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An Interview with Raquel Vazquez, The Empowered Block

With Kristen Lopez

In September we’ll be hosting a training workshop called, From Problems to Partners: How to Successfully Engage Merchants, Property Owners, and Municipal Departments. This issue is raised frequently by our members across the state, and it requires time to build and strengthen community engagement skills to get it done right.

We’re thrilled to be partnering with Rachel Vasquez, the CEO & Founder of The Empowered Block to deliver this training. Our Education & Training Director, Kristen Lopez, recently interviewed Raquel to learn more about her background, experience, and what attendees can expect from the day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Hi Raquel! We’re so excited to work with you on our upcoming training. Can you give a brief overview of who you are and what The Empowered Block is?

Hi Kristen! I’m Raquel Vasquez, CEO and founder of The Empowered Block. The Empowered Block is a community development consultancy focused on economic development, affordable housing, community engagement, and everything else community development related.

As for myself, I’m a community development professional. I’ve been in this industry for over 13 years from the public/private sector and nonprofit sector perspectives. I’ve worked with a ton of communities on various initiatives.

When we first connected, one of the topics we discussed was how many different and interesting projects you’ve worked on, and the core theme has been community engagement. Can you give an example of how you used community engagement best practices to work in a challenging environment to complete a project?

One project that comes to mind is Age Friendly New York City. I was a part of launching the first aging improvement district in the Bronx a couple years ago. There were a ton of partners that we had to get involved, with me overseeing and spearheading the initiative and pulling it together. And there was a ton of stakeholders that we had to engage on a local level to really understand how we can address customer needs, especially for those aging in place in our communities. How can we make businesses more accessible physically? What are the auditory pedestrian signals that we can put in major intersections where there are heavy concentrations of senior citizens residing in the area?

We thought of a lot of infrastructure upgrades that the City could promote to ensure accessibility, like more signs to alert pedestrians and people driving vehicles where there are people that might be hearing impaired and so forth.

It was extremely rewarding building a coalition and a whole network of partners for this initiative. Seeing the physical landscape change to be more accommodating to those with limited physical and hearing abilities and seeing the upgrades in businesses – for instance ramps – was exciting to see happen.

That’s one initiative I worked on that was really amazing, just working with the small business community on those type of initiatives. And it really helps everybody – it helps business owners, it helps property owners, it fosters goodwill among the residents and the potential customers of businesses in the community.

That’s an amazing project. I can imagine it was also complex and nuanced with varying degrees of business and city support.  And the process you took for this initiative is truly very similar to any other project, like working with merchants with unattractive window displays that’s affecting the whole Main Street. You need to build coalitions, partners, and resources to influence and get people on board.

So, when we say “community engagement” it’s a loaded term. Because “community” is made up of a lot of different people, a lot of different stakeholders, all with different perspectives, opinions, lived experiences, and agendas. When we’re talking about Main Street development, downtown development, or commercial corridor development, what are some of the most common community members and stakeholders and what are some of the kinds of common roadblocks that we face in this type of work?

In the context of economic development and small business development, the main stakeholders are the residents, the customers, the businesses, who owns the businesses, the property owners, the property managers who are managing those properties on behalf of the property owners. Then we have the municipalities and the municipal agencies. So that’s everything from departments of economic development to the mayoral offices. Then there are the elected officials that drive their own agendas with the community and partnership with the community. There are other governance bodies such as community boards or other coalitions that are initiated by or overseen by municipal agencies. That’s just the landscape in terms of economic development and small business context of engagement. But each of these stakeholders have their own perspectives. They have their own priorities and needs. They have their own concerns and challenges.

In the training, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the roles of each of these stakeholder groups and how these roles impact their needs, concerns, and opportunities. There are a ton of different opportunities that each of these stakeholder groups experience. There’s a – hopefully not a lot of barriers, but there are some identified barriers that we’re aware of that they experience. We definitely want to bring awareness to everybody’s perspectives, all stakeholder groups in their perspectives, so that we’re better able to serve our own communities.

The landscape is so big and complex. And I think that as a professional doing this type of work, we immediately think of the business owners themselves, we think about the property owners, the kind of maybe more easy to reach, easy to contact stakeholders, but there’s just so much more nuance there.

Let’s talk more about the upcoming From Problems to Partners training. This topic of, how do we engage business owners, how do we engage property owners who might be absent and completely out of touch, and how do we deal with municipal departments that are overworked, overwhelmed, or maybe just apathetic to what you’re trying to accomplish? These are concerns and challenges that we hear from our members all across Connecticut. So that’s why we’ve partnered with you to glean your wisdom from all your experience. Can you share a little bit about what attendees can expect from this training?

Absolutely. Attendees can definitely expect an interactive dynamic conversation and training on stakeholder engagement. There’s going be lots of opportunities to share your individual experiences, share a little bit about barriers and challenges you’ve encountered or experienced, as well as share best practices that you have implemented, or what you want to implement in your local Main Street corridor. We’ll discuss how we can work collaboratively to build a successful stakeholder engagement landscape and build strong partnerships with organizations in our local communities.

You can also expect and a ton of strategies and resources to be shared during and after the workshop.

What are some of the specific topics that will be covered?

We’ll first start with a general overview on stakeholder engagement just to understand the principles.

Then we’re going to discuss some engagement strategies that organizations can leverage to engage with the different stakeholders that they’re interacting with.  We’ll talk about the various stakeholder perspectives, as I mentioned briefly earlier, and their needs, barriers, and challenges for inclusive engagement.

We’ll cover building collaborative teams, driving forth public-private partnerships, and building fruitful partnerships with stakeholders.  We’ll also talk about the context of Connecticut and history of exclusion and how we can engage all communities.

We’re going leave with best practices and a lot of strategies.

It’s going to be a very packed session! Good thing we will be feeding you breakfast before we dive into the content, so you will be fed and caffeinated!   

I love how we’ll be discussing each stakeholder group and their perspective and learn different strategies to engage them because not every approach will work for every group the same way.

As we wrap up, can you share what you’re most excited about for this training?

I’m excited to connect with the participants and talk about how we can improve the small business and economic development landscape across the state by leveraging stakeholder engagement as a strategy, as a set of tools. I’m excited to hear about everyone’s experiences, their perspectives. I want to facilitate very meaningful conversations about building partnerships and relationships with local stakeholders. As important as takeaways and strategies are, there’s so much that we can learn from one another. So, I’m excited about all that, the opportunity to share, and to really reflect and learn from everyone in the room.

There’s always magic that happens when people can get together and share their personal experience, what worked, what didn’t work. And that’s part of the reason why we wanted to have this in person training versus on Zoom.

I’m personally also really excited about all the scenarios and case studies we’ll be reviewing. I think the attendees will really like that practical application and have robust conversation on how to handle these situations.

Thank you so much, Raquel, for taking your time to share a little bit more about your experience and expertise.  We are all very excited for this program coming up September 29th, 2022 – From Problems to Partners: How to Successfully Engage Merchants, Property Owners, and Municipal Departments.

Thank you so much, Kristen, and looking forward to it as well.

To learn more about and to register for From Problems to Partners: How to Successfully Engage Merchants, Property Owners, and Municipal Departments please visit our website: Deadline to register is September 15, 2022. Don’t delay signing up for this fantastic training as space is limited.

About Kristen Lopez

Kristen M. Lopez is Connecticut Main Street Center’s Education & Training Director. With over 11 years of experience in economic development from various roles and industries across the United States, she has always worked with adults to achieve their goals through education. Kristen is an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer alum, a StartingBloc Fellow, and Next City Vanguard Fellow. She holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Messiah University.

About Raquel Vazquez

Raquel is Founder & CEO of the Empowered Block LLC. For over 12 years, Raquel has spent her career in community development work, ranging from constituent services, community outreach, policy analysis, and affordable housing development in New York City and Washington, DC.

She has dedicated her career to advance equity, foster investment, and strengthen public-private partnerships in underserved communities.

Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Raquel is proud to be a Black & Latina community development professional. Raquel has a Master’s in Public Administration, Graduate Certificate in Real Estate Finance, and a double Bachelor’s in Sociology and Latin American & Caribbean Studies.

To learn more about Raquel, check out her website or LinkedIn.

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