$30M ASU Gift Starts Community Investment Program, Beginning In Maryvale

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Monday, October 1, 2018 - 1:59pm
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2018 - 12:54pm

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Carina Ledesma, her mom and cousin's daughter in Ledesma's Maryvale home.

The city of Phoenix is divided into 15 different villages. Now, one of the largest gifts ever made to Arizona State University will help the school focus on the largest village — Maryvale.

ASU's public policy school is being renamed the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, following a $30 million gift.

The school includes criminal justice and civic engagement programs and now will add a community design program. ASU plans to help revitalize Maryvale, where the donors grew up and started a business.

Erik Cole, director of the new Design Studio for Community Solutions at ASU, will lead the community design effort.

"We are in that preperatory mode of understanding and identifying key issues within the community of Maryvale," Cole said. "But ultimately really going to be focused on economic opportunity and building on the great strengths that are within local communities." 

Cole says stats show Maryvale is the youngest community in the Phoenix area, with the largest number of residents and with the lowest median income.

Carina Ledesma’s home is smack dab in the middle of Maryvale, according to the city’s colorblocked, online map.

Her Spanish-speaking mom and niece open the door for us to enter the small ranch house. A colorful Virgin de Guadalupe altar stands in the corner of the immaculate, black-and-white decorated room.

Phoenix
City of Phoenix

She’s taken time out of her internship to come down here.

“I told myself since I started school and started working and doing everything at the same time, my family is more important than anything,” Ledesma said.

Ledesma is an ASU social work graduate student and works full time at a child welfare association on top of that and her internship.

“Which, it really frustrates me when my friends say, ‘I don’t have time!’ You have time, I made time for you, you have time,” she said, laughing.

Ledesma harnessed that energy to graduate in the top 15 percent of her Maryvale High School class.

But, she says her school could have been more supportive because the mentality there can be that college is out of reach.

“Going to Maryvale, my advisor didn’t have much faith in me going to college, so I think that’s a message that kind of gets sent,” she said.

That kind of expectation could change with a community development gift to ASU from local philanthropists Cindy and Mike Watts.

It’s one of the largest in the school’s history, and will go toward harnessing ASU resources to invest in neighborhoods. Maryvale is the first stop, since that’s where the Watt’s grew up.

“I look at it as, as Maryvale goes, so goes the economy of the rest of the state,” said Cole.

That’s because Maryvale is young, demographically. Cole says that opportunity is perfect for ASU to come in and help encourage local empowerment in economic development.

He says by looking into Maryvale’s past, they can help develop the future.

“Going to Maryvale [High], my advisor didn’t have much faith in me going to college. So, I think that’s a message that kind of gets sent.”
— Carina Ledesma, ASU graduate student

Maryvale: From White Working-Class To Hispanic Working-Class

Maryvale is named after the development planner’s wife. Originally built for a white workforce returning from World War II, the demographics have changed. Sixty-seven percent of residents are Hispanic.

“Now, has an incredible amount of diversity, in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity. Part of our work is to connect that history, that spirit of community, and build upon it.”

Cole said this program is not ASU coming into Maryvale like a savior. Instead, the project is like a type of repairman, with the right tools to help empower local business and schools.

The neighborhood has the lowest median income in the city, and data shows residents typically have low test scores and low high school graduation rates. Cole says the crime rate is actually not remarkably higher than other parts of Phoenix, but is still a neighborhood concern.

“It illustrates a value that we can add, and that is data,” Cole said about ASU's resources.

Another data point: Maryvale has triple the number of residents without a high school diploma compared to Maricopa County overall.

ASU has another program under its public service college, headed by Alberto Olivas, that goes into high schools to help promote civic engagement. Now, they’ll have a presence in Maryvale High.

“So the people in that community, specifically students in the community, will be aware of our programs and hopefully be interested in our resources that we offer,” Olivas said.

Those resources include scholarships and ways to help students learn more about college in general.

For former Maryvale High student Carina Ledesma, that’s a small but meaningful step in the right direction for her hometown, where the message can be less than empowering.

“And not just from the school itself, but just from society alone, that if you live in Maryvale, you’re not expected to go to college,” she said.

A mentality that could be changing soon, with the help of higher education.

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