Juntos Somos Más: Collectively Building Equity Through Latino Wealth, Place and Power

by Chief Strategy Officer Lucy Arellano

Latino immigrant communities across the country — from rural to urban and everything in between — are vibrant treasure chests of strength, compassion, hard work and innovation; however, a long-standing opportunity and wealth gap remains for our community, hindering equitable access for us to fully thrive in the U.S. MEDA, along with our national partners and allies, are committed to changing this situation. It’s what drives our work every day.

This week, MEDA is at the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB) training conference in San Antonio to share our holistic strategies for building equity through Latino wealth, place and power. 

Through our ¡Viva! Program, MEDA shares our various community-development strategies with social justice- and equity-focused organizations. MEDA currently provides training, technical assistance and/or funding to over 35 organizations across the country.

Financial capability is the core component of MEDA’s longtime foundation of culturally relevant direct services — services designed to foster wealth-building for our Latino immigrant community. As two-thirds of the community members MEDA serves are immigrants, it is important to begin with baseline information and connections, then support families to strengthen their assets via self-driven action plans and, ultimately, to create generational wealth. The latter ensures the Latino immigrant community can thrive in the years ahead, building wealth however each family defines it. Wealth isn’t just financial: It means choice and power.

MEDA weaves financial coaching into all of its programs, with such integration essential for generational wealth-building. Whether a community member walks through the welcoming doors of MEDA’s Plaza Adelante neighborhood center to better their career, start a small business, get their taxes prepared for free or be availed of housing opportunities, a personal financial assessment is the core component to ensuring long-term success. For years, we have focused on what we term DISC, which stands for decreased Debt, increased Income and Savings, and improved Credit. 

Despite the successes of this financial integration, the dire fact was that 8,000 Latinos had been displacement from San Francisco’s Mission in a decade. That’s over 25 percent of our community. 

So, we have enhanced our service delivery to include a comprehensive asset-building continuum, focused on everything from safe banking to DISC, to insurance, retirement and investments. Everyone in our community can build wealth, regardless of our education level, income or immigration status at the beginning of our journey.

Still, direct services are not enough. Being in a long-welcoming immigrant neighborhood experiencing displacement due to an influx of six-figure earners, MEDA was compelled to expand our work five years ago as a means to stimulate community ownership, needed as a means to maintain place in lieu of outside forces that too often can decimate our communities of color.

Family generational wealth must not only be attained: It must also be maintained. We call this community ownership and cultural placekeeping. This is the goal of our equitable, anti-displacement neighborhood approach.

Community ownership comprises a trio of strategies: community schools, showcased by MEDA being the lead agency of the anti-poverty education initiative called the Mission Promise Neighborhood; anti-displacement capital, which in MEDA’s case is disbursed via our Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), Fondo Adelante; and community real estate, which in five years has led to 1,200 affordable units being produced or preserved. 

To exemplify community ownership, this December seniors are moving into our first new construction building, at Casa Adelante – 1296 Shotwell. This the first 100 percent affordable development in the neighborhood in over a decade. We have four more buildings for families on their way for below-market-rate (BMR) units, with three apartment rentals and one for first-time homebuyers.

Preservation of existing affordable housing has included an innovative solution called the Small Sites Program. This strategy is a City of San Francisco program that allows nonprofits to buy four- to 25-unit apartment buildings with residents and commercial tenants vulnerable to eviction by speculators. MEDA has bought 25 buildings harnessing the power of Small Sites, with over 200 units preserved, of which 23 units are Latino-owned small businesses creating local jobs and focusing on Latino-centric goods and services. While MEDA uses a foundation of technical assistance and $5,000 to $100,000 Fondo Adelante loans to strengthen such businesses, the outcome sought is keeping culturally relevant ventures, nonprofits and arts & cultural organizations in place — vital to the ecosystem of an equitable neighborhood. 

Once community ownership has created that equitable neighborhood, there is a need to ensure its long-term existence. That can happen only via policy & advocacy, with the community becoming decision-makers and collectively making their voices heard.

Inequitable opportunities for advancement, coupled by federal policies and rhetoric intentionally attacking our community, have inevitably had a demoralizing effect on us; however, we are resolved to step into our power, and shift from a reactive, defensive stance to a proactive wealth, place and power strategy. That’s why MEDA works to foster leadership in the Mission’s Latino immigrant community, and beyond. This ensures that our community can decide for ourselves which issues are priorities, and organize together not just to sustain our community, but to claim our place as drivers of this country’s future. We are working to ensure everyone in our community is counted in the census, all of whom are eligible are registered and vote, and that we endorse or oppose candidates through MEDA’s 501(c)(4) affiliate, Mission Adelante.

One issue the Mission decided was important was the creation of cultural districts via land-use strategies. That led to the successful City-sanctioned creation of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, running along a tree-lined street known as “El Corazón de la Misión.” This stretch, running from Mission Street on the west to to Potrero Avenue on the east, boasts a vast number of unique specialty stores, restaurants, taquerias, Mexican bakeries, fresh produce grocers, butchers, cafés and art galleries, complemented by the greatest concentration of murals in the city. Many annual festivities take place on Calle 24, from Carnaval and Dia De Los Muertos to the Cesar Chavez Parade & Festival and Fiesta de las Américas.

MEDA and community partners are now jointly working to create a continuation of the Latino Cultural District, this one running north-south along Mission Street, which is the main commercial artery of the neighborhood. 

Other ways Mission Street’s cultural heritage is being protected is by working with new businesses on Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) to create a good fit for the existing community (e.g., menus also in Spanish and food for a wide range of income levels). 

This maintaining of place comes out of community ownership, with political power leveraged.

The ultimate goal for MEDA extends far beyond the parameters of San Francisco’s Mission itself. The big picture is a national movement of building equity through Latino wealth, place and power. That is true collective impact — when our community has equitable opportunity to reap the rewards of our success, and to thrive.

We are working with partners and allies on non-siloed, joint agendas so that our Latino immigrant community will thrive across the nation in the generations to come. MEDA’s ecosystem approach is built to be as dynamic as our community.

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