Achieving Transformational Results in Housing Through Partnerships


In a time when many cities across the United States are facing a growing housing crisis, one community has challenged the status quo, working across divides to bring partners together to raise millions of dollars – with a goal of building 10,000 housing units by 2028 in California’s Coachella Valley.

What sounds like success now, with 1,600 units already under production, didn’t start out that way. The region faced both a lack of funding and a lack of belief that significantly increasing housing in the valley was even possible. But through effective collaboration, steadfast commitment, and hard conversations, the region is seeing progress beyond their initial dreams.

We learn how that progress became a reality in our conversation with two leaders from this work, Omar Carrillo Tinajero (Center for Community Investment) and Heather Vaikona (Lift to Rise). They share the good, the hard, and the harder of how they went from a group of advocates to a successful movement, building an unprecedented number of new housing units and seeing real transformational change in the process.

Ways to listen: You can listen below or on your preferred podcast streaming service, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Please find a transcript of this talk further down this page.

Resources and Footnotes

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The Intro music, entitled “Running,” was composed by Rafael Krux, and can be found here and is licensed under CC: By 4.0.

The outro music, entitled “Deliberate Thought,” was composed by Kevin Macleod. Licensed under CC: By.

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Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.

The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

In this episode, we’re learning about the work of Lift to Rise, and how they and a collaborative of partnering organizations worked together across their differences to confront the growing housing crisis in California’s Coachella Valley. Through their partnership, they have been able to raise millions of dollars and are progressing on their goal of building 10,000 housing units by 2028.

But what sounds like success now, didn’t start out that way. They faced both a lack of funding and a lack of belief that significantly increasing housing in the valley was even possible. But through effective collaboration, steadfast commitment, and hard conversations, the region is seeing progress beyond their initial dreams.

We learn how that progress became a reality in our conversation with two leaders from this work, Omar Carrillo Tinajero from the Center for Community Investment, and Heather Vaikona from Lift to Rise. They share the good, the hard, and the harder of how they went from a group of advocates to a successful movement, building an unprecedented number of new housing units and seeing real transformational change in the process.

Moderating this discussion is Collective Impact Forum executive director Jennifer Splansky Juster. Let’s tune in.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s podcast. I’m Jennifer Splansky Juster, executive director of the Collective Impact Forum. In today’s podcast I’m delighted to be chatting with two leaders from the extraordinary initiative called Lift to Rise, based in the Coachella Valley of Southern California. We will be learning about the work of Lift to Rise today, the real, tangible results that this ambitious effort has achieved, and how the work has progressed to the place where it is today. I’m also particularly excited because I know this conversation will be both inspiring and also real, grounded in the hard work it takes to align individuals and organizations around this ambitious work.

Joining me for today’s conversation are Heather Vaikona, president and CEO at Lift to Rise, and Omar Carrillo Tinajero, director of partnerships and initiatives, Center for Community Investment, also we will refer to as CCI.

So, welcome, Heather and Omar. I’d love to start by asking you to each introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what brought you to your current work.

Heather Vaikona: Thank you so much, Jennifer. I’m thrilled to be here and thrilled to be in conversation with my very good friend, Omar, as well. We’ve worked together with Omar and the Center for Community Investment for, I think, at least seven years.

What brings me to my current role at Lift to Rise and leading our collective impact backbone initiative, I think, is a lifelong vocational calling of believing that change is possible in the world, which began for me very early in my childhood. I’m a fourth generation Southern Californian, but I spent much of my childhood in different spots of the world, particularly in Tonga in the South Pacific. Tongan is my second language, and I was in fact partially raised by a Tongan nanny and went to school in Tonga. I finished school there before I came back to America for undergrad. One of the things in my very last year of school is that one of my teachers told me that I in fact was not smarter than anybody else in my class, that I wasn’t smarter than anybody that would finish school that year, but that at the end of the year that I would get on a plane and get to go to university and the rest of my classmates would go back to their villages or the bush.

I also had a class at that point while I was in school in Tonga that showed the distribution of the world’s resources from a western and nonwestern perspective, and the combination of those formative experiences of having a global perspective about how incredibly unequal and unfair the world is and the distribution of resources, and that the world absolutely has enough for everybody, but really what drives the way that we live in countries and societies is our mental models around who we think belongs, who we think matters, and what we think is possible.

So I come to my role at Lift to Rise believing that every person matters and believing most especially that opportunity is for everyone and that if we choose to love everyone around us then transformational change is possible everywhere.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you so much, Heather. The Coachella Valley is so lucky to have you as the leader of Lift to Rise. Omar, let’s go over to you.

Omar Carrillo Tinajero: I’m also excited to be in this conversation with Heather and with you, Jennifer.

Like, I think, most of us in this work, I come to it from an understanding of the injustices that I saw. I saw them early on. I was an avid public transportation taker since my teenage years and I grew up in L.A. and was moving around different parts of the city and started observing how different those places looked, how different they felt. It started a growing set of questions in my teenage self about why that was and why certain communities had some amenities that others didn’t.

That turned into a foray into public policy where I was working on health and housing issues in the state of Oregon, but then grew a curiosity about how what we were doing in the state legislature translated into actual projects, into transforming people’s lives, which led me to a curiosity about affordable housing development and economic development projects themselves.

What I was seeing and kept seeing as I was in those spaces was a disconnect between these different ways of approaching the work, and what led me to CCI, the Center for Community Investment, is a continued—how should I call it—quest to integrate the different aspects of the work, how do we think about systems change while thinking practically about policy change while thinking very specifically about a set of projects that will lead us there.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you, Omar. Let’s stick with that and have you tell us a little bit more about the body of work at CCI and how that connects into the work in the Coachella Valley.

Omar Carrillo Tinajero: Sure. So CCI helps communities across the country create equitable, effective investment systems that respond to community priorities. We do that using a suite of frameworks. But central to that is our capital absorption framework. And that framework is about is how do you create the conditions for communities to be able to not only absorb capital but actually deploy it to the kinds of projects that communities want and need and prioritize.

In that, we work across different kinds of communities, urban, suburban, rural, and across different sectors, whether that is projects on climate adaptation, affordable housing, economic development, you have it. But the central tenet is how do we advance racial equity by supporting communities to change the landscape in which people are more set to live with dignity and thrive.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: And so, let’s have Heather tell us a little bit about the mission and the work of Lift to Rise, and then Omar, if you can come back in and tell us about CCI’s support of that work.

Heather Vaikona: Lift to Rise is a nonprofit organization is Southern California’s Coachella Valley that brings together community and institutional leaders to collaboratively solve the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. That’s our mission. Essentially, we are a collective impact organization. We spun out of an initiative of the backbone of more than 70 organizations with one really clear North Star.

A group of five to 10 funders and then a lot more community organizations and now more than 70 partners, and back in 2014 and 2015, were holding this question of why were they all investing in the same things and need was just exponentially growing, and that’s things like food insecurity or homelessness.

So we held this question of how might we structure ourselves or how might we organize ourselves to really get at the root cause issues that are driving instability. So ultimately, we aligned around recognizing that rent burden or housing insecurity was the number one driver of both quantitatively and qualitatively that we saw in data as the issue that was driving instability in our region.

This is back in 2015 before we were in a housing policy moment in California, and so the idea of—and definitely we were not—we were very much a motley crew then and I’d say we still probably are now, but we definitely weren’t housing community development and finance folks. We were a group of folks that were committed to figuring out how we transform the trajectory of opportunity for our neighbors knowing that so many folks were struggling.

So in 2018 we spun out as our own organization with two collaborative action networks, a housing and an economic mobility collaborative action network. At our housing collaborative action network which is where we’ve done the most deep work with the Center for Community Investment, it is led in partnership with Riverside County’s Housing and Workforce Solutions. We’ve been in public-private partnership with them since our inception and together we hold a shared result of reducing rent burden at a population level by 30 percent, and radically increasing the supply of affordable housing in the region by 10,000 units.

It’s really been that suite of frameworks that Omar referred to from the Center for Community Investment and specifically capital absorption that has taught us how to structure and organize the work. We’ve also been supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation since our inception to do a ton of adaptive leadership and results-based leadership development on ourselves together as a backbone staff but also our partners to be able to figure out how you share such a big agenda in such an acutely impacted area of the world and actually really get results.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Omar, is there anything you’d like to add about how CCI has connected into the work?

Omar Carrillo Tinajero: Yeah, so the Coachella folks were part of an initiative we ran called Connect Capital where we brought six teams to form multisector place-based initiatives in their location, all with the focus of attracting and deploying capital to achieve their community goals. Through that they worked on developing a set of shared priorities—or a shared priority that included the concrete results that they were after, a pipeline of projects that together would actually make a difference in that shared priority, and a set of enabling environment priorities which are—the context in which those deals are happening so the enabling environment are the sets of policies, practices, regulation, funding flows, etc., that affect whether those projects move forward or not. Through that work we coached and supported the work in those six places including in Coachella Valley.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: You know, Lift to Rise has made incredible strides in the work so far, and I’d love to start by talking about the results you’ve seen. Some will backtrack into some of the building blocks that you have taken to get there but, Heather, can you tell us about some of the results you’re most proud of to date?

Heather Vaikona: Yeah, I think someone early on, actually my mentor, Marian Urquilla, who is the cofounder of the Center for Community Investment, when we started the work, she—we were a couple of years into it, she said you know your job is to get buckets and buckets of results, and we’ve always held this question of—it’s something that she says but it’s on the wall in our office of what can we get done by Tuesday. We’ve always had this orientation of how do we move now and also how do we take the long view of transforming systems.

I think this isn’t the concrete answer you want but I will get to it. I think the thing that I’m the most proud of in the work of Lift to Rise and our partners is that we’ve figured out how to work together across not just 70 organizations, but we now have a base of thousands of residents who participate in creating that work. I think for everyone across America who is trying to figure out how to do work at scale and co-create that work with community in an authentic and honest way, like Omar said, that prioritizes and centers community priorities, that’s a really difficult feat, and that we’ve figured out how to do that with the support of the Center for Community Investment and others, I think, is what I’m the most proud of, that the inside of our hearts and the outside of our work, that they absolutely match.

In terms of results, between 2010 and 2018 the Coachella Valley produced an annual rate of 38 units of affordable housing per year. We set a goal in 2018 to radically increase housing supply by 10,000 units by 2028 which would mean we’d have to ramp up to 1,000 units of production. Omar can remember the early days of partners thinking that that was absolutely insane, and really how we got to—we wanted to be able to demonstrate that we were making an impact at the level of population because we wanted to transform systems, and if you have a little goal, you can do that work programmatically. Right now we have more than 1,600 units under production in the Coachella Valley so our annual rate of affordable housing production has gone from 38 units a year to now we’re shooting above 1,600. We are almost halfway towards our 10-year mark, and we are on track with more than 7,000 units in our housing pipeline.

We’ve structured a housing catalyst fund with the support of the Center for Community Investment national finance partners like the Low Income Investment Fund and RCAC, and we have structured and built an almost 100-million-dollar catalyst fund to drive that pipeline of projects. We also during the pandemic, we pivoted like everyone in the world did to recognize that radically increasing housing supply on its own wasn’t going to work if our friends and neighbors were falling out of their housing, and because of our deep partnership with Riverside County and the groundwork we had laid to figure out how to trust each other and work together, we were able to build a rental assistance program that ultimately deployed more than $325,000,000 and kept 125,000 residents housed across our county. Like Omar was talking about earlier with community priorities, we were able to center community priorities.

Lift to Rise is an organization scaled from eight to 48 employees. The majority of our employees were under the age of 27, all of them young folks from the community. Most of them are recent graduates from college. I say this often and especially when elected officials and government officials come to visit us, a lot of our folks probably couldn’t get a loan, but they’ve demonstrated what’s possible when you trust people, when you trust young folks from the community, absolutely integrous and steadfast and committed to supporting our neighbors, and so our rental assistance program which was called United Lift, it really centered and prioritized the needs of residents first.

Across the pandemic we held what we called popups. We were out in the community before there were vaccinations making sure that folks had—it’s very difficult to navigate federal guidelines, Treasury guidelines, to deploy funding, and we raided every type of resource possible to get money out the door and keep your neighbors housed. It wasn’t perfect. It was really hard work. It took a lot of physical and emotional stress, but I think one thing that that work did back to the permanent work and the long-term goals around investment in policy is it demonstrated to our community what’s possible when we choose to trust each other, when we choose to work together, and when we put our resources together.

Omar Carrillo Tinajero: And if I can add, I would say that I think one of the biggest things that the folks at the Coachella—in the Coachella Valley have done is really shown what we mean by systems change. I think that is often a term that can become vague, and we don’t have a good sense of what that looks like, and if we think about what makes up the system, I think a lot of us have seen that pyramid that has events at the top, and then it has patterns of behavior, and then it has structures of the system, and then it has mental models.

They address the events through the emergency rental assistance so making sure that folks stay in their homes. They’re addressing patterns of behavior so how are they making sure that more houses come onto the system. And they’re thinking about really in changing the structures of the system so how are the cities collaborating different? How are the permitting processes changing so that more housing is built, and how are they relating to the state and the county in a different way so that they’re relating to the cities and the communities differently?

And then finally, really thinking about those mental models and what is actually driving who is deserving and who’s getting left behind. Why are some places in California not getting the same kinds of resources that other places are? They’re doing a lot of work to shift not only who is deserving and who thinks of who is deserving but how do we actually start to shift how the resources get deployed in a way that aligned with the purported values that we espouse.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: That’s really helpful, Omar, to do that sort of cross walking into different dimensions of systems change, and, Heather, listening to you I think talking about the culture and the relationships piece of the work probably had a lot of people nodding, and then talking about the results I think you probably had a lot of jaws dropping because your results are incredible, and I can’t wait to talk a little bit more about the work that has gotten you all there but congratulations on the work so far.

Let’s do that. Let’s talk a little bit more about some of the work and some of the challenges that you all have worked through. Often, we know progress is not a linear journey and I think folks can really relate to that but tell us more about the early days of this work and what you think has been most helpful for the growth of the work.

Heather Vaikona: That’s a great question, and I think of all my colleagues that Omar knows that are in the core leadership of our work within different organizations, and everyone cringes when I begin to tell this story because parts of it are truthfully really ugly.

The thing that brought us all together is that sort of generational horizon vision of a future where all families in our region have the opportunity to be healthy and stable and thriving. We sort of set that goal of radically increasing housing supply and reducing rent burden, and I would say that some of us believed more than others that it was possible but we all kind of had a we’re-going-to-go-for­-it attitude, the most challenging thing in the start is the conflict in relationships that it takes to align at a human level around the values that you hold and to find each other to be able to carry that work forward because fundamental to being able to work across, especially in public-private partnership but across sectors is recognizing that everyone has competing commitments and that everybody has sort of complex, like Omar said, arrangements that they’re navigating.

We all have these things that we believe about what is possible in the world and so for us in the start of our relationship we had a lot of conflict specifically in our partnership with the county who has always been and continues to be sort of the bedstone partner of this work but figuring out how to do that work together was really challenging. I think a thing that is really important when we’re talking about changing systems and doing that together with people is recognizing that the people—that the systems are made up of people and that the people doing the change work are people, and we often think that that work is outside of ourselves but it’s really inside of ourselves and it’s us who had to change. It’s us who has to reckon to who we are and what we’re bringing to the work, and what we’re bringing to each other, and I would say the most challenging thing to start—I say this story all the time, and he doesn’t like it, but he allows me to tell the story that the chair of our housing, Ken, who I’d say is one of my best work friends now, we absolutely hated each other at the start. We couldn’t get along.

Omar had to facilitate many conversations, outright arguments. Some of them were embarrassing. I cringe when I think back to the things that we said to each other, and we actually got stuck at the airport once in San Francisco after a meeting with CCI, and I knew that he had sort of the same persuasion about the world that I had, and he knew that I had the same one. The funny thing is the core group of us, one of our favorite books is Mountains Beyond Mountains, the book about Paul Farmer. We all believed—had that same gut sense of justice and love for the world but we didn’t behave that way with each other, and we were still—and I think what was happening is that the demands and the commitments within our roles and systems were butting up against each other. We got stuck at the airport once together and we were at Starbucks at SFO, and I remember saying probably not in as kind language but why are you such a jerk to me? Why? What is this? And we had this very honest conversation about what happens within both of our organizations and systems and the pressures, and it was really after that conversation, it was a moment in time that we pivoted to recognizing each other’s shared humanity, our shared values, and we chose to figure out how to do the work together.

Omar could probably remember better but I want to say there was a very terrible, rough 18 months. Jennifer, it was existential because for us as a little backbone organization that was just trying to get going, we’re not a big public institution with tons of resources, and having conflict like that, it doesn’t—when you’re in the work, you’re afraid of what funders are going to think about your conflict, what they’re going to think about your leadership, how they’re going to think, especially if it’s complicated conflict which most conflict is. So we had to be vulnerable enough to deal with ourselves, to deal with each other, and once we got aligned and there was a set of relationships that was aligned in values, that had the maturity to recognize that we needed to be very—to really pay attention to what each other needed to do the work, then we started to get in sync and then really, I would say momentum really started to build but I think the relational challenges were certainly the most difficult.

The work itself, you can do the work, but you can’t do the work if you can’t work with people. I don’t know if Omar has anything else to offer about the early day challenges, but I would say those were the biggest ones. Just as a person, as a leader, it’s where I felt the worst and the most awful but it’s also where I felt that I failed the most, and it really rattled my confidence and made me question whether I was capable of leading this work.

Omar Carrillo Tinajero: I think the thing that I would add is early on and throughout the work we—and in collective impact work we talk a lot about the difference between technical versus adaptive and this idea that solutions to adaptive challenges have to come from the people closest to the problem.

I think what we might do a better job of acknowledging is actually dealing with adaptive challenges takes a lot of courage in the way that Heather has described, the vulnerability that is needed and then the courage to say, yes, we might be in front of funders, we might be in front of other folks who are not used to seeing, experiencing conflict, and that is such an important part of how to break through and move forward. Through those 18 months of navigating what the partnership was going to look like and putting aside—and then also the courage to put aside even some of the technical dimensions of the work because what the team needed was a lot of time and facilitation and space to actually align on what those priorities were. How were they going to get to a result? What were the contributions from each partner going to look like, and how were they going to negotiate the tradeoffs and the senses of loss that they were experiencing as they went through this process, was really important to set the foundation that they then were able to tackle some of the more technical dimensions, you know, the more—what does the capital have to look like, how much, how do we find someone to think about the projects with us but those needed the foundation of trust that these folks really laid through the process.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Yeah, you’ve mentioned trust and, Heather, you also mentioned values as a big piece that was important for folks to align around. Tell us more about the journey to come together around those shared values.

Heather Vaikona: Thank you. Great question, and it’s the one that I think has given me the most pause as we’re sort of several years into the work now and thinking about where we are and what’s next and what makes the work possible.

One thing that sort of jogs back to the last question is I think some of the places where our values were really tested and then honed under fire is that once we got aligned and started to set an agenda and bring more people to the table and cut that path forward, not everyone agreed or believed in what we were doing, and especially our core partnership between us and Riverside County. My colleague, Mike Walsh and I, there were several times when we went to make pitches about the work that we were doing together to build a catalyst fund or to drive a shared pipeline, and we weren’t just well received but there were points where we were mocked, and to the point where I can—you know it’s funny but some of my own kids’ core memories are sitting on the floor of public meetings listening to us argue with whether it’s elected officials or community members about what’s actually causing homelessness. Is it—because for a long time in our region, and I think this is still true in lots of places in America, folks had a very difficult time to make the connection that actually the crisis deficit supply of housing is that it is the number one reason why people enter homelessness.

So when you get up espousing values but casting a vision forward of how things might be different and people disagree with you and disagree with you in ways that are embarrassing and sometimes humiliating, that really tests your values of who are you and why are you doing this work and why are you doing it together. I think the thing that I absolutely believe, and I know it’s true, our shared work and what’s made it really so special is that if you believe that change is possible and if you believe that every human life is deserving of opportunity, then you can make anything happen.

Where that gets tested is like as Omar said, are we talking about an adaptive issue or are we talking about a technical issue? It is very complicated because we have very complex laws around producing affordable housing, and we have a sort of triangulated argument between state, federal, and local governments that blame each other for why housing isn’t produced.

The thing that always comes to me is who do you think that you are responsible for serving? Do you think that you’re responsible for serving your neighbors or do you think that job belongs to the state of California or does the state think that jobs belong to the federal government. If you choose to be accountable because values mean nothing without accountability, and you have to choose to own a stake or a portion of the problem that you’re trying to solve. Otherwise your values can’t actually come into the world and sort of like become something, but I think the thing that we’ve seen is that if you have a group of folks that are aligned around really believing in the dignity and the worth of everyone in your community, the mission follows that. You don’t follow a mission and then get to values.

The things that we’re doing in the world are predicated about what we believe and who we believe matters, and so I think there’s a core group of us that started to sort of circle the wagons around believing that if we just kept going and persisting and trusting, but that thing about accountability and back to your work with the Center for Community Investment and also the Annie E. Casey Foundation who supported us here too is, Jennifer, we’ve had to do tons and tons of work on ourselves to be able to have difficult conversations because if you don’t have difficult conversations, you have difficult relationships. The relationships are hard anyways to align the work, and so back to kind of how we started is like what is the work that you have to do on yourself to be able to be aligned in values so that you can be accountable.

I think the combination of having a concrete result and having a set of values and then believing that people can make contributions towards that result, I think that’s another thing I feel very proud of in the work, is that we have shifted from either being for or against but forward together. The normal dynamic is like I’m for this and I’m against that, that’s fine but how do we go forward together, and how do we do that in spite of I still might not like you, you still might not like me, we still might be for something that you’re still against but that doesn’t mean—that doesn’t negate the possibility that we can find our way forward to a difference patch of earth together.

Omar Carrillo Tinajero: The thing that keeps coming up for me—maybe this is the theme for me of the conversation—it goes back to the courage piece again and how it is in some ways facilitates courage when you have a core team that you can be courageous with and who can help balance when you’re meeting these challenges that test those values that Heather was talking about, being able to go back to this team that you have built.

I think what was courageous about the work was not just these folks saying we’re going to deal with some of our housing issues, it was we’re actually going to pause it, that we’re going to help shift the system, and we’re going to do this by also bringing in thousands of new affordable homes into our system, and that big number, as Heather was saying, is really scary and opens one up to being mocked, being not believed, being told how dare you or who do you think you are, and having the team again to stand with and stay actually we are capable of this because we’re building this army of folks in the region who are committed to this goal made a significant difference and continues to as they move because again the work continues. It is not like all the adaptive challenges are gone and everything is working smoothly now. It’s an ongoing effort.

Heather Vaikona: The one thing I think that we haven’t touched on yet that I think is really important especially for folks listening is to acknowledge—especially for me, is to acknowledge the racial dynamics of our community, and for me as a very privileged White woman leading this work, it has taken a ton of work and reckoning on myself to learn how to assume a different posture of leadership that doesn’t over-center myself, and that isn’t predicated on a culture of whiteness and White supremacy.

We live in a homogenous White-Latino community, have a much smaller Black community. We’ve had to—I will speak for myself to say at several points during the work I did not think I could lead a multiracial coalition as a White woman. I didn’t think I could do that work authentically. I thought that I was causing more damage because I felt so outside of my body at points in how do I align the values on the inside of my body to the out, and we live less than a hundred miles from the border, so we are in a very complex border region, disinvested community that as egregious racial economic segregation, and then how do we bring folks, how do we bring everyone to the table in the context of that. I can remember having a conversation one time with Marian where I said like I don’t think I can do this. I think I need to just kind of—I feel like I need to dissolve, and she said I can understand that you feel that way and I think the beckoning is that you need to become something else.

I know that we’ll talk about that more down the line but I think White folks, we get afraid of talking about these things out loud because we don’t want to get it wrong, and just to say that for me it’s taken a lot of talking about it out loud with a lot of people, a lot of coaching support, therapy, a lot of making mistakes, a lot of making mistakes in racialized conflict, and learning to have the humility and the courage, like Omar said, to come back and not just face the situation but to face myself which I think can be one of the hardest things.

So I don’t want to skate over that because I think it’s really central. We have built a massive multiracial coalition as a majority of our backbone team. The large majority of our board and our partnerships are people of color, but it didn’t start that way. It took a ton of work on ourselves and it’s constant work and it’s constant. It’s not linear. It’s mistakes and coming back to it.

I’d say the thing about courage that Omar keeps coming—bringing up is how do you keep telling the truth, and how do you keep facing the truth, and how do you keep sort of like aligning yourself to it, and that takes just a ton of work because we all know the context of the history in the world that we live in. In many ways we’re not just trying to build the future, we’re trying to repair the way that we’ve oriented ourselves in the past by building a new future.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thank you for sharing that, Heather, and I think folks listening will really appreciate your vulnerability and the courage that you have shown in doing so and take that hopefully as affirmation of their work or a call to action if they have not begun to do the work that you’re mentioning as a White woman leading a multiracial coalition so thank you for that.

You know, that work is hard and, Heather, you have poured yourself into the work. How have you taken care of yourself as you’ve led through this work?

Heather Vaikona: That’s also a great question. I think there were many years where I worked sort of—also to say I’m a single parent of three kids, and so I literally—sometimes younger staff will ask me like what my hobbies are. I don’t really have hobbies. I read books and take care of my kids and I do this work, and I exercise. That’s sort of it. I don’t do anything else, and I sleep.

So there were many years where I worked 18-hour days and literally I worked 18-hour days during the pandemic, and I work six days a week. I, during the pandemic, really started to feel the physical and mental health impact of pouring that much of myself into the work. I have anxiety and my anxiety became very acute during the pandemic so that I experienced more panic attacks. I ended up at urgent care or my doctor’s office several times during the pandemic because I would have a panic attack and it was because I was working too much, and I pushed myself too far.

There became sort of a point where there was a really kind of like loud call, and again I will go back to Marian actually, and I say this, you know, honestly and openly because I hope it means something for someone else. It was actually my mentor, Marian, that she scheduled the first intake for me with a psychiatrist to make sure that I was getting the support that I needed because I couldn’t do it on my own, and who constantly encouraged me to make sure that I was showing up at my therapy appointments every week. It took me having a few really uncomfortable and scary health brushes to recognize that I couldn’t work the way that I was working.

The thing is that I felt like from my friendship group or my friends, I sometimes felt very criticized for how much I was working or how much I was doing and to me that landed—it didn’t land to me as care. It landed to me as critique because I wasn’t open to it. I wasn’t open because I believed so deeply that we had to push this work forward and we were just getting it off the ground. I wasn’t open to people trying to insert offers of how I might care for myself more, and so that’s taken a lot of work for me and boundary setting and coaching and therapy. I see the doctor yearly. I don’t leave the office late. I leave the office earlier now. I take weekends. Unless it’s something very urgent I never send an email on the weekend anymore. I do not pull all-nighters and I do not sleep with my laptop anymore. I slept with my laptop for years trying to write grants but I say all that to say that I know that sometimes—and this isn’t going to be a popular thing to say but I know that sometimes there are times where people cannot afford, and it’s not necessarily monetarily, but cannot afford to not put—stop a breakneck pace but to say that when you can see the intersection or the resting point where you can, to take that resting point and figure out how to readjust because it’s not sustainable.

I hated hearing that from people. I hated people telling me like this isn’t sustainable, this isn’t sustainable, and I would be like, yeah, whatever, but really, I think more is possible when we care for ourselves, and the work is still possible and big results are possible. Yeah, I’ll stop there.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Heather, thank you so much for sharing that. Again, I know many folks will be able to relate, and also, we’re so glad that you’re in a good place now and healthy and able to lead this work more sustainably over the longer term.

Omar, you have a purview across the country, and I imagine you see folks working on many intractable issues as you mentioned early on. What stands out to you as unique from the work of Lift to Rise?

Omar Carrillo Tinajero: I love this question because Heather’s previous answer I think is a demonstration of what is unique and special about Life to Rise’s work, and that is in our leadership development programs and in our team programs we ask folks to think about their work in the three dimensions of person, role, and system with the recognition that how we show up in our role is really grounded in our person, and also in the system in which we’re working, in which we’re doing this work, and all of those matter and we have to pay attention to them. I think what’s special about Lift to Rise and the work that leaders there are doing as demonstrated by Heather is that they are paying attention to and very conscientiously not only showing up with each other and to the work in a way that is transactional but really acknowledging that this is a work for humans by humans, right, and so that if we’re really going to make a difference for our fellow community members, we have to recognize each other’s humanity and we have to recognize where our leadership is not—where our leadership is informed by these other systems. For example, Heather brought up the racial inequity that exists both universally in our country and in our world, and then also concretely how they show up in the specific community, and how they affect how we show up as leaders, and really paying attention to what that creates not only in our role but in our systems is really important. I think the Lift to Rise work in not only Heather, but other folks are really paying special attention to that which, of course, is not unrelated to the adaptive challenges that I raised earlier, and I think that makes their work really special.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: So as we wrap up is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you’d really like to share with folks?

Omar Carrillo Tinajero: One thing I do want to emphasize is that I think we’ve been sharing about the difficult journey and the challenges, but I do want to say that it is doable, and oftentimes in our work we talk about moving from heroic project efforts to systems change efforts so that each project doesn’t have to be a heroic effort. I want to say that the work that Lift to Rise is leading is special for all the reasons we’ve shared already. I don’t want to say it can be replicated because part of dealing with the adaptive challenges is recognizing how we deal with them in our specific context but it is doable in other contexts, in other places, and I think we have frameworks, we have processes, we have ways of relating to each other that we have learned through decades if not century of coming together to lead this kind of work that we can tap into and see more of these successes across the country.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: And Heather?

Heather Vaikona: I think the one thing that we haven’t touched on that is really central because it’s also back to Omar’s point about this work is doable and maybe sometimes people think like now, we’ve had these huge results, it’s an outlier. Remembering that none of us were experts in housing or finance that were in the core group to start, and we had to bring other folks in and defer to each other’s expertise, and like Omar said, also defer to folks’ humanity. I think one thing that struck me because I come to the work with sort of a global orientation to it also is that—and I felt this more as the pandemic had ended where folks were sort of saying are we—I want to get back to normal or what does it mean to return to life that is not a pandemic life, and Arundhati Roy wrote this great piece in the Financial Times called the Pandemic is a Portal, and she had a quote in there that said we can choose to drag with us all the ways that we’ve lived before or we can imagine a new world and have a vision of it and the courage to stand up to that vision of that future.

I think one of the things about Lift to Rise and us not being an outlier is I think we’ve talked a little bit about Lift to Rise has been able to secure a lot of resources and partnership for not just during the pandemic to support our neighbors but for a housing catalyst fund which was anchored by at 15-million-dollar allocation in the California state budget last year and augmented by assumed 20-million-dollar investment, and I’ve been asked a lot before like how did we know how to ask for that. Well, we didn’t know how to ask for it. We knew that that what the work needed and that we needed to ask for what the work needed, and when we started asking for what the work needed, it wasn’t asking for what folks were offering, and so there was a lot of pushback there and a lot of failing there. It felt like failing and it took us years to actually get what we needed but to keep coming back and saying we’re going to ask for what we need to stand up to this vision of the future that we believe in, and this thing that keeps kind of like wrestling through my spirit across the summer is in America we do this Kabuki dance. We all bend over backwards, exhaust ourselves, sleep with our laptops, just absolutely push ourselves to the wall to uphold systems in a way of living that I don’t actually think aligns with most people’s values of what they want out of life on planet Earth, but we sometimes lack the courage to believe that something else is possible.

So I think if there’s a takeaway here, back to Omar’s point about that this is doable, is that it just feels like physically impossible. I can remember at points thinking there is—I’m going to ask for this and I’m going to do this, but people think I’m nuts to step into this and ask for 25 million dollars or—I remember thinking that we had to prove to people that we knew what we were doing or that we were really smart. Honestly, I think we just had to continue to believe that that work was possible, and if you have the courage to step into the belief and you stay with it, it is as hard as we’ve described but transformational change is possible.

The last thing I’ll say is I can remember where I was in Target when I got a text from Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia that told me to look at what he was sending, and it was a screenshot from the California state budget that said the Coachella Valley Housing Catalyst Fund 15 million dollars in blue letters, and I cried in the detergent aisle of Target. When I got home and I was washing dishes and standing at the counter, I was like, huh, I don’t really feel any different than I did before, and would I have encountered the work differently if I knew that if we just kept going that this was going to be possible because I ate my weight in cake and stayed up stressed out at night and had so much heartache over the hard places in the road.

So I say all this to say that when you’re in the midst of it, you think there’s no way, but I think with a clear result and shared values with humans that really believe in transforming the future, literally anything is possible. It’s possible if you just hold yourself to it together. I don’t think people say that enough, and I don’t think people believe that enough. I can say for myself as I am not the traditional pedigree of a person that’s doing this kind of work, and I both in my background and physical form, it’s usually not me. It’s somebody else. As a woman, it’s usually not women that are negotiating investments and insisting on things, and the things that people will say about you or project onto you and you live in the confusion of that projection for so long, but I think if you just stay tethered to your heart and tethered to each other, then anything is possible.

For anyone anywhere I think that was the last point I wanted to make is that the Coachella Valley is a little isolated corner in the Southern California desert, and transformative things have happened here. It can happen anywhere.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Heather and Omar, thank you so much. Thank you for both the honesty and the vulnerability and the inspiration and calls to action throughout today’s conversation. It has been just a joy talking with both of you, and I’ll encourage folks to check out Lift to Rise at,, and I know folks will be doing that after listening to today’s conversation so thank you so much.

(Outro) And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes for this episode. And if you’re enjoying all that we share at the Collective Impact Forum podcast, we encourage you to rate us on your preferred podcast platform, and share your favorite episodes with colleagues.

We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.

The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.

In Forum news, we’re excited to share that registration is now open for the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit, that will be held online next year on April 30-May 2, 2024. It’s our biggest learning event of the year, featuring over 25 virtual sessions, and sharing out best practices from collaboratives from across the U.S. and globally. And we’re excited to announce that our closing keynote will be with political leader and changemaker Stacey Abrams that will discuss the power of movement building.  Please visit our events section at if you would like to join the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit.

This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast producer. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, let’s keep working towards collective impact.


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