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Building an Effective Coalition

Project Avanzar
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Christy Lopez-Gutierrez, prevention director for Project Avanzar, had to readjust her frame of reference when she began implementing her grant. Because the Youth Violence Prevention grants are built around coalitions, her agency, Southern New Mexico Human Development, Inc., needed to switch from a direct-service model of prevention to a coalition-based model. The agency's work became one of building and managing a coalition to produce change, a much different type of work than providing direct services. Southern New Mexico is rural with a predominately Spanish-speaking population. The population includes new immigrants, migrant workers, and undocumented workers. The agency staff's experience working with substance abuse prevention meant that they knew their service population, the prevalent risk factors, and the gaps in service. They quickly identified obvious partners for their coalition, bringing together members from schools, health organizations, faith-based and safe community groups, law enforcement, women's groups, and consumer partners.

Once the coalition members were identified and assembled, the agency began its management role. As the grant holder, the agency is responsible for the success of the coalition in its efforts to prevent youth violence. This meant that the agency's staff became moderators, facilitators, mediators, and educators to further the coalition's goals. Consensus building was an early goal so that planning and implementation could begin. The first step was to develop a common understanding among all coalition members of certain key concepts, such as the use of evidence-based prevention programs, the role of coalitions, the importance of the planning process, and the selection of appropriate prevention programs. Community needs assessment was greatly enhanced by the perspectives the different coalition members brought to the table.

One of the agency's key learnings is that problem solving never stops. When some community coalition members began trailing off, the agency discovered that the problem was language; meetings had been conducted in English, thereby unintentionally alienating the many coalition members who were dominant Spanish speakers and didn't feel comfortable participating. Another learning came from school and health administrators. During the needs assessment and planning process, the administrators found areas where they could strengthen their own agencies - areas that could be sustained after the grant would end. The key to sustainability here is to involve administrators so they can influence long-term resource shifts.

Lopez-Gutierrez also spoke about the importance of managing expectations of the coalition - coalition members had the passion to create change NOW. Agency staff had to manage coalition members' enthusiasm, passion, and expectations so that the program could evolve from needs assessment to planning (which, they explained to the coalition, would take a year) to, finally, implementation.