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Community progress in Maryvale based on coming together, hearing people, says former ASU program head

Erik Cole: 'We’ve spent a lot more time with the people than the place'

Community members gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of a mural depicting a multi-generational Latino family.

Community members gather in March 2019 for a ribbon-cutting ceremony dedicating the "Si, Se Puede" mural in Maryvale. Photo courtesy ASU

May 19, 2022

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the generous gift to the Arizona State University Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions from Mike and Cindy Watts in 2018 was the funding of the college’s work with residents of Maryvale, where the Wattses grew up.

Erik Cole, who has led the initiative to help revitalize the west Phoenix community through ASU’s Design Studio for Community Solutions, is moving out of state; his last day at ASU was May 6. Cole looked back on a record of solid accomplishment in Maryvale since the studio’s inception three and a half years ago, saying there is much more to do.

The Valley’s first-ever master-planned community, Maryvale is the largest of Phoenix’s 13 villages. In recent years, residents have faced many challenges as they worked to raise incomes, educational attainment and property values.

Soon after the Wattses made their gift, the college inaugurated the Maryvale One Square Mile Initiative, which has since been extended to a larger geographic area of Maryvale. There, faculty, staff and students from the Watts College and other ASU academic units guided – but were mindful to never lead – endeavors to improve the quality of life there by engaging residents as full partners in their neighborhood's reanimation.

Today the initiative is one of the most notable examples of the Watts College’s mission to “Be the Solution” and one of the university’s best-known examples of its commitment to social embeddedness. Cole is succeeded as Design Studio director by Allison Mullady, the studio’s senior program manager.

Read on to learn how Cole views the progress Maryvale and its residents have made in the past three-plus years, and his assessment of what lies ahead.

Question: It’s been more than three years since the Design Studio was created. Tell us about the Maryvale you encountered then, and the one you have been working in today.

Answer: I find that Maryvale was and still is a very welcoming community. I think it’s a diverse place that is also a surprising place. With a lot of communities, its true nature isn’t completely well known to the outside world. Phoenix and Phoenix’s Latino community have probably a better understanding of Maryvale (than others). But I felt welcomed as an outsider, able to meet people, able to start finding out what the situation, the issues and people’s concerns were. I think part of that is because our whole approach with the Design Studio is to meet people where they are, and show up with our ears first and our mouths and ideas later, to really understand.

Maryvale’s got a cool, cultural, culinary, small business (community) that I don’t think everybody sees except for the people who live there. It’s fascinating. It’s almost like an understated vibrancy. A lot of it is food shops that pop up in garages at night, and drink carts on bikes going through the neighborhoods.

I think if you read the headlines or see the general coverage of Maryvale, it’s often heavy on crime, police activity, etc. I found Maryvale when I got there, and even today, not a place where I saw a lot of visible crime. I found it just to be a neighborhood that was misunderstood on the outside.

Portrait of Erik Cole, former director of the ASU Design Studio for Community Solutions.

Erik Cole, former director of the ASU Design Studio for Community Solutions. Photo courtesy ASU

Q: Maryvale faces difficult challenges, from providing good jobs to improving health, from building connections among residents to expanding infrastructure, public facilities and transportation. How well has the community fared in meeting these challenges? What was the Design Studio’s role?

A: Interesting, because I feel sort of like everybody, individuals and families, have done what they needed to do over the last three years to make ends meet, to have their needs taken care of. We definitely saw a big upswing that continues (today) in getting demand taken care of, for food banks, clothing, basic needs issues.

We saw with the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly, why this idea of social determinants of health is so important to a community. This is basically saying that having health insurance, seeing your doctor and getting medical treatment is all important. But so is how walkable is your community, and so is your housing quality, as well as access to green space; all the things that make up a healthy community.

During the pandemic, we saw a real sense of how the health infrastructure and political leadership were saying, "How do we connect with communities like Maryvale?" It showed how frayed that infrastructure is, not just resources, but early on, we learned people didn’t know where to go to find information and services. There are very low rates of internet connectivity, so people can’t find things online as easily.

We saw an example of that with testing and vaccinations, as that rolled out, because you had to sign up for those appointments online, and they were largely in English.

I was really proud of our role, not that we did the work, but in getting community partners together, like Mountain Park Health Center and the Urban League, with the school districts, consistently doing events, doing things for free, not just for their patients. Embry Health was in a lot of different places.

COVID really limited our ability to connect with people, because most connections are in person, and email is not as reliable as face to face. We started the Maryvale Youth Provider Network as one way for people – who serve youth – to come together, network and take collective action. Now the network has over 30 members and is growing! One way we could pivot is to bring together different resources. We did a weekly email blast that talked about health, jobs, housing, translated it into Spanish, and it got great traction. A school district could call and ask, "Can you add us on it?"

Q: It was important for you and your colleagues to help but not dominate, avoiding the impression that you were from the big university that was going to do it all, rather than empower residents. How successful was that effort?

A: It’s hard, because three and a half years is not enough time, obviously. The model we use is to move at the speed of trust. You have to build relationships. You have to follow up, have longevity, still be there after months and years. We heard stories of leaders who said they were burned by outside institutions, not just higher education. They would promise a new program, have the community be a part of a set of research or hold a public planning process. Once the meetings, or the research, or whatever, are done, then… they’re gone. The community doesn’t hear from them again. We heard pretty specific examples of where that did not sit well with community members, where they didn’t see results of time they had spent working on those initiatives.

So we try to be sort of humble conveners and systems integrators. We try to connect the people who want to improve the quality of life for them and their neighbors and empower them. At ASU, we have access to real smart people, great programs, great data analysis, etc. We want to make those resources available to community and grassroots leaders.

The most important thing was for us to say we are in it for the long haul. The Watts gift enables us to be that backbone for 10 years. So in that regard, I think we’ve done the best we could.

I am excited about the Maryvale Youth Leadership Program that we are launching this summer! 

Q: Talk about the results of your efforts to make a difference in the local school districts and the learning and recreational environments for Maryvale children.

A: (We knew that) we needed to have strong partnerships with both the Cartwright and the Isaac elementary school districts. One reason is that Phoenix is so big. They have 13 different villages to manage and work with. These school districts are small, and they fit the geographic areas where we wanted to work in Maryvale. With each one, we’ve had some baseline success to place interns, social work practicum students, in the schools themselves.

We’ve had several class-related projects. I’m thinking about one (School of Community Resources and Development Professor of Practice) Dale Larsen’s class did in Cartwright, engaging the Boys and Girls Club with ASU students coming, playing, doing athletic activities outside in the afternoons with those young people. It was incredible, the bonds between those ASU students and those kids. Some we began in Cartwright the pandemic really derailed, but we’re starting them for the future.

We have connected Cartwright’s innovative refugee and immigrant support office to the Next Generation Service Corps, for instance. Many students come in to schools and speak other languages, don’t know how schools in the United States work. The idea will be that ASU students, many of whom may also have immigrated, can support the teachers, help the office plan and access more resources. The project is very new and innovative, and we hope our students can help them reach all 23 of their schools.

In the Isaac district, we had a strong partnership with both the administration and their community center, the House of Isaac Community Center. We try to participate in their outreach events and support their health care promotoras, who are family-member and community volunteers (aunts, uncles, grandparents) serving the families of Isaac’s students. They are the experts on their community and can help neighbors in ways no outside program can.

The most engaged project at Isaac is that in May and June 2020, the district leadership told us they were not able to connect with kids on the internet prior to going virtual. And so there was huge gap around high-speed internet.

I never dreamed that what we would eventually do is pilot a system that would provide free, high-speed internet to Isaac district families in some areas of Maryvale where they didn’t have any other way to connect. It was a pilot program, but it continues today, and it’s super exciting. We built a very strong relationship with the school district, their superintendent and their chief technical officer. It’s very tied in now, not just with the Watts College, but also with the university in the technology side of things. It’s great ground for further research for student engagement.

Q: Decades ago, Maryvale represented the future as an example of the then-new idea of an affordable, master-planned community. Look into the future of Maryvale today and talk about the kind of community it is and striving to become.

A: Even though there is a Maryvale identity — people say “I am from Maryvale” — there is not a broad, across-the-community organizing structure. One thing I think that the community would love and will be a necessary ingredient for meeting the needs of what they want to achieve is not from ASU — but ASU helps it come about — is a community quarterback who can advocate and help guide how things come out.

Just like the transition in the 1960s and 1970s, we may see another transition going forward. Maryvale is very affordable, close to downtown Phoenix. But the transportation issue is a critical issue, whether it’s light rail or bus rapid transit. Maryvale is a community that depends on transit to connect to employment. As the higher-wage jobs come in, whether they are call centers or service centers north on I-17 or west on I-10, you have to get workers there.

But the hard part about transportation planning is it takes a long time, and by the time you’re done, some things have changed. Hopefully, we can be talking to Valley Metro and the city and others, bringing in community members, for input.

I don’t want to be cliché, but everyone I worked with in Maryvale is working very, very hard, whether it’s multiple-family (housing), creating jobs or giving back to the community itself. If those tools are there, the community can really take off and thrive. One of the things we’ve really zeroed in on with the One Square Mile Initiative is focusing on young people, recruiting more people to come to ASU, people who went to Maryvale High School. Or maybe an apprentice program, to become, say, a roofer.

Maryvale is such a young place and that’s how you identify the future, that there is a place for young people to succeed and thrive. We’ve spent a lot more time with the people than the place.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Read more about recent milestones achieved in Maryvale in the Design Studio for Community Solutions’ “State of the Studio” report.