Community Learning Exchange

Denver CO - Mi Casa

Mi Casa was founded in 1976 by eight mothers who understood that education and employment were vital for women to achieve personal and economic success. For 34 years, Mi Casa has been committed to its mission of advancing economic success and helping Latino and low-income families trade poverty for lasting economic stability. Mi Casa’s overarching goal is to increase the employability, education, knowledge and life skills of the individuals they serve. The priority is to provide highly relevant and effective programs in career, business and youth and family development as well as supportive services that address each individual’s unique challenges.

How did Mi Casa use youth and adult partnerships to benefit their community?
Mi Casa has worked to make connections between personal identify, culture and community, paired with empowering youth to take a leadership role in finding solutions to local problems. Mi Casa created supportive relationships between the Kellogg Leadership for Community Change Fellowship (a grant funded leadership program) and Lake Middle School. Building on relationships built by other Mi Casa programs, the Fellowship modeled youth and adult partnerships to work with the school. This included youth surveying youth to identify needs, introducing the use of circle process as a way to have all voices be heard and working to connect the school and community through gardens, murals and increasing safety around the school. For example, the Fellowship negotiated with an adult bookstore on the path to school to put materials inappropriate for children out of the public eye.

As they learned lessons they have shared them through art, such as creating a “youth voice” rap, and a play based on interviews with the Fellows. They also offer workshops to teach others how to develop collective leadership and youth and adult partnerships. The Seed Zine puts their workshop material into an easily accessible form.

Collective Leadership Capacity:
As the youth and adults focused on working with Lake Middle School (, there were a number of issues that surfaced. Even though there were many Latino students, the connection between the school and the community was not always strong. By modeling what they were learning through KLCC, the Fellowship helped Lake Middle School create better connections with the families of their students and the community around the school.

Inside Mi Casa, the learning led to adding youth to the Board, creating a more collective leadership team including younger staff, and a re-examination of their name and mission. During the time of the KLCC process, the organization engaged in a major strategic planning process (see KLCC Bridge article below) using some of the collective leadership principles. This helped them align the values among the many stakeholders within the organization and also with the larger community they serve.

KLCC Bridge
Sept/Oct 2008, Volume V, Issue 8, pages3-4

One of the key principles in collective leadership, as practiced by KLCC sites, is crossing boundaries. This can mean everything from crossing demographic boundaries (age, race, culture, sexual orientation, etc.) to ensure the inclusion of stakeholders who may historically have been left out of the decision making process; to crossing expertise boundaries, allowing the organization to tap into the breadth of skills and experience present in a community; to changing an organization’s strategic focus. For many community change organizations, the latter two can be as challenging as the former.

Perhaps the best time to consider crossing boundaries is when an organization is entering into a strategic planning process. Mi Casa Resource Center, a KLCC host agency in Session Two, launched its most recent strategic planning process this summer. The impetus for the process was the departure last October of the organization’s long-term executive director, Carmen Carillo. As part of its re-visioning process, the board and staff decided to engage an external consultant and embark upon an organizational assessment process. The experience has yielded a new plan that would likely have been very different if the organization had not welcomed input from outsiders who understood its mission, had respect for its history, and had the credibility to push the group to consider new options for its future.

Looking Back to Move Forward.
A lot has changed since 1976 when Mi Casa Resource Center, one of five KLCC Session Two host sites, was established by eight Head Start mothers as Mi Casa Resource Center for Women in central Denver. In that year, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple Computer Co.; the first class to include women was inducted at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; the United States celebrated its bicentennial; and La Mujer Chicana was published, providing scholars, educators and others with an annotated bibliography of reference materials published between 1916 and 1975 on a wide range of issues concerning the experiences of Mexican-American women.

Evolving gender roles, the advent of the technology revolution and the diminishing of geographic barriers between different peoples are but a few indicators of the transformations that have taken place over the ensuing decades.

“In 2008, Mi Casa finds itself on the cusp of renewal and reconnection to the community,” reads the organization’s new strategic plan for 2008-2011, which resulted from the consultant-assisted assessment. “The board of directors and [key] staff engaged in a strategic planning process to identify the community needs that Mi Casa is uniquely positioned to meet, given its track record and core competencies,” says Christine Marquez, Mi Casa’s new executive director and a former management consultant. Marquez reflects on the value provided by teaming up with someone with an outsider’s perspective.

“[The consultant] is an objective person, someone who [can] write up a [strategic] plan and facilitate the discussion.” One of the first contributions Mi Casa’s consultant, Corona Research of Denver, made was to conduct market research to define the strategic context in which Mi Casa was operating. The planning team thought it was important to analyze significant demographic trends in the community that its programs were trying to serve. Another major aspect of this work consisted of trying to identify how the organization was positioned in the community with regard to reputation and perception.

“Last year, we did a whole community needs assessment for Mi Casa,” Marquez says. “Many people were confused about the Mi Casa community model and focus.” It was necessary to alter that perception if the positive way that Mi Casa could impact the community was to be maximized. “There was no succinct way to communicate [our capabilities], it was mostly a list of things that we do. Research demonstrated this.”

Looking Inward
After the externally focused phase of the assessment, the next important step was to concentrate on ferreting out the elements of the organization’s inner workings where measurable improvements could be made to bring activities in line with the mission.

“A problem in the past was that it was difficult for people to explain how our programs integrate with each other towards the goal of the mission,” Marquez says. To address this misalignment, the organization held a strategic planning retreat where the staff, the board and the strategic consultant discussed how to bring more parity to the relationship between these important aspects. From this meeting emerged a ‘draft picture model of the program,’ which Marquez says she then further refined bringing to bear her background in fundraising, organizational management and board development. Also helpful was her experience as the leader of a federal grant under a compassion capital fund, the Colorado Compassion Initiative, where Marquez herself supported awards to grassroots and faith-based groups operating with small budgets to enact community change.

Merging the results of external and internal assessments provided a template for performing a targeted market analysis to produce the best strategic plan for matching the needs of the community with an integrated program plan offered by Mi Casa. Three main areas of community need were identified where Mi Casa has the differentiated expertise to add the most value: business development, career development and youth development. Mi Casa’s added value in business development lies in its capacity to offer a personalized, lowcost approach to support that is effective as well as culturally competent. With regard to career development, Mi Casa identifies its particular strength in terms of expanding services to the middle market of both career seekers and those seeking to enhance their careers; clients in the spectrum between the executive level and those who may suffer from chronic unemployment.

One of the conclusions of the strategic planning process is that the community is dynamic and that the service organization needs to be as well. According to the finalized strategic plan, “As the Latino community’s needs evolve, so must Mi Casa.”

Crossing Institutional Boundaries
As a former consultant, and as someone who was matched with the executive directorship of Mi Casa through an executive search that was carried out with assistance from a consulting entity, Marquez is convinced that consulting with third parties in a number of capacities can be productive.

“It’s a good system for vetting candidates,” she says. Much of the capacity building that occurred over the life of the strategic assessment was made possible through the direct support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which provided the technical assistance funding for retooling the processes that have been reworked to better serve Mi Casa’s unique mission as Denver’s ‘only organization focused on career and business development for the Latino community.’ Mi Casa has successfully reinvented itself for the 21st century, and the vision that inspired its founders 32 years ago has only grown stronger through the creation and adoption of a strategic plan that changes the way it does business.

“[We] developed our model in response to the work/research that our consultant did, and the conversations the board had,” Marquez says. “The [resulting] business plan lays out how to achieve all our goals and to get everybody on board.”

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