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Connected Families, Connected Communities

By Angela Vang
10.24.2019

The day after the 2016 election, a young mother walked into the the CLUES office on the East Side of St. Paul for an appointment at CLUES’ mental health counseling facility. She spent her time there weeping. Her seven year old son had asked her to stop speaking Spanish because it put both of them in danger. 

Ruby Azurdia-Lee remembers this day clearly. She remembers how heartbreaking it was that at seven years old, this woman’s son already understood that the identities you held could mean that your safety was in jeopardy. The consequences of impending policy directives from the nation’s capital sent shockwaves that could be felt in that room on East 7th Street. She knew then, as she does now, that advancing the narrative about what it meant to be an immigrant was going to be vital to the wellbeing of Minnesota’s residents.

Ruby moved to St. Paul in 1979 from Guatemala. She was an exchange student at Johnson High School before deciding to make Minnesota her permanent home. As she built her life here, Ruby experienced the same trials as many immigrants—navigating the process of homeownership, learning about the complexities of citizenship, raising a bilingual daughter in a multicultural home.

“The Twin Cities are often recognized for what seems to be our best qualities. The diversity, the culture, the housing.

We show up on ‘best of’ lists all the time, but who is really thriving here? Communities of color are always left out of these conversations.”
— Ruby Azurdia Lee, executive director of Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servico (CLUES)

She’s right. For years, St. Paul and Minneapolis have been seen and celebrated as some of the best places in America to live, work, and raise a family. But Minnesota continues to rank among the worst in racial income disparities and has one of the largest educational opportunity gaps in the country. With increasing development projects, a growing population, and new stadiums built with the intention of stimulating a local economy, there are people asking: who is this renewal really benefiting? 

In 2012, Ruby became the Executive Director of CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio), Minnesota’s largest Latino-led social services agency. CLUES was founded in 1981 and has since been a pillar of St. Paul’s East Side, a neighborhood known for the vibrancy of it’s immigrant and refugee communities. CLUES’ work functions on three pillars of a holistic service model: health and wellness, economic empowerment, and educational enrichment. Its facility houses everything from mental and chemical health clinics to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to citizenship workshops. Behind each of these services is the question, how does this advance the capacity of Latino individuals to be healthy and prosperous in their communities?

“Our programs and services connect families to resources, skills, institutions, and create an environment for people to be engaged and empowered,” Ruby says. “We have placed the Latino community at the core of our work. 

Instead of having clients come in and figure out where within CLUES they fit, our staff is tasked with the job of connecting families and individuals to our resources so that they are better served.”

Over the last few years, Ruby has seen many days like that one in November of 2016. She often thinks about that seven year old boy, and others like him, as she works to create a world where they have the tools to feel empowered in their culture and identity. 

It’s a big job, and Ruby is fortunate to have big partners.  The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), boldly invests in the people, places, and projects that make the Twin Cities a great place to live and works with partners to help people thrive in the places they love.  In addition to supporting their economic empowerment programming, LISC has worked with CLUES on an expansion of their facility. The new space in the building houses a teen center equipped to teach young adults about tech and coding, a center for elderly community residents, and classrooms that can be used for workshops and conferences.

From programming philosophy to the building design, the organization functions on a model of multigenerational success.

“We’ve been supporting development on the East Side for 30 years. CLUES works with the whole person to overcome whatever challenges they may be facing in order to reach their full potential. What we really look at is what lies in the intersection between community development and health. ” says Amy McCulloch, who serves as the Deputy Director at LISC Twin Cities.

LISC has made investments contributing to the vibrancy of St. Paul’s East Side, starting in 1988 when it opened its Twin Cities office.  LISC started with investments in single family homeownership, and has since developed a comprehensive community development strategy — with CLUES as a key partner. 

“Their core goal aligns with ours, which is to provide positive development where both the wholeness of a community improve along with each individual.”
— says Ruby

With the shared objective of creating the transformative change necessary to provide communities with the tools they need to thrive on their own terms, the two organizations are working in conjunction to ensure that shared prosperity and well-being can become a reality.