It’s always an ‘or’ situation for Cassie Calway.
“Will we pay rent or will we buy groceries?” said Calway, a mother of two in Las Cruces. “I worry all the time about what will happen if our car breaks down or I get sick, and my kids can’t go to school. The constant stress is unbelievable.”
Calway is working toward a master’s degree in social work, but also works as a server at a local restaurant. With her low-wage job, she faces a constant struggle to take care of her two daughters, Cassidy, 15, and Caitlyn, 12.
Despite the struggle, Calway has worked diligently for the past 15 months to help pass a minimum wage increase in Las Cruces, volunteering with Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFé) de NM, a faith-based community organization and W.K. Kellogg Foundation grantee.“I’m trying to make it so everyone who works minimum wage can have a decent life,” said Calway, who considers herself luckier than many others working minimum wage jobs. “I get to come home to my girls at night and help them stay involved in things at school. But I know folks who work two or three jobs just to get by and their kids come home to empty houses.
And there isn’t a single child in Las Cruces that doesn’t deserve every opportunity that others get.
Her commitment and CAFé’s campaign have paid off. On September 8, 2014, the city council adopted the CAFé ballot initiative as an ordinance, gradually raising the minimum wage from $7.50 to $10.10 by 2017. Not only will the change benefit thousands of low-wage workers in Las Cruces, but it also will boost the city’s economy. CAFé estimates that about $10 million will go back to the city in the year after the ordinance starts.
A multi-faith, multi-cultural and non-partisan group, CAFé unites Las Crucens from a range of diverse backgrounds. The eclectic coalition includes Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and other congregations. Despite differing theologies, they band together in pursuit of their common goals: upholding human dignity and creating a better life for the children and families of Las Cruces.
For Executive Director Sarah Nolan, who founded the organization in 2009, faith and civic engagement are not unusual partners; instead, they go hand in hand. “All our different faiths call us to pursue justice, help the poor, better your community,” she said. “So when people see their faith leaders fighting for their rights, they remember that this is a deep part of what we all believe.”
In addition to economic justice, CAFé also works to raise awareness of local issues, provide homeowner advocacy, protect the rights of immigrants and advocate for healthcare services.
But beyond their capacity to rally thousands of people to a cause, CAFé’s true impact lies in their ability to empower unlikely leaders. CAFé staff meetings don’t revolve around tasks, but around the people they’re developing and the voices they’re amplifying.
“We’re reweaving the fabric of relationships,” says Nolan. “People recognize that it’s their responsibility to share their stories with those around them, to contribute their voice to public life and create the change they want to see.”
She shares the story of Rose Ann Vasquez, a mother of three, who in 2011 faced losing her home of 12 years after her bank threatened foreclosure. Two weeks after first coming to CAFé for help, Nolan asked Vasquez to share her experience with TV reporters.
After that anxious initial interview, Vasquez became a passionate advocate and spokesperson for foreclosure prevention and worked with the organization in their campaign to secure half of an $11 million state settlement. Vasquez is now on a taskforce leading state legislation for homeowner protections and is the CAFé staff lead on their foreclosure prevention work.
Rev. Linda Mervine of First Christian Church, former CAFé board president and one of the founding clergy, has seen the powerful effect on her own congregation.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see my members get the opportunity to speak in front of senators and make the case for their communities,” Mervine said. “Even with knees trembling, they stand up and tell their stories because they know it can make a difference.”
CAFé’s many steadfast volunteers would agree, including Leslie Belt, who’s recently been helping people register to vote in front of local supermarkets.
“CAFé is such an empowering organization. After losing my writing job of 28 years and moving to a minimum wage position, I felt a loss of dignity,” said Belt. “CAFé reminded me of my own strength and ability to affect others, and I can’t thank them enough for that.
“My favorite part is registering young voters for the first time and welcoming them into this awesome responsibility and privilege. It makes me feel like I’m helping invest in my future and their future.”
The ripple effect of CAFé’s approach is evident. It was one of CAFé’s members who brought Calway to the organization, after meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church. In turn, Calway has spoken to hundreds of people about the importance of engaging in the issues that affect them, including her family.“I recently got involved with the passing of the $10.10 minimum wage because I realized this was something that will directly impact my life and my family,” Calway’s daughter Cassidy said. “And I know plenty of my friends and their families are in similar situations. There are people who are living this reality every day; it’s not just a statistic.”
There are people who are living this reality every day; it’s not just a statistic.
In just five years, CAFé has helped change the landscape in Las Cruces, pushing forward victories that affect thousands of the city’s most vulnerable. But ultimately, Nolan is most proud of their intangible impact.“It’s remarkable what can happen when you help people discover that their story has power,” she said. “People need to know that they matter, no matter where they were raised or their background, and people learn that by knowing that their stories matter.”
“People need to know that they matter, no matter where they were raised or their background, and people learn that by knowing that their stories matter.”