You are here

Building Community, in the Living Room

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When Sandra Leyva and Shawn Goicoechea moved to Conway, Arkansas, after college with the goal of community organizing, their families and friends were concerned. Some told them outright it was a terrible idea. After all, Leyva and Goicoechea had both been accepted to a master’s degree program at UC Santa Barbara, which they were now turning down. They’d never been to Conway. And they had no specific plan for how they would accomplish their goal. 

Sandra Leyva and Shawn Goicoechea

"We saw our role as making connections between people with shared interests," says Shawn Goicoechea, right, with Sandra Leyva. Media credit: Olena Kasian-Fitzgerald

None of that deterred the couple, who met as UW students during a Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) study abroad program in Cyprus. “We knew we were taking a chance with the move to Conway, but we felt that it was necessary for us to leave conventional educational institutions and do what CHID taught us to do best: continue our education through experiential learning,” says Leyva (BA, CHID, 2008). “We wanted a hands-on experience with community organizing.”

Conway, a suburban town 30 miles from Little Rock, appealed to the couple because it had three colleges but lacked the cultural richness of places like Austin or Seattle. They dreamed of creating a space where they could use culture as a vehicle for change. “A coffee shop atmosphere, but more purpose-driven,” is how Goicoechea (BA, CHID, 2008) describes their early vision. They moved into a two-story house and carved out public space on the ground floor, where they offered daily meals on a pay-as-you-please basis, inviting the community to join them and make connections. Soon they were hosting other events in the space, from music performances to poetry readings to community potlucks and workshops. 

CHID gave us a solid foundation, the opportunities, and the tools to live a life of purpose, full of adventure and experimentation.

“Our theory was that we would provide infrastructure to help people connect more easily,” says Goicoechea. “We encouraged people to come to us with their ideas and we asked, ‘What do you think needs to happen, and how can we be of support’? We saw our role as making connections between people with shared interests.” Leyva and Goicoechea helped recruit volunteers for projects, offered their space for events, and handled other tasks as needed. Both also had part-time jobs to make ends meet.

“Word about what we were doing spread slowly,” says Leyva. “It was all word of mouth and social media. But by the end of two years, we had a pretty big constituency.” The couple formalized their efforts as a 501(C)(3) nonprofit, La Lucha Space, and have since played a key role in numerous community projects.

Sandra Leyva at the Faulkner County Urban Farm Project

Sandra Leyva at the Faulkner County Urban Farm Project, one of La Lucha Space's early projects.  Media credit: Olena Kasian-Fitzgerald

Many of the projects are food-related. A group planning a community garden behind the public library came looking for volunteers, and then sought help with a Kickstarter campaign. Since La Lucha Space had nonprofit status, Leyva and Goicoechea were able to offer the necessary infrastructure as well as continuity when many of the college-student volunteers left town after graduating. The project—a demonstration garden that includes nutritional and permaculture education, seed swaps, and crop donations to a local food pantry—has been so successful that the public library recently created a position for a “library gardener.”

Leyva and Goicoechea were happy to play a role in developing the community garden, known as the Urban Farm Project, but they are just as pleased to have the library take over its leadership. “If you don’t get too hung up on ownership, you can get these projects to a point where they are more long-term and sustainable,” says Goicoechea. 

La Lucha Space has since received grant funding for other projects related to food security and food justice, including a Farmer’s Market Promotion Program funded through a USDA grant. The two-year grant helped farmers establish retail spaces at or near their farms, providing local meat and produce in rural areas that have limited fresh-food options.  A current USDA Local Food Promotion grant focuses on creating a food hub in Conway, including a refrigerated storage facility where farmer co-ops can deliver food to be sold to local restaurants. Leyva facilitates the distribution of food shares and works to get more local food into restaurants.

Sandra Leyva with La Lucha Space's "mobile market" tricycle.

Sandra riding La Lucha Space's "mobile market" tricycle, which features food, crafts, and other products by local producers. 

“In the time we’ve been here, it’s been interesting to see the growth in the local food movement,” says Goicoechea, who helps out but also works at nearby Hendrix College as assistant director of human resources. “Sandra’s been working hard to ensure that continues.”

La Lucha Space made a brief foray into a retail operation in 2014, opening The Locals, a community-run coffee shop in downtown Conway that sold baked goods, jams, meat, produce, and handicrafts from local producers, and hosted concerts and other events. The space increased the organization’s visibility and led to new collaborations, but after a year of worrying about overhead costs, Leyva and Goicoechea decided it was not the best fit for their goals. “It was rewarding, but also exhausting,” recalls Leyva, who says they have since created a “mobile market” that promotes local products minus the overhead.

Asked about future projects, Leyva and Goicoechea hedge their bets. “It’s hard to say,” says Leyva. “It depends who comes to us and says, ‘Hey, I’d like to do this.’” Because Goicoechea is interested in technology, La Lucha Space has hosted technology workshops and will continue to participate in local tech-related events. But the organization’s main focus will likely continue to be food related, particularly given the connections Leyva has developed with local farmers and restauranteurs.

“It’s been so satisfying to feel that what we’re doing is part of making this a better place to live,” Leyva says, crediting CHID with setting them on their current path. “CHID gave us a solid foundation, the opportunities, and the tools to live a life of purpose, full of adventure and experimentation. And here we are, years later, living very full lives.”

.  .  . 

As a UW student, Sandra Leyva received support through an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarship, a Munro Public Service Fellowship, and a Mary Gates Leadership Scholarship. To learn how you can support students like Sandra, visit artsci.washington.edu/boundless