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Central Valley Health Policy Institute

BHC Profile: Centro La Familia Advocacy Services

Margarita Rocha, Executive Director


Margarita Rocha, the Executive Director of Centro La Familia Advocacy Services, knows that policy decisions can have an immense impact on communities. With more than four decades of experience in community organizing, she also knows that policy decisions occur two ways: with the community’s involvement or without the community’s involvement.

Centro La Familia Advocacy Services, with the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative, has been involved in organizing communities in southeast, southwest and central Fresno to raise awareness among residents about their power to make health-promoting policy changes in their neighborhoods.

The first step in achieving policy and systems change, Rocha explains, is to “know where residents are” in terms of their needs as a community. She says, “You can’t enter in to community organizing with assumptions. Assumptions are where change falters.”

When asked, residents often already know what improvements need to be made within their communities but need help with understanding how to go about getting those improvements made.

“It’s about trust,” Rocha says of working with residents. Many of the issues Centro La Familia Advocacy Services deals with in community organizing are problems that have existed for decades. Rocha explains that neighborhoods do not develop issues overnight and so it is vital to realize that change also takes time.

Trust is also important because many of the community meetings take place within residents’ homes, and often residents bring their children along. During these meetings, residents discuss not only community issues but also strategies for taking action toward change.

 “Getting an early win,” Rocha says, “can be important.” By getting early wins, residents learn how to affect policy and how to navigate their local government workings. Residents also learn that they will have to continue to speak up for their communities to keep healthy policy changes in place, which is why Central La Familia Advocacy Services maintains a strong focus on developing advocates. “Residents come to realize that they will have to take ownership over their communities,” Rocha says. “Ownership is key to making change.”

Centro La Familia Advocacy Services has also focused on the broader policies that affect communities over time, such as the city’s General Plan. While the latest plan calls for much of what residents wanted, Rocha says that vigilance will be required to keep healthy plans in play. Small changes to the city’s General Plan are likely to be made, and the impact of those small changes can be both imperceptible and cumulative. “If we don’t watch this plan,” she says, “it will roll out far differently than what we imagine today.”

Client to Advocate

Many of the advocates trained by Centro La Familia Advocacy Services began as clients of the organization, and it is a process that Rocha understands well. In her early twenties, Rocha was recruited as a translator to help communities raise their voices on local housing issues. It is this experience that gives Rocha an insight when it comes to developing programs within Centro La Familia Advocacy Services to empower residents to become advocates.

One of these programs operates as a speaker’s bureau, where residents begin learning how to discuss community issues. However, Rocha realizes that a traditional speaker’s bureau is not always effective in every situation or appropriate for every community. Instead, Central La Familia holds platicas, or conversations, in which residents are allowed to develop their own way of communicating community issues. These platicas are important in that they provide clients and residents a space to discover their own voices and take an active role in cultivating their own advocacy-building skills.

The goal, Rocha says, is to help develop advocates who will not only continue to work for the health of their community in the years to come but who will go on to help develop advocates themselves.

While it is the advocate’s objective is to speak to the community, their relationship with Centro La Familia Advocacy Services may be of a more personal nature. For more than thirty years, the organization’s primary focus has been to provide Fresno county residents with services related to domestic violence, mental health, and parent education, and this is yet another reason why trust between Centro La Familia Advocacy Services and its clients is so important. “Some of our clients may never be ready to step into the role of advocate,” Rocha says. “It is something we take seriously, knowing who is ready to help educate their community-- it is a process that takes years.”