The Puerto Rican identity is one that is deeply rooted in resistance and community. If you’re Boricua, you’ll find that community wherever you go. Raúl Echevarria is a native of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood who relocated to Wyandotte, Michigan in 2013. The experience he gained in Chicago first as an educator, then as an activist prepared him to join what was a familiar struggle in Southwest Detroit.
Raúl had been an educator in Chicago Public Schools for 13 years when he left in 2004 for a non-profit whose mission was affordable housing for underserved communities. When they organized a protest against a luxury development in downtown Chicago, Raúl found himself in the role of activist and the type of engagement work he had been searching for. “I was helping to lead a comprehensive community planning process bringing in stakeholders, partners, into the planning process,” said Raúl, “That was probably the start of my really in-depth education and experience in community organizing, community activism.” Shortly thereafter, he attended the Midwest Academy where he learned fundamental principles of community organizing as practiced by Saul Alinsky, an influential social activist in the mid-20th century from Chicago who founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAS) and developed effective organizing tactics still in use today. However, Raúl discovered that the Puerto Rican community had their own ideas about effective community organizing. “There was an anti-Alinsky rhetoric that was really deep and I began to sort out why that was. I think about it as setting up a dialectic between Puerto Rican self-determination and Saul Alinsky-style organizing and saying, what’s the synthesis between those two?”
After Raúl left the affordable housing non-profit, he began working at the Puerto Rican Cultural center, a grassroots organization focused on health, education, housing, and the celebration of Puerto Rican culture within the community. Raúl would eventually become deputy director under José Lopez, the organization’s founder and executive director. It was José Lopez, a professor of Latin American Studies at Northeaster Illinois University, who had the greatest impact on Echevarria in terms of community activism. “The four years that I spent as the deputy director was the formation of my political analysis and my political framework, hands down,” he recalled. Mentors like Lopez helped Raúl to understand how to work through non-profits to bring substantive solutions to the communities they serve while still holding true to his fundamental principles. “I learned how to navigate the world of non-profits and elected officials and still maintain your radical world view and not be sullied or influenced negatively by that engagement.” Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel also had a tremendous impact on Echevarria’s political thought, shaping his understanding of oppression through the Philosophy of Liberation, an intersectional political philosophy that resists racism, colonialism, and sexism in the context of the Latin American experience. “From Dussel, I found my mantra as an activist, which is a Puerto Rican whose land is colonized by the United States of America.” Raúl has incorporated the influence of Dussel into a style of activism shaped by a fusion of the community organizing principles of Saul Alinsky, and the liberation theory born of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
When Raúl arrived in Southwest Detroit he found a Latinx community that was already engaged in struggles that were very similar back home in Chicago. Southwest Detroit was dealing with the onset of gentrification in the wake of years of divestment much like Raúl’s neighborhood back home. “It reminded me of Humboldt Park, Chicago, which is where I was born and raised in the Puerto Rican neighborhood where we knew disinvestment. The vacant lots in our community were our playgrounds,” Raúl recalled. “Long story short, when I decided to relocate it was partly because of this profound sense of home that I wasn’t expecting.” Raúl and other activists from the community often gathered at Café Con Leche, a coffee shop on W. Vernor Highway to discuss the changes taking place in the neighborhood, changes that reminded him of the private developers coming into Humboldt Park. “I looked forward to those conversations because anti-gentrification work has been what I knew and understood in Chicago with the Puerto Rican community,” Raúl reflected.
The gentrification of Southwest was alarming to residents and a few decided to make it known when a mural by Hygienic Dress League in the Bagley neighborhood was defaced with anti-gentrification graffiti. The art collective had no connection to the community and residents viewed it as a harbinger of what was to come. The people of Southwest were demanding a voice in how their neighborhoods were being developed and Raúl began to wonder how he could facilitate a space for that voice. Raúl connected different elements of the community into an organization called Engaging Community Lifting Voices (ENCLAVE). “One day it dawned on me that I was having the same conversation with, like, two or three different people who are Detroiters who know each other, but weren’t having the conversation together. So I said, why don’t we have one conversation and why don’t we form a group?” The goal of the organization was to have the community decide for itself what kind of development would occur in the neighborhoods of Southwest. One of the first issues they would address was with an organization called Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), a community development non-profit operating in Southwest Detroit. UNI was working to rebrand the Springwells neighborhood as “Springwells Village,” something that didn’t sit well with residents. While their project was encouraging business and development, it was leaving out important voices in the community. “We began to confront that,” Raúl explained. “Confronting it with the idea that while the organization did reach out and did engage the community, it wasn’t authentic enough.”
After UNI initially resisted the involvement of this new coalition of community activists, ENCLAVE and the Southwest community began a campaign of their own, circulating petitions and the message, “We are Southwest Detroit.” When UNI had a change in their leadership and the new director was willing to engage the concerns of the community, a dialogue with activists began. A new position was created within the organization to represent the interests of the community regarding how UNI conducted its development. Raúl was considered a top candidate but he wasn’t going to accept unless the community decided that was the best course of action. The community gave him their blessing, deciding that Raúl would best represent their interests from within the UNI. “I think everyone, hands down, said, ‘We think it’s a natural progression of the campaign. There’s a new willingness to sort of accept the critique and build on it, right? To correct it. We think that it would be great if you were the one trying to correct it.”
After careful deliberation, Raúl accepted the position. As the director of Land Use and Economic Development at UNI, he has focused on community development efforts in Springwells. Once in the newly formed position, he began building a larger network of community organizations in Southwest Detroit to address the concerns of residents regarding development. Two of the projects he is currently engaged in are the development of a youth activities center and a multi-organization community listening campaign in which UNI and others engage in direct conversation with residents to find out what it is they want in terms of development in the neighborhood and how they can be directly involved in the process. “We all believe in community organizing principles. We all don’t have the capacity to incorporate them. Instead of getting just feedback for what I want to do as an organization, now my charge is to try to create an organizing network in the Springwells area.”
While ENCLAVE is no more, its spirit lives on in organizations that are foundational to grassroots activism in Southwest Detroit. “When you think about this organizing network, a lot of the same people who are leading these organizations were part of the ENCLAVE process. Young Nation, Grace in Action, Church and Collectives, all very long-serving institutions in the community,” Raúl explained. “The spirit of having a powerful collective voice and collective work, I think it’s still alive. The difference being, now UNI is part of that.”
Raúl recognizes that change is something that does not happen overnight and remains committed to the struggle for a stronger community in Southwest. “Revolution is something that happens in gradations and over time.” He centers the teachings of indigenous practices within his organizing work understanding that decolonization is an internal as well as an external process. Raúl continues his work at UNI while pursuing a master’s degree in divinity at the Ecumenical Theology Seminary. “I see my work in Detroit as creating a space for Puerto Ricans to build their identity, to preserve their culture, and to create a sense of hope in collective space.”
Raúl Echevarria, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, April 6, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.