Sweat Equity: How a Phoenix Neighborhood Built a Community Center

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by Kimi Eisele

Late one morning in the Maryvale neighborhood of Phoenix, Arizona, a group of women sits around a classroom table listening to interviews they’ve recorded on their phones and typing up selected quotes on borrowed school laptops. They’re preparing the text for an upcoming exhibit of photographs and personal stories that will celebrate the creation of the Heart of Isaac Community Center

Several people ranging from children to adults, stand infront of a blue house. They all have varying shades of brown skin.
Los Promotores and family. Photo by Perla Farias.

They’re new to these particular skills—interviewing and transcribing—but they readily assist one another, exhibiting the kind of collegiality and support that is emblematic of their work as Promotoras, promotors in Spanish, for the Center, one they helped build with their own hands.

The concept of promotoras comes out of community organizing in the field of public health, in which community members are trained to offer health education and provide information about health care access to vulnerable or underserved populations.

These Promotores (all but one are women) work to identify needs in the community and report them back to the community center, which then works to provide necessary services, said Sarah Gonzalez, a social worker who led the Heart of Isaac Community Center effort.

Today the needs are to get the stories told—the exhibit opening is just two weeks away.

Building a trusted space

The neighborhood of Maryvale in central Phoenix is 75 percent Latino. Many of the residents there face barriers—primarily language, transportation, costs—when accessing health and social services. “Sometimes it’s difficult for residents to drive or simply, there’s fear,” Gonzalez said.

In 2016, parents and neighbors mobilized in partnership with the Isaac Elementary School District to create the Heart of Isaac Community Center. The vision was to have a space where community organizations could offer services—health care, social services, education—directly to residents. Gonzalez was contracted as a consultant by the school district to implement the community’s vision.

Two people with light brown skin and wearing red shirts are cleaning a bathroom while smiling.
Community members and volunteers did a deep cleaning at the Heart of Isaac Community Center. Photo by Sharon Price

As the community had little cash capital on hand to fund construction, the majority of the work on the Center was offered as “sweat equity” by residents skilled in masonry, roofing, plumbing, deep cleaning, carpentry, landscaping, cooking, and childcare—skills that sustain their lives in the metro Phoenix economy on a day-to-day basis.

“It was vacant, uninhabitable house used only for storage. It was full of spider webs and a lot had been damaged by a flood from bad plumbing,” Gonzalez said. “We did a deep clean, a very deep clean. The Promotores used every skill they had to strip old paint, rip up the floor, scrub and mop.”

Family members and neighbors from the community also came to help, among them professional painters, carpenters, roofers, masons, tile layers, and plumbers. “Some of the fathers are professional painters. They helped coach us. But it was mostly mothers and grandmothers leading, with a couple of husbands helping,” Gonzalez said.

A volunteer pours concrete while two children watch. Volunteers in red shirts are in the background.
Helping to create the Heart of Isaac Community Center. Photo by Sharon Price

All told, the Promotores and neighbors worked for six months to rebuild the skeleton of the house. Seeing the colossal undertaking, the community dedication, and the scarcity of resources, the Arizona chapter of the International Interior Design Association awarded the Heart of Isaac Community Center a “makeover,” providing $500,000 of in-kind support, including interior design, architects, and materials. The Heart of Isaac Community Center was inaugurated in November of 2017.

A young person with brown skin and dark hair wearing a pink shirt is holding a paint roller and smiling.
Family members and neighbors worked together to finish the Heart of Isaac Community Center. Photo by Sharon Price

Officially owned by the Isaac School District, the house today provides a place where community members can access health and social services through organizational partners that regularly offer clinics, workshops, and other resources. Such services include dental care, primary care, legal services, and health insurance support, as well as educational opportunities such as ESL classes, GED workshops, and computer classes. These services are additionally extended to all of the 11 schools of Isaac District so that they are more accessible to families.

When events get too big, Gonzalez said they’ll hold them at other schools in the district, which gives residents in other neighborhoods a chance to learn about the Center and access its services.

“The Promotores are very much the heart of Heart of Isaac,” Gonzalez said. “They inform the staff of what the community needs.”

They do this by visiting households to discuss families’ situations, then meeting monthly with Center staff to report their findings, Gonzalez said.

“Heart of Isaac is a trusted space,” Gonzalez said. “All our community partners are vetted first. We invite those we can trust and who we know are reliable.”

Documenting life and work

To share the story of the center’s development and celebrate the occupational folklore that made it possible, Gonzalez and the Promotores sought the help of the Southwest Folklife Alliance.

Two people at laptops while another person looks on.
Some of the Promotores learned to conduct and transcribe interviews from anthropologist Rebecca Crocker, center.

It wasn’t a stretch for the Promotores to learn basic ethnographic skills like interviewing and data collection, said Rebecca Crocker, an anthropologist with the Southwest Folklife Alliance. Crocker facilitated an oral history project that will culminate in the exhibit celebrating those who helped build the center.

At the start of the project, Crocker said she gave the Promotores two options for gathering “occupational folklife.” One was that she would interview all the community members. The other was that she would train them to do the interviewing. They readily chose option two.

Crocker worked with them to develop interview questions and shared basic ethnographic methods. “It was all very relevant–how to ask questions, what do to with data—these are all really transferable skills,” Crocker said. “They’re integrating a small repertoire of folkloric and ethnographic skills into work they do in the community, and that’s really powerful.”

A woman with Indigenous features and medium brown skin is wearing a blue shirt with flowers and is posing against a blue wall.
An exhibit of portraits of Los Promotores will share the story of the community center. Photo by Perla Farias

Phoenix-based photographer Perla Farias created portraits of some of the key players in community center effort. The interview excerpts and photographs will be displayed in the Heart of Isaac Middle School, a place where students, families, and neighborhood residents can see them and remember their work at the center.

Funded by Arizona Humanities and the Vitalyst Health Foundation, the exhibit aims, in part, to generate renewed focus on the center. “It will celebrate what neighborhood residents did with their own inventiveness and hands. Not with a lot of money, but with time and effort,” Crocker said.

The exhibit will also give other communities a model for how to work from within to strengthen programming and improve local access to services, Crocker said.

A woman with medium brown skin and dark hair is holding a basket of fruit and standing against a blue brick wall.
One of the Promotoras featured in the exhibit to help broadly share the story of Heart of Isaac. Photo by Perla Farias.

That the Promotores did their own interviewing was significant, because it gave them new skills to add as community assets. “At the end of the day, it’s that much more rooted in their initial goals. The project stayed in their hands, grounded in same group of people who are trying to fulfill the mission for the center itself,” Crocker said.

This kind of capacity building also means the Promotores can keep sharing the project with other groups, even after the project grant runs out next month. “It’s all their intellectual property. They can decide how to use it and where to take it and they’re not dependent on me or anyone else,” Crocker said.

Already the group is talking about taking the project to the Phoenix City Hall, other school districts, and beyond.

A community without deficit

Listening to community voices and building community capacity is at the heart of Heart of Isaac projects. And it’s having ripple effects.

The process of creating the center has changed how the school district now engages with the community, Gonzalez said.

The district now consistently creates opportunities for the community to be involved in decision-making. For example, the district recently had to cut $2 million from its deficit. “We engaged parents at each of the schools in that conversation and they identified priorities for what should be funded. From that, the executive leadership knew where to cut. The impact wasn’t as heavy because the community was involved.”

That’s just one example, Gonzalez said. Now the superintendent is involving families, residents, and community partners in strategic planning. “Their voices are included in the District’s 2019- 2023 Strategic Plan. They’re driving the direction of the district.”

Using masonry skills
Using masonry skills to create the Heart of Isaac Community Center. Photo by Sharon Price

As for Gonzalez, she’s less involved in the day-to-day activities at Heart of Isaac Community Center. That’s partly because she’s now working with a nearby neighborhood, Moya, to help residents transform a vacant lot into a community park, using a similar process of engagement and empowerment.

“I come from the community,” she says. “I know how to tell the story. It’s a story that isn’t about deficit but about an abundance of assets and opportunity.”


Learn more about the Heart of Isaac Community Center here.

The exhibit “Corazones de Isaac | Hearts of Isaac,” takes place on March 8, 2019 from 5-7 pm at Isaac Middle School, 3402 W McDowell Rd, Phoenix, AZ

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