The Sonoran Initiative: Ending poverty in urban communities

A nonprofit in the USA offers fellowships for young people in urban poor communities.

by Portia Ladrido

Liza Romero, the founder of Sonoran Initiative and an HR Technology consultant. © The Sonoran Initiative

The USA has always been framed as the land where freedom, opportunity, and success can come from the direst circumstances, and yet there still seems to be a creeping inequality that persists. The number of extremely poor communities has doubled between 2000-2014, and the U.N. has reported that 40 million Americans live in poverty and nearly half “in deep poverty.”

Liza Romero grew up in one of these poor communities in America. Having been raised in an underserved community in North Philadelphia (known as the Badlands), she knew there was a massive pool of talent and brilliance within her community, and that they just lacked access to resources and a network that could maximise their potentials.

I broke my cycle of poverty by creating a lucrative career in Human Resources Technology, and today I work as a consultant,” she says. “About three years ago, I began investing in personal development and coaching. I reached a point of frustration in my life because I didn’t feel connected to my life’s ‘purpose.'”

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 10.48.22 PM.png
The founders grew up in communities that looked like this. © The Sonoran Initiative

This desire to lead a life of purpose brought her to set up what is now The Sonoran Initiative, a nonprofit organisation that is on a mission to help young people end generational poverty by assisting them in career prospects and growth. She then reached out to her friend, Caran Hartsfield, who also grew up poor in North Philadelphia but is now a film professor at New York University, to help her with her initiative.

“While discussing the concept, we cried a lot as we remembered people we lost to violence, crime, incarceration and other painful side effects of poverty,” Romero says. Hartsfield then decided she had to be involved with the organisation, and right there and then, she became the vice president of The Sonoran Initiative. 

Their goal is to connect their beneficiaries with their personal and professional networks that they have built over the course of 20 years to give them the leverage and economic opportunity that these young people in urban poor communities may not have access to at all. 

Romero talked to INKLINE to share about the communities they serve and how their program helps people in urban poor areas.

INKLINE: Who are the communities that you serve and what criteria or standards should they meet to be part of the program?

Liza Romero: We currently serve young people in underserved communities in Miami between the ages of 18-24; cities like Overtown, Liberty City, Miami Gardens and Miami Beach. This age range is extremely vulnerable because most services (public, private and government programs) end for young people in the U.S. at the age of 18. There is a misconception that once a young person reaches the age of 18, miraculously they are somehow prepared for life; this is a fallacy. Our goal is to help fill this gap, assess our Fellows’ talents, strengths and passions and provide them with education, critical resources, poverty-related trauma therapy, exposure to amazing experiences and the arts. 

I: How does the program work? Can you talk a bit more about the pillars: elevate your exposure, life-shifting opportunities, and create economic leverage? 

L: I wanted to design a program that I would have wanted and needed at 18, or 21, or 24. With that in mind, we began to design our dream program for our Fellows; without limitations and only considering possibility as our desired outcome. We haven’t stopped yet! 

We will launch our program with a 3-day immersion, which is an intensive weekend retreat for our 8 selected Fellows. The weekend will take place at a waterfront mansion in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area. During that time we have a structured itinerary filled with crucial conversations, transformational activities, a financial workshop, meet-and-greets with our incredible board members, mentoring and coaching and finally some of the coolest excursions we could plan. 

Caran Hatsfield, the vice president of The Sonoran Initiative, who is also a professor of film at New York University. © The Sonoran Initiative

This weekend will launch our first year of customised personal and professional development for the Fellows and will also kick-off our Art Actions! program. We are working with some of Miami’s most influential artists to help facilitate a conversation with the city about generational poverty, through art.

Art Actions! are an absolute cornerstone of our program and generates a lot of excitement with our Fellows. We are working with art galleries within Miami and beyond to display the work created by our Fellows and also facilitate the creative expression so many of our youth do not have access to.

We, along with our board members and community partners, will guide a year-long cohort focusing on topics from life skills to entrepreneurship and home ownership. Based on our Fellows’ goals and passions, we will work to help them achieve their desired outcomes and ultimately break their cycle of poverty.

Not only will our Fellows receive outstanding leadership and coaching to help them attain and retrain exceptional income opportunities in the spaces of business, technology, finance, entrepreneurship and the arts, they will be groomed to become leaders of this organisation. They will lead change and create a ripple effect for members of their community as well. We refer to this impact as TSI’s “Butterfly Effect” and we know it will have an undeniable impact on our communities at large.

I: What are the usual challenges that your organisation faces, operations-wise?

L: Currently, our greatest challenge is funding. Because we are a young organisation and do not have years of evidence and experience, it is difficult to secure an audience with certain foundations. The private sector and individuals are the most responsive to us because they know our reputation, understand our values, see our impact, and have the opportunity to be directly involved.

Many of our partners want to do more than write a check, they want to be part of the solution. This process has shown us there are so many people who want to do good. Even more, they want to be part of a permanent and sustainable solution. The Sonoran Initiative solves those concerns while connecting our communities which might not be engaged under typical circumstances.

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 10.47.49 PM.png
The Sonoran Initiative’s beneficiaries learning how to code. © The Sonoran Initiative

We are also self-funding, which is challenging especially as we plan our events and documentary film. We have made immense progress with very little external financial contribution and we are eager to connect to funding sources that support our vision and want to see us build the program we know is needed.

The Sonoran Initiative truly is multiple nonprofits in one. We are covering a multitude of needs because that is what is necessary. As people who have grown up in poverty, we understand the resources we require that can help us elevate ourselves and our community. With decades of business experience, we know how to put our funds to work and optimise our returns.

I: I saw a mention of a documentary by Caran Hartsfield. Can you talk a bit more about that and how that came about? What is the purpose of the film?

L: That’s just one of the amazing advantages of having a best friend who is a film director. Caran decided we should document our Fellow’s journey and demonstrate the true grit, tenacity and determination they have, despite not having access to critically essential opportunities and resources. We will begin filming the documentary this spring during our immersion weekend.

Through the film, we will demonstrate the beauty which exists in our community which is so often overlooked or avoided because of stereotypes and misconceptions. There is a unique genius that resides in this nation’s urban landscapes and no one is seeking it out. I like to refer to Caran and me as treasure hunters because we are on a quest to find our most valuable assets: our youth. It will be a beautiful story to tell about how our Fellows step out of poverty and into a newly designed future filled with potential. 

What is most satisfying to me is knowing we have an opportunity to intervene in the lives of young people NOW and we have the power to create new futures. Futures filled with possibilities, joy, health and wealth; we can create a new narrative for poor and disenfranchised people one at a time.

I: How do you see Sonoran growing in the next decade? What do you wish for it to become? 

L: We have already started growing, by popular demand. While we are just getting started in Miami, we are already planning our next site back home in Philadelphia. I get emotional at the thought of serving the community that made us who we are today and am excited to proudly represent it.

Beyond Philly, we’ve been asked to open sites in New York, Atlanta and Chicago. Because we have board members who reside or have roots in those cities, we’ve already started planning community partnerships and create pipelines for youth.

My wish for The Sonoran Initiative is that it becomes not only a national organisation but global and that our Fellows are deputised and become our new leaders seeking newer and even more innovative ways to uplift their respective communities. There hasn’t been an audience I’ve encountered that doesn’t love the concept and want to become involved. As long as we continue to produce positive outcomes and demonstrate our ability to break the cycle of generational poverty within our program, we will continue to grow.

© Flickr/ thejaan

I: What has been the most satisfying thing in running Sonoran? 

L: I have a personal mantra I often say when I speak about my community: “I am them.” Both Caran and I are the manifestation of what is possible in communities like ours that are poor, forgotten, ignored and written off. When people learn of our stories, they are so often in disbelief of where we came from and how we grew up. Even surrounded by the love of our families, our communities were often unforgiving. We experienced crime and violence, but we also understood that poverty and bad decisions drove those events.

What is most satisfying to me is knowing we have an opportunity to intervene in the lives of young people NOW and we have the power to create new futures. Futures filled with possibilities, joy, health and wealth; we can create a new narrative for poor and disenfranchised people one at a time.

The impact they will have is where the magic will happen. Through our investment of time, love, dedicated resources, consistency and an unwavering belief in the power of our community we can prevent negative outcomes for our youth, their families and our collective future. There is nothing more satisfying than that.

Share the positive!