Cultivating Belonging and Collective Action: How the Hope CommUnity Center Builds Power
In the heart of a bustling church in Central Florida, almost 800 people had gathered to listen to Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet. As they walked in and waited to take the mic, Felipe recognized that the whispered exchanges between families and friends felt familiar. It dawned on him that the congregation of eager faces before him were mostly Brazilian.
It was certainly not the first info session he’d led, but being surrounded by a small piece of home was electrifying and made it much more exciting to share his story of personal transformation. Felipe always starts the training with hope – by sharing that feeling of when he advocated for passing the DREAM Act. He joined the movement of undocumented youth who declared they were unafraid. Alongside three other students, he helped organize the Trail of Dreams, a 1,500-mile walk from Miami, Florida to Washington, D.C., to support the passing of the DREAM Act. It was during this trek that he stayed overnight at Hope CommUnity Center, as a pit stop along the journey.
They shared the hope that can exist within us as we harness and reclaim power as a collective. The power of knowing your rights and changing anti-immigration policies. By the time the Q&A portion of the session rolled around multiple hands shot up in the air. It was broken in a split second when an attendee stood up and shouted fiercely, “I want to join this movement!” The rolling laughs and nodding heads were a testament to the enduring power of personal stories, shared struggles, and the unwavering commitment of individuals like Felipe, who lead by example, inspiring others to become a part of something greater—a movement for change, justice, and unity.
Our collective corazón is filled with inspiring trailblazers and organizers, like Felipe, who continue to build strong foundations for our communities. He is now the executive director of Hope CommUnity Center (HCC), a place where “everyone has a voice.” 80% of their staff are immigrants or children of immigrants and about 60% came directly through one or more of their programs. People often arrive at Hope in search of resources and even just curious as to what the youth groups are about, but they stay because they feel welcomed and wanted.
HCC has perfected this approach – cultivating a sense of belonging.
At its core, the center's mission is about creating spaces where individuals can explore their own potential, connect with others, and collectively drive positive change. By fostering learning and empowerment, Hope CommUnity Center is building bridges to unite people at the intersections of their identities. It is why when they celebrated their 50th anniversary as a center, they organized Apopka, Florida’s first ever Pride event. That year “immigrants and LGBTQ communities made history as they united to celebrate the very first “Immigrant flag.” They don't just serve their community, they actively engage with it, ensuring that everyone is heard and valued.
Belonging, however, is just the beginning. Through tailored education and leadership training, they have shared access to the skills and knowledge people need to succeed and advocate for themselves.
Having first discovered the center through the Sin Fronteras youth program, Mariana's journey over the past year is a testament to the type of remarkable growth that happens at HCC. Throughout the last year, Felipe shared, she had been one of the more timid members, but during a recent train-the-trainer session she eagerly volunteered to go to the front of the room. This role-playing dynamic encourages young people to break down pedagogical power structures and learn from each other. Through the experiences designed for introspection and connection, she was able to gain the courage to see herself in a new light. Now, a once shy teenager, she has evolved as a program leader.
Hope CommUnity Center's approach is a testament to the transformative potential of local organizations. Although Felipe admits, “We are taking big risks in Florida; we consider ourselves at the cutting edge of community organizing.” He explained that Hope is strategically positioned between rural and urban communities, and has the opportunity to connect these realities.
Hope is just one of the 19 organizations that form part of the first cohort of the Power Building & Justice program at HIP. The program has focused its first efforts in the South and Southwest to resource Latine and BIPOC-serving nonprofits in power building, civic engagement, and movement building to advance social and racial justice.
Organizations like Hope were selected into the cohort for their ability to be vehicles for change. This is why the practice of trust-based philanthropy has been so powerful. The unrestricted funding has allowed some of those resources to go directly into operating budgets, allowing organizations to “operate from a space of abundance and take risks,” as Felipe explained.
Hope CommUnity Center remains an inspirational model. It showcases the profound impact that local nonprofits can have in building power within and for Latine communities. And it reminds us that the most legitimate solutions lie at the heart of our multigenerational and often intersectional communities.