racial injustice generated by last year’s civil unrest could generate more support for their efforts among public decision-makers, philanthropic organizations and private investors.

 

“I definitely see a stronger awakening about the need to put action behind words from funders, organizations and people working in marginalized communities,” Silva said.

Julianna Silva

Native Women Lead and New Mexico Community Capital, for example, won a $10 million grant in early August through a national competition launched by the Melinda French Gates’ investment company with support from other philanthropists. The Albuquerque groups will use the money to develop an investment fund for Indigenous female entrepreneurs and offer business training courses.

The coalition also applied for a $2.5 million grant through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s new Community Navigator Pilot Program. The SBA established it this year under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, providing $100 million for small businesses impacted by the pandemic and minority-owned enterprises often marginalized from earlier rounds of federal funding.

“The Kellogg grant is the first funding we’ve received to build this coalition, but it’s just a seed,” said Josué Olivares. “… The pandemic clearly raised awareness about issues of inequity. Hopefully, that will lead to more investments and resources for these communities.”

Exterior of the South Valley Economic Development Center .

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