06/07/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Strengthening America's Communities From the Inside Out: Celebrating the 2013 Torchlight Prize Winners

Through my work with the Family Independence Initiative, I know that families have a remarkable ability to support one another, especially in times of need; working together to create something better for themselves and their families. Whether rallying collective voices to create positive action on an issue, or creating lasting and long-term opportunities for young people, remarkable things do happen when self-organized groups of people stand up in support of one another.

And yet, our understanding of the power of families working together has diminished over time as we've become primarily focused on individual successes, instead of the power of mutuality. And we've shifted from believing that working poor people are hard working and capable to assuming that their lack of success is because they are lazy or helpless.

The truth is that people in every community have solutions and with access to a variety of flexible resources they can realize their self-determined path. This is the heart of why my organization created the Torchlight Prize of which the 2013 winners were announced this week.

Designed to recognize and invest in self-organized groups of families, friends, and neighbors who have come together in meaningful ways to strengthen their communities, Torchlight Prize winners exemplify the Family Independence Initiative's belief that powerful, sustainable, and relevant results can be created for families and communities when everyday people work together pooling ideas, resources, and efforts to create positive change in their own communities.

The 2013 winners of the Torchlight Prize exemplify the solutions everyday people are developing for themselves. Each of our winners is highlighted below:

  • Camp Congo Square, New Orleans, LA. Camp Congo Square, a summer camp centered on the history of Congo Square, a historical place within New Orleans' Louis Armstrong Park, which was created in 2006 when a group of parents--all New Orleans residents--came together to respond to the displacement of New Orleans families by Hurricane Katrina. The group saw an opportunity to help kids deal with the trauma of that experience, while instilling a deep sense of their heritage so that they could someday help to rebuild their city.
  • Freedom Inc., Madison, WI. Freedom Inc., started as the Asian Freedom Project in 2000, was created to provide an informal and safe space for young Hmong women to talk about the challenges they faced, including violence, racism, and immigration. Interestingly, other ethnic groups became interested in the group's work and desired a similar safe space. The organization changed its name to Freedom Inc. to create such a space for all low- to no-income communities of color. As the organization grew, it chose to become a formal nonprofit to continue its work, while remaining "of and for the community."
  • Somos Tuskaloosa, Tuscaloosa, AL. Somos Tuskaloosa was inspired by two major events that hit the immigrant community of Tuscaloosa, Alabama on the same day in 2011: a devastating tornado that destroyed 7,200 homes and businesses, and an anti-immigration bill (Alabama HB56), largely considered the most regressive immigration law in the country. As a reaction to these attacks, Latino immigrants, clergy, and community members formed Somos Tuskaloosa to send a message of inclusion, to push back against discrimination, and to fight for immigrant justice. Somos Tuskaloosa provides a number of community services, including leadership development training, "know your rights" workshops, and legal clinics.
  • VietUnity, Oakland, CA. VietUnity was created in 2004 to provide progressive Vietnamese American organizers with an opportunity to share experiences, their work, and skills to better organize their communities against oppressive systems, such as racism and imperialism. VietUnity brings Vietnamese-identified people together to work on local issues that community members have identified as most important to their daily lives, including the need for affordable housing, education support, and employment opportunities, and issues related to gang and domestic violence.

While some awards are designed to congratulate a job well done, we know that, in the case of all four of this year's winners, their work is far from complete. The Torchlight Prize is intended to bring awareness to the powerful, sustainable and relevant results that community members create on their own and inspire direct investments in resident-led initiative to further amplify their impact. Where they--and others just like them--go from here will be the real story.