Giving Thought: Voces Unidas de las Montañas reflects on a successful first year of service

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

On May 8, 2020, a group of Latino and Latina organizers launched Voces Unidas de las Montañas (United Voices of the Mountains) — the first Latino created and Latino-led advocacy nonprofit in Garfield, Eagle in Pitkin counties.

Despite the obstacles of the pandemic, founder and executive director Alex Sánchez and his team of co-founders Beatriz Soto, Janeth Niebla, Jasmin Ramirez and Blanca Uzeta O’Leary came together to build an organization that would make the valley a more equitable and livable place. A year after its founding, Voces Unidas has connected more than a thousand Latinos and Latinas in the region to resources and opportunities to participate in leadership, advocacy and civic engagement.

To highlight a remarkable first year, Aspen Community Foundation chatted with Voces Unidas’ Alex Sánchez to hear about the organization’s accomplishments. Here’s what we learned:

Tell us a bit about the history of Voces Unidas. Why was it founded?

I grew up in the valley and went to local schools as an English-language learner. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school and go to college and leave the valley. When I came back 20 years later, I noticed that Latinos and Latinas in the community were still dealing with the same issues in terms of opportunities and experiences.

The pandemic forced a lot of things to take a pause, but we knew our leadership was more critical than ever as systemic issues were exacerbated in a time of crisis. Instead of us pausing, we wanted to act. We wanted to model the type of work that was needed in order to come back from the pandemic better than we were before. To do this, we created an organization led by Latinos that would increase the power and influence of a community who has been relegated to the margins of society for far too long. Voces Unidas de las Montañas was founded to work with the community to fight to end the unjust and inequitable social constructs that keep Latinos and Latinas from wealth, opportunity and power.

What are the major issues confronting Latinos and Latinas in the region?

It’s important to note that we’re not monolithic. The Latino community in the region has a wide range of perspectives, interests and needs. Voces Unidas was created for Latinas and Latinos so that our leaders can advocate for themselves and create the change that they want to see in their communities. The issues and solutions that we work on are identified by members of the community and include issues like immigrant rights, housing, transportation and a myriad of other things. We are a social justice organization, so we will work on any social justice issue that will make the community more equitable.

What are some accomplishments of the past year?

Our pillars as an organization are advocacy, leadership, civic engagement and helping the community navigate resources. Just this year we were able to engage with 43,756 members of our community through our website, social media, programs and newsletter. Through our advocacy work, we saw unprecedented grassroots work led by the Voces Unidas staff. We were able to connect with 14,272 likely Latino voters during the 2020 election cycle. We also saw 1,821 individual advocacy actions (engaging with petitions, letter writing, calling representatives) taken as a result of our staff’s grassroots work in the three counties we work with.

In terms of leadership and resource distribution, we collaborated with existing community organizations to make our food distribution system more effective. Our organizers innovated new ways to distribute food so less would be left behind — connecting 1,500 people with food baskets in the process. In total, we connected 3,862 people to resources, food, direct financial aid to help people make ends meet.

With the help of the governor’s office, we hosted 10 pop-up vaccine clinics in order to provide a space for Latinos and Latinas who don’t have access to the public health system to get vaccinated.

We are so proud of all of these accomplishments, but there is still much more work to be done.

After one year of serving in your region, what have you learned? What are you taking with you into your second year?

We already knew there was a need for this work in the region, but the energy that’s come from Latinos and Latinas in the community reinforces that fact. Their passion, their commitment and their vision for their communities prove there’s hunger for this type of organizing and leadership. We’re coming out of this first year energized, but with the understanding that there is a need for a lot more.

We can’t be the only organization creating these opportunities in the region. We hope that in the coming years more organizations pop up and there are more pioneers in this space to create and organize. When more of us come together to create opportunities for people to become more effective advocates for themselves, the valley becomes a place where more of us can live and thrive.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.