Resilient Neighborhoods: Maria Salinas shares her perspectives on community organizing in SW Detroit

This is part of a series of Q&A interviews with Detroit nonprofit directors connected to our Resilient Neighborhoods series. Maria Salinas is the founder and executive director of Congress of Communities, a Southwest Detroit-based nonprofit that focuses on leadership development and uplifting community residents.

Model D: How would you describe Congress of Communities as an organization?

Maria Salinas: For us, our constituents are the residents, so we are a resident-neighborhood engager in every area of interest that betters the quality of life for our residents, whether that's education, parent development, youth development, orMaria Salinas brick-and-mortar development. We're about resident power, so we put people over politics. We make sure that our residents have resources. People talk about community. People talk about stakeholders, but that's not the same as residents. Residents are the people who have stayed through everything that our city has gone through for the last 20 years. They've endured the impact of development and everything that has happened. So we focus on resident engagement predominantly in Southwest Detroit, but we also address a lot of District 6. 

Model D: Could you tell us a little more about Congress of Communities' work?

MS: We [started out] as a Good Neighborhood Initiatives [project] with the Skillman Foundation about 17 years ago. And we really streamlined ourselves to [focus] predominantly on leadership development in three buckets. For parent development, we work with the presidents of local parent clubs, the PTA, of all our schools in Southwest Detroit. We have 14 schools we work with and we give them one-year leadership development, addressing identity, self-care, and wellness, so it's more than how to do finance or how to do an agenda. Then they grow into an advocacy pipeline, so they become very intentionally our advocates to go to school boards and the city council. Those are our advocates, warriors, and champions. Right now they're advocating for [increased] mental health [resources] in all of our schools. 

Then we work with youth and young people. We have a youth council that's made up of 15 young Latinos between [the ages of] 14 and 18. They go through a one-year program [focusing] on self-care, wellness and identity. They address Latinx history and we have an arm [involved with] LGBTQ [awareness] and a lot of other things. We're in year 12, which gives us a young person pipeline of alumni. Onwards of 70% to 80% have gone on to college. Some of them are still in college. And a big percentage of them are coming back into the neighborhood, working a lot of advocacy and activist type jobs, and giving back to the community.

And then we have our neighborhood engagement and development work with neighborhood associations. Currently, we're working with North Corktown, Hubbard Farms, Hubbard Richard, and Mexicantown to support them in different efforts. Right now, for example,, we're working on a right to counsel [campaign] to engage residents on legislation that will allow people who have been evicted in the city of Detroit to have a lawyer. Our main thing is to make sure that we get out in the community on the ground door-knocking. … We're doing a lot of connectivity, facilitating, mediating, and conducting conversations.

Model D: It seems a lot of the work you're doing might fall under the label of community organizing. Do you think that's accurate?

MS: We're community organizers by heart. That's what we do. We have social workers. My whole staff have master's degrees in either community organizing or social work. So we are community organizers. And our platform is maintaining and sustaining and building quality of life for our residents in Southwest Detroit. 

Model D: I'm curious, what qualities do you think make for a good community organizer?

MS: I think our best community organizers have experienced a lot of the things that the residents which they represent have experienced. Maybe you've never been evicted in your lifetime, but maybe you know somebody who has, then you can relate to someone being evicted. Relating to the population that you represent, that is huge. The second part is credentials. Knowing the common sense and the street part of it is amazing. [But it's good to have that] along with academic tools, resources, data, and research and evaluation. I worked at the University of Michigan for almost 20 years, and they taught me how to really know you have outcomes. We can be down here working our butts off and not changing anything. If we're not moving the needle, it's just a lot of talk. You really know that you're making an impact by evaluation and trend lining and stuff like that. That's what makes a good community organizer. Somebody who understands both parts

I've been doing this for 45 years. And when I introduce myself, I don't say I'm the executive director, though I am that. I say, "I'm a community organizer." And I groom community organizers. I've been doing that for 25 years. We have a lot of interns, with the University of Michigan, MSU, and Wayne State. I've had around 200 interns that have [worked with us] in Southwest Detroit. A lot of them have gone on and got jobs here, doing community organizing. Congress of Communities has taken that on as a practice and a model, to make sure that we're grooming community organizers. 

Model D: Congress of Communities helps organize block clubs and has been involved with community benefits campaigns. Any advice for people interested in doing this sort of work?

MS: If they want to start something up, they should reach out to people like myself, whether it's a block club, a nonprofit, or some kind of entity doing community service or community awareness. [It's a good idea] to reach out to people that have done it before to [share] the dos and don'ts. So that you don't have to go through the hard stuff we had to go through and the lessons we had to learn. Then once you get that, those kinds of people can line you up and give you direction on resources, so that you're not having to continue the starving artist mentality. 

There is money out there and you are wanted. You are needed as community organizers. For every aspect of the work that's happening in the city of Detroit, they need people like you that would be willing to be on the streets [doing organizing work]. There are a lot of people who don't know how to do that. But there are people that will pay for that, funders that need that to be able to allocate their money more effectively. And it's becoming a more lucrative career. It's become a very viable occupation. It's really shifting with the whole aspect of community organizing being a viable quality of life career path. I encourage people to look into it and help us to grow community organizers.  
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.