Planting Roots for the Migrant Justice Movement in Phoenix

By Caroline Picker. From the July-August 2015 Grassroots Fundraising Journal.

Puente Human Rights Movement had outgrown their meeting space. Here’s how they raised $100,000 in six weeks to purchase a building of their own.

Photo by Diane Ovalle

Puente members at the opening celebration in Puente’s new home in August 2014. Photo by Diane Ovalle

ON ANY GIVEN MONDAY EVENING, pink streaks from another spectacular Phoenix sunset light up the sky as cars pull into the Puente Human Rights Campus, a former church and the accompanying pastor’s house. A table of member-organizers just inside the front door of the community room greets newcomers and returning faces alike to our weekly member meeting. In the courtyard, community members sell snacks to raise funds to pay bonds for people held in immigration detention. Arriving kids take off running to the childcare room and pull out blocks, kickballs and puzzles with friends they haven’t seen since last Monday. Bags of fresh produce harvested from the on-site community garden are handed out to those who want them.

Slowly, the community room fills up with 60 to 100 people ready to tackle their kind of work: sharing information about neighbors and friends who are currently getting arrested and sent to ICE; assigning who is setting up the sound system and distributing water at the next march; strategizing how to put the final nail in notorious Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio’s coffin and envisioning the next steps in the fight against Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant policies.

In a different room on site, a group of youth are planning their next photography project to stop the unjust separation of families and snapping portraits of the people lingering around the snack sales table. Elsewhere, volunteer artists and designers are silk screening posters for actions happening around Phoenix relating to various social justice issues. The Uno por Uno (One by One) legal clinic is conducting consults with people with loved ones in deten- tion or facing deportation themselves, planning deportation defense campaigns, and teaching people how to fight their own cases.

Just two blocks away, the Arizona State Capitol and the Governor’s tower are visible from the Puente parking lot. These are the offices of former Governor Jan Brewer who signed SB1070 into law and the legislature which in previous sessions proposed new racist bills almost every day. These offices are where the policy of “attrition through enforcement” was enacted, which aimed to make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they self-deport. These policies stripped away public benefits, in-state tuition, language access in public education, and the ability to work, all while ramping up legalized racial profiling and the enforcement dragnet that sends people to jail for corporate profit. These are the very policies that those meeting down the street at Puente have been steadfastly working to dismantle.

A year ago, these Monday night meetings happened in a tiny two-room office with one bathroom that the landlord never fixed. The kids played among cars in the crowded parking lot. The church with which we shared a wall often blared synthesizer music during services that filtered in and drowned out our conversations. We had outgrown our meeting room: people crammed in the doorway and lined up outside, trying to hear and participate in the strategizing going on inside. The one desk partitioned off from the main meeting space wasn’t separate enough for Uno por Uno legal consults to happen at all.

It was clear that we needed a place as large as our dreams, or at least large enough to nurture them into fruition. The idea of owning our own space was always in the back of our minds but seemed unrealistic if not impossible. Because of our members’ low incomes and exclusion from the work force, it was hard to imagine the idea of raising enough money to be able to put down roots in this way. We looked into bank loans but weren’t eligible to borrow an amount large enough. The predatory interest rates were another barrier given our budget, existing resources, and fundraising capacity.

However, as a result of a successful capital campaign, we signed a mortgage and made a down payment on a new building in June 2014. Purchasing our own building has allowed us to dream bigger, to envision the work we have ahead, and grow our community’s power with our roots firmly planted. Owning property so close to the seat of those who have attacked us is indicative of how far we have come in our struggle and symbolic of our vision for justice.

About Puente

The Puente Human Rights Movement was founded in 2007 in response to the first “secure communities” agreement between police and federal immigration authorities in Arizona. This agreement led to cruel attacks on our community, with Arpaio launching raids in neighborhoods and against day laborers. Since then, we have always prioritized the leadership of those most impacted by anti-immigrant policies and laws. We develop, educate and empower migrant communities to protect and defend our families and ourselves.

When we build our community’s power to overcome fear and to come out of the shadows as undocumented, we throw a literal and metaphorical cog in the deportation machine. We work to build a community of resistance and a culture of inclusion through which marginalized migrant communities can enter into the public debate and engage in improving our communities. In just a few short years, many of our members have gone from being scared of leaving their houses to organizing actions and events, conducting outreach and education, leading programs, and participating in civil disobedience.

The Possibility of Owning a Building

Doors opened to allow us to really consider owning our own building just months before it became a reality. While staff were driving some visiting supporters to the airport, we casually mentioned the possibilities that purchasing property would open up for us. This led to a relationship with a donor who was newly inspired by our work and looking for a community-based investment of a significant sum of money. After several phone conversations with us, she agreed to offer us a mortgage for $350,000, the bulk of the money it would take to purchase a building, with the lowest IRS-required interest rate. We started looking at possible spaces that day and found the one we would eventually purchase within a week. We met a new local supporter who worked in commercial real estate who personally donated to cover all of our closing costs as well as finding us an inspector and a real estate attorney who donated dozens of pro-bono hours. Through this process, we relearned one of the key lessons of organizing: share your vision as often and with as many people as possible.

$75,000 in Seven Weeks

Once we found the perfect property with a mortgage from someone who shared our values and was committed to prioritize community benefit over monetary returns, we had the task of raising $75,000 to cover the remaining cost of the building in seven weeks, when our current lease expired. This number was extremely daunting to us, even though fast, short-term fundraising is what we had learned to do best. Because of the crisis of enforcement and deportation, we frequently find ourselves in the position of having to raise between $5,000 and $15,000 within a matter of days to pay for our members’ bonds to secure their release from detention. But this was something different: How do we fundraise not for an immediate crisis, but for our long-term vision of ending that crisis once and for all?

So we did what we always do: At our next member meeting, we discussed the possibilities of owning our own space and what it would mean for us. The enthusiasm was palpable in the room as people started shouting out ideas: space for our growing membership to meet and hear each other; childcare and after-school programs that prioritized empowerment and culture; more than one bathroom; a worker-owned silk screening studio to create just jobs; housing for people released from detention; and application drives to help people apply for deferred action. It was immediately clear that even as the crisis continues, having a rooted location from which to grow our work was a critical part of strengthening our ability to fight back. Our members already talked about Puente as extended family; now they would start proudly talking about the new building as home away from home, a place of belonging.




Through a wide variety of gifts and the hard work of many, we were able to pass our fundraising goal of $75,000 and raise $100,000 in just six weeks. In addition to food sales, yard sales, car washes, and our goodbye party from our old space, these funds were raised from almost 200 individuals, many of whom were first-time donors to our organization.

Here are some key lessons we learned during this capital campaign:

Get everyone involved, and value all levels and types of gifts. We started this campaign without a staff member dedicated to fundraising, so we relied largely on volunteers. Our members organized collective yard sales, sold tacos in their neighborhoods, washed cars on Sunday mornings, and passed a hat in weekly meetings. Our staff, board and dedicated volunteers all challenged themselves to make new kinds of asks in new kinds of ways. In our weekly fundraising committee meetings, we equally recognized someone who earned a large gift from a major donor and someone making their first ever fundraising phone call. We used social media, our email list, phone calls, video conferencing, and one-on-one meetings to reach previous and new donors. One quarter of the gifts we received were less than $25. Our new home wouldn’t have been possible without every penny that was contributed in every kind of way.

Let the work speak: Communicate with vision. We called our capital campaign “Sembrando Raices” (“Planting Roots” in English) because that is what owning a building would allow us to do. We consistently reiterated this vision as part of our political platform against criminalization and deportations when we made individual and bulk asks through social media and email. We knew it was this compelling vision that would inspire people to give. We used graphics, including a donation thermometer in the shape of a corn plant, and videos, in which our members spoke about what Puente means to them and what a new building would allow us to do. We wanted everyone who gave to understand what they were becoming a part of with their gift.

Engage existing donors as organizers. Just as we cultivated leadership in our members, we cultivated leadership in our existing donors, asking them not to just increase their gift but to fundraise and organize their networks to support our capital campaign. A previous local donor threw a house party for us, inviting friends who had never before considered supporting the migrant rights movement. Three others who lived out of state fundraised among their networks via emails, phone calls, and a video conference in which Puente staff presented about our work and the new building. These three supporters collectively raised $35,900 from over 30 donors, most of whom were new to giving to our organization.

A Place to Call Our Own
At our first Monday night meeting in the new space, we talked about the layout of the building, realizing how much room we still had to fill even once each of our existing programs had a designated space. Sitting on the pews that we hadn’t removed yet, with a baptismal pool still in place, we planned the murals that would cover the former church walls. Within a month of moving in, we painted the walls and transformed the space from a church into our home. Dozens of members put in countless hours of work. Repairs, lights and signs were taken care of by our community. Even if sweat equity couldn’t buy us a building, it would clearly help us maintain it. Our new home enabled us to host the fi st annual Arizona Statewide Human Rights conference, as well as a human rights tribunal to document testimony of the abuses experienced by Arizonans in order to bring them to the UN.

These convenings were a small taste of what we continue to build in Phoenix: an organizing hub and community space that hosts cross-movement dialogues, cultural events, and local and national gatherings of groups who share a similar mission. The benefits far outweigh the extra administrative work of owning property: We have a reliable new funding stream in the form of rental income; we have a unique resource to share with Phoenix movements as the only organizing-based space in our area; we have sufficient space for our programs and offices, which can continue to grow for years to come; and, most importantly, we have a place for our community to proudly call home, amidst a climate of racism and hate in Arizona. When our sister organizations come to visit, they ask how we made this possible, and if our mortgage lender has a cousin because they want to figure out how to do something similar in their town as well.

Just like our members are told only lawyers can stop their loved ones’ deportations, we inherit the belief that only rich people can give. And while it is true that we couldn’t have purchased this building without major donors who share our values, we wanted to break the idea that we can’t own. Our community can raise money and can give dollars, time and labor to lay the foundation and build the infrastructure that enables our movement to grow. Our experience has taught us that true change will come only when impacted communities organize, act and speak for themselves. What’s true for organizing is true for fundraising as well, and we have a place of our own to prove it. 

Caroline Picker is the communications and development director at Puente Human Rights Movement in Phoenix.