During Hispanic Heritage Month, Let’s Think About How We Value Cultural Knowledge

When I reflect on my Hispanic heritage, the first thing I think about is food. I think about the savory aroma of Cuban rice and beans or sweet, syrupy flan. I hear the laughter of my family mixed with our particular brand of Spanglish and the inevitable music that leaves chairs and tables banished to the edges of the room to make way for our dancing. These gatherings are fun, but these traditions also have a more serious role—they reconnect us to one another, provide space to pass stories and cultural knowledge between generations, and remind us that we are part of something that has made it through generations marked by revolution and emigration. This is my context, one that I can navigate with comfort and ease. I know the stories, when to bring up tough topics, and who to talk to in order to make sure I get secret family recipes.

That is the context I think of when I work with any community different than my own. It helps me remember that everyone has their own deep connections to culture, history, and experience that connects to a broader community. That is why cultural knowledge and experience—or what you could even call “street cred”— should be valued just as much as expertise in any other topic area when it comes to safe routes work. Leaders from the community who understand the contours of culture, tradition, and history can navigate them with more grace and elevate solutions that meaningfully address community concerns rather than bringing one-size-fits-all solutions.

When we support community members as they take the lead, we can get better insight into what is and isn’t working. An issue with bike lanes or participating in government planning processes may be about something that seems unrelated. Maybe there is distrust of government because there is a history of government officials mistreating people in the community or they are just frustrated because meetings are scheduled during work hours. Maybe people don’t hate bike lanes, they just have no idea who you are and where the idea is coming from or they fear what it means for the future of their neighborhood. Understanding the human elements of a community’s experience is just as important as understanding the policies or infrastructure.

One great example of an organization using this kind of deeply engaged approach is Cultiva La Salud, an organization focused on health equity in the Central Valley of California. Cultiva La Salud had been involved with community partners doing grassroots advocacy for years, and in 2019 they turned their focus to park access improvements for a three-acre park located in the heart of the community. It was the only developed park accessible to all residents of Planada except for recreational facilities at local schools, but drought, vandalism, crime, and lack of restrooms and other facilities prevented community members, especially families, from regularly visiting. As a member of the inaugural cohort of Safe Routes to Parks: Activating Communities award, Cultiva La Salud brought together trusted community partners and additional funders to turn ideas into improvements.

One key partner for this work was Planada Mujeres Poderosas, (Planada Powerful Women), a group of 20 Latina women who came together to re-shape Houlihan Park into “a gathering place where neighbors form social ties that produce stronger, safer neighborhoods.” Cultiva La Salud organized and supported these women, who, as members of the community, held meetings in Spanish and English, gathered people to refine their vision for the park, and reached out to the broader community as trusted messengers. Because they were from this community, they had the trusted relationships that they could use to get more people involved, understood perspectives from people who may not feel comfortable speaking up in public meetings, and could not just speak Spanish, but had the shared cultural context to communicate well. In short, they had the “street cred” to understand and motivate people to get involved with park improvements.

Together with community members, other community organizations, and county and municipal agencies, Cultiva La Salud developed a Safe Routes to Parks Improvement Plan that outlined the barriers and obstacles that prevented residents from walking to and from the park and the essential elements of a safe park and neighborhood. But they didn’t stop there! They continued to elevate community power and centered their expertise in the decision-making for the plan’s implementation.

To prioritize the projects for limited funding, Cultiva La Salud brought in a landscape architect to create a vision for a dream park based on their community’s plan, and importantly, put price tags on each element. The group, led by Planada Mujeres Poderosas, thought through the list with cost constraints and developed a prioritized project list. With these community-identified priorities, Cultiva La Salud, the Planada Mujeres Poderosas, and the many community partners applied for a California Statewide Park Program grant in spring 2020. In May 2022, the community celebrated the long-awaited, community-planned improvements when Merced County hosted a ribbon cutting to celebrate the $2.4 million remodel of Houlihan Park, which included:     

  • A splash pad;  
  • A lighted walking loop;
  • Ten outdoor gym exercise stations in five areas;
  • A new water-efficient irrigation system throughout the park;
  • Playground improvements, with shade and drinking fountains;
  • A renovated basketball court with lighting;
  • Eight iron benches created by Le Grand High School students;
  • Five new picnic shelters with 24 total graffiti-resistant tables;
  • An additional 11 new graffiti-resistant picnic tables throughout the park; and,
  • An outdoor performing arts stage with lighting.

As a professional in this field, it can be simultaneously exciting and uncomfortable to know that a well-connected grandmother is probably a better face for a Safe Routes to Parks project than me because she has the expertise, she knows her community. So during this Hispanic heritage month, I urge you to reflect on the skills and knowledge you bring to the table—not just the “professional” ones but also the ones that give you “street cred” in your own community and when your professional skills need to take a backseat to others lived experience and expertise. How can you further center the essential aspect of cultural knowledge in your work with communities? How can you build-in ways to honor cultural traditions or learn more about them when you are doing your work in communities? If you can identify and incorporate some of these tactics, I believe it leads to better relationships, more fulfilling work, and higher quality projects.

Further Reading:

Let’s Get Together: A Guide for Engaging Communities and Creating Change- This guide offers tips and strategies for engaging communities as you work together to make meaningful change. It contains an engagement framework centering community members at the heart of the process. Particularly relevant are the first sections where there are opportunities to reflect on how your role as a community partner impacts community members and how you can build your understanding of the community by conducting community research.

Grassroots Community Residents Lead the Change for a Safer and Accessible Parks- This blog post contains the longer version of Cultiva La Salud’s work on Safe Routes to Parks.