One Region with Multiple Identities

December 30th, 2016

I met Laura Gomez-Rodriguez in Brownsville, Texas; she had been working since late 2015 closely with the City of Brownsville as Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Initiative’s team lead. After a few visits to Brownsville, I’ve been impressed with Laura’s energy and enthusiasm working with local authorities and agencies in multiple projects. During my last visit in October, we had a this conversation in a local cafe in downtown Brownsville where she shared both her recent work and aspirations for this region.

Brownsville is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and located just a few miles West from the Gulf of Mexico; a city of slightly over 180,000 inhabitants, and well known for its port which is the southern terminus of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, it has also been constantly positioning itself in the national map during 2016. Firstly, being awarded among of group of six other cities, the designation of SC2 City—a White House Initiative started by the Obama Administration in 2011. Secondly, being selected to receive the Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Buena Vida Development (13-acre site) located next to downtown; there were a total of ten cities nationwide awarded with this grant. Thirdly, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk broke ground investing in a private launching facility in Boca Chica (~20 miles East of Brownsville) as part of his ambitious plans for SpaceX. Finally, after achieving a major partnership with FAA to expand South Padre International Airport, a breaking ground event this Fall kicked off the timeline of this infrastructure and economic development effort.

As Laura prepares to transition from her position with the change of federal administration in 2017, she is also very positive about the near future of Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley.

Laura Gómez Rodríguez: I arrived to Brownsville in the beginning of March of 2015—I am not a stranger to Brownsville being originally from here; so it’s nice to be back in my hometown, where my family currently resides and serving this role in this position. My job is to serve as the federal liaison on behalf of the White House to coordinate a lot of federal effort in improving the relationship with local communities, in particularly here in Brownsville, Texas.

BLW: What is the focus of your work in the border region?

LGR: I lead this initiative that is new from this administration, the Obama administration, aimed  to strengthen the relationship with local communities. Brownsville, Texas is one of six cities to be chosen to be part of this initiative, so you have the White House credibility behind your name that it’s aimed to put a city in the map when it comes to federal opportunities, and really gain that direct accessibility that sometimes communities cannot always reach. Here in Brownsville our focus is to look at how to make a stronger community hence the initiative is called Strong Cities, Strong Communities—it’s all about achieving collective impact, and of course a lots of winnings is collective impact. Collective impact is really trying to get everyone who aims to a mutual goal together, and to identify those strengths and weaknesses. There are other organizations that have strengths, but also weaknesses, but hence you are able to get a group of actors around a specific goal, those weaknesses balance out with those strengths. In Brownsville, they wanted to focus on 5 key areas: economic vitality, environmental infrastructure, health and wellness, community engagement, and city leadership. What my role is—I have nineteen federal agencies that I represent and coordinate with, and each agency has given me points of contact or individuals either based in Washington or also in the regions. Some agencies have given me two employees, some of them three or five, but all in all is really to incorporate Brownsville as part of their day to day job in terms of trying to service the community. Part of servicing is making them aware of federal opportunities, whether would be through grants or through technical assistance or even pointing them with resources in addition to connecting them with other partners that communities may not have thought about outreaching before, such as philanthropy, local actors in the community, and private sector as well.

BLW: After this time that you have served in this role, what could you identify as main challenges in this area of the border region?

LGR: I think the challenge overall is looking at regionalism. In the Federal government, the culture is very different in terms of how we assess a problem. We look at this region as a region, so Brownsville, McAllen, Harlingen, Weslaco, all working together because by  cities working together you have much more power. Cities have a lot of power in general. One of the challenges is capacity building, all in all, a lot of local communities don’t have what it takes to do their day to day jobs in delivering services. It’s also capacity building around understanding how federal government works, and the differences—there are a lot of similarities and  differences between the federal government and federal government as well, a lot of barriers, and where we can work together as a team. Because at the end of the day we are both serving the same client: the American taxpayer. If my job at the federal government is to make sure that the American taxpayer advances, and gets what they need from the federal government, then that should be the same goal of the city as well. Essentially, we should be working together as a team, and we are not any different in terms of hierarchy or role; and sometimes I think there is that vision of “oh well you’re city government, so you’re lower here, or you’re state government, so you’re here”, and it’s not about that, it’s about coming together for the benefit of the people, because at the end of the day is all about people.

I think another challenge here is communication. Cities, and bureaucrats and people don’t have the habit of communicating together, in addition the federal government has a hard job communicating amongst each other inter-agencies or headquarters in DC and regions. Communication is totally key if you want a project or an initiative to be successful. The other one I would think is team building; I think here in the region because is so tribal in culture, team building is hard, a challenge, yet is necessary in order to accomplish good work for the community. In order for the community to advance you’ve got to work in a team–so you’re going to have to deal with all kinds of craziness, and you have to be ready about it because the main focus is getting the job done. That’s also led to the fact of the lack of diversity; what I mean by diversity I don’t mean it in an ethnic way, I mean it in a diverse perspectives, bringing perspectives from someone who lives in poverty to someone who has a low paying job, to someone who has a high paying job; or to someone who lives in a wealthy neighborhood or someone who has been from the outside. Really bringing those diverse perspectives to come together because that’s when you have a team of diverse perspectives there is an enlightenment, and enlightenment creates innovation, and innovation creates empowerment, and then something gets done.

BLW: What is the potential or the role of strengthening community relationships in rethinking the future of cities in the border region?

LGR: In terms of being able to bring an outside perspective—in my case, educating the communities about how federal government works; but also educating federal government about how these communities work. How they see us, what they define challenges and how they communicate, and what’s their language of preference. This is about helping them push traditional ideas a little bit out of the box, empowering people to come out of traditional comfort zones to think that the impossible is possible. Here in this region there is a lot of disempowerment among people trying to say that they cannot achieve something, and in really you CAN, it is just that is going to take a little bit of  time and work; but if the community is able to see pass the political faux pass, and pass the hierarchical values that bring the community down, they could really accomplish a lot. And people here are innovative; they do have these ideas.

This effort [SC2 initiative] has been an example, has been a model of how to make an impact. What we’ve done thus far has been about capacity building, offering resources, becoming innovative; getting the City to see where they have to make changes in their own organization, or how they operate is a demonstration of how this initiative really works. It’s one thing being able to get a grant or a federal opportunity, or to be recognized and/or to get an award, but it’s another thing for a community to completely change the culture of their operations, and I think in Brownsville they are starting to see that, where they have to start making their priorities—where federal government is able to assist with those priorities by providing counseling, and by working at the table hand in hand, that they are able to look at that. A lot of the work that we have accomplished through the initiative around, for instance, economic development with the airport; getting FAA to really provide capacity building and support to transform the airport into an economic engine is key. Then being able to enhance that partnership is key; it is about the partnerships.

BLW: How does  your work today contribute to decision making processes—or helps to reimagine the possibilities in the region?

LGR: Because of the amount of skills that I bring to the table, being from here, being able to be culturally empathetic to the needs of the community, helps with building the trust. I think also with the training that I have had working with communities– I work with federal, international governments, and also state governments in being able to bring diverse ideas to the table and thought leadership to empower local communities here looking at new ways of thinking, solving problems in a multidisciplinary fashion, being able to innovate them, the new ideas and empower them to do more of what they are normally accustomed to do. Get them to ask questions, teaching them new styles of communication, I think it has kind of helped the City and community partners really take a different approach when it comes to solving their own problems. Because at the end of the day is about them; they are the experts in the field, and they have a lot of knowledge. So, it’s about trying to support them with their own knowledge and giving them the tools that they need to solve those problems thems elves.

BLW: What is your vision for the border region in 2050, 2100?

LGR: Creating a border region that is borderless—a borderless region. We always try to say: this is a border region, the border region is different. So what is so different about this border region? The fact is that there’s really no borders. Why we are still calling it a border region? Why we still calling it a border city? I see in the future a borderless region that is multicultural, and empowered to make infinite possibilities possible. That no dream goes unfinished; it actually gets implemented because there is a lot of talent here. It is multicultural, not just bicultural. I think it could become a region where many cultures around the world would want to move to. But the communities here have to see that. They have to envision that for themselves; I would hope that they would. I think every person from the outside who comes here, and me being an outsider/insider in reality, that is what I see about this region. And I’ve been able to leverage that in all capabilities—the fact that I can fit into any other aspect around the world empowers me even more to see myself as a world citizen rather than just one particular country. My hope would be that this region becomes one that is borderless, that can create multi-identities, not just one, and to understand that you don’t have to fit in a box, or that you don’t have to carry one solution or one identity, you can have multiple identities, and multiple things. Don’t confine itself to be separate when it’s born to be different.

Brownsville, Texas. U.S.

October 2016

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