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Community Action Alliance

Community Action Alliance members in action in the San Ramon community

Community Action Alliance members donating instruments to the San Ramon community.

Mike Styles, one of the leaders of the Community Action Alliance in San Ramon describes their work in the community in the article below.

The Community Action Alliance is an expat based group dedicated to service in San Ramón de Alajuela.  Known to many as the City of Poets and Presidents San Ramón enjoys a rich cultural heritage of which locals are very proud.  San Ramón remains largely unchanged by the influence of gringos as it is not a tourist destination and has not been overrun by retirees from North America or Europe.  Different communities attract different people and the organizations which take shape in these different communities are a reflection of the concerns and interests of the people that reside in them.  San Ramón too is different and this difference is reflected in the values, the initiatives, and the very heart of the Community Action Alliance. 

Like many community groups, ours was formed by a group of people with a specific set of interests.  In our case it was a group of ex-pats who were frustrated with the challenges of operating small businesses in Costa Rica.  In August of 2009 we began organizing monthly mixers intended to share information, best practices, and referrals and adopted the name the Small Business Alliance of Costa Rica. 

More people started attending including Costa Ricans and people that were not business operators.  We responded to the interests and composition of our attendees morphing dramatically over the first couple months basically changing our focus and scope each month.  In six months we emerged from this morphing stage with a new name, the Community Action Alliance, and a broader community-based mission.   This all happened very ‘organically’: we listened and responded.  

During our first year we had positioned ourselves as a group dedicated to helping foreigners integrate in to the local community however the truth was we had very few relationships and even less dialogue with local institutions.  This changed in less than a one month period of time in August 2010.  The catalyst for this change was the dialogue we initiated with U.S. Consul General Paul Birdsall and the subsequent selection as one of the four cities where the Embassy would present community-policing specialist Arturo Venegas.  Based on the direction given by the Embassy that the presentation should include all factions of the local community we immediately began knocking on doors and meeting with key local organizations.  Most of these groups are used to people asking them for something.  We came to them with a unique message: we are here to help.  Most were stunned.  Lasting relationships were formed with the Municipalidad, the Cámara de Comercio, the Fuerza Publica, the Union Cantonal, the Cruz Roja, PROPAZ and many other groups.  Those relationships are still in place and the short-term result was a very successful event featuring Chief Venegas.  This was a milestone event and we were now well on our way to being integrated which is essential for the success of any local community group!

Early in the development of the Community Action Alliance we established several values which have both defined us and guided us through the various strategic decisions which inevitably must be made over time.  Our name effectively communicates several of those values: we are a Community-based group (we are not a “virtual” organization; our work is done face-to-face in the community); we focus on Action, solutions and results (we are initiative driven and have zero-tolerance for whining; do something about it or go away); we are committed to  the creation of Alliances with existing organizations that are already involved in the areas of interest we have identified as priorities (we do not reinvent the wheel; we treat the people and groups that are active in these areas with respect and do not impose our values).  These values have served us well; their importance can not be understated.  They have allowed us to be accepted by our neighbors while producing tangible results that have been openly acknowledged in San Ramón: they have allowed us to make a difference.

So, how have we made a difference?  One way to answer this question is by looking at how we are organized.  We have focused our efforts in four different areas: Education; Environment; Citizen Security; and Economic Development.

Through an alliance formed with Volunteers Fostering Education, which morphed in to the Education Committee of the Community Action Alliance, we have had up to 30 volunteers tutoring English in local ITCR and INA classes.   English tutoring is the most dynamic form of volunteerism within our organization and there are several other initiatives being considered including the formation of conversation groups and the funding of scholarships.

Many ex-pats in the area are deeply involved and committed to various independent environmental projects including watershed conservation, reforestation, wildlife refuges, recycling and more.  The Community Action Alliance is focused on supporting a local initiative called San Ramón Carbon Neutral.  The goal of this project is to become the first carbon neutral canton in Costa Rica.  It is a project that embraces all factions of the community and is truly a platform on which San Ramón can build a future.   For these reasons we have chosen to focus our environmental efforts in support of this exciting project.

Citizen Security
This is obviously a hot button for the entire community as it is one that impacts all of us.  The Community Action Alliance has conducted a number of seminars, workshops and other events to help bring the community together to address the issue of crime.  We have also submitted applications for funding to support various programs.   We recognize that this is a complex issue and one that involves not just prevention and prosecution but education, economic opportunity, and much more.  Citizen Security continues to be an area of concentration for our organization. 

Economic Development
Over 6,000 people from San Ramón commute to the Central Valley on a daily basis for work.  Crime is clearly directly related to economic opportunity.  We need more jobs in San Ramón.  The Community Action Alliance is working with both local and national organizations to encourage investment in San Ramón.  We have organized an Economic Development Fam Tour of San Ramón and have initiated dialogues with CINDE, AmCham, the U.S. Embassy and other organizations to help raise awareness of San Ramón as a target for investment.  We are also collaborating on the development of a Sister City program. 

Two and a half years in to our organization we believe we have accomplished much; more than could be fairly reported in a newsletter.  To catch a glimpse of what we have accomplished please visit our website:  What we believe may be of more value is, like the very impressive accomplishments of Caribe Mas Seguro (the group featured in the last issue of American Connections), to list some of the lessons we’ve learned and best practices:

  • Integrate – learn Spanish; know your neighbors, meet local business operators, introduce yourself to the various institutions and organizations that are active in the community; once you have assembled these types of contacts you are then in a position to truly make a difference. 
  • Know your Community – learn who is truly committed and most effective at achieving results in different areas of focus; working with government institutions on a commercial project can be frustrating (anywhere!); some initiatives require the support of the broader community; this is hard because while the community may acknowledge something as a problem they may not be organized in a unified fashion and therefore may not be able to assert their will; or even worse they may be so frustrated with past efforts to affect change that they are apathetic or have lost the will to address the problem; addressing crime is an excellent example of this; the institutions responsible for providing for our safety do not have the capacity to do so and there is a tendency for people to look out for themselves; when this happens the community can disintegrate; produce tangible results and people come together; start small; success breeds more success.   
  • Project Selection – we do our best to ensure that any projects we initiate are aligned with the interests of the broader community; we also act on those things we have the highest likelihood of being able to affect; we focus on a couple things and make sure we deliver on our commitments; we once made the mistake of initiating a Christmas benefit for local schools; when we discussed the project with the Municipality they were very supportive; they liked the idea so much they ended up producing their own Christmas event (not as a fundraiser) which is likely to turn in to an annual tradition; when we heard about their plans we dropped our project (after spinning our wheels for months); the end result was a wonderful event that was produced by the organization that should have been doing it from the beginning. 
  • Alliances – with every project we have initiated we always attempt to find the organization that is most effectively working in the area of interest; for the Chief Venegas workshop we “delivered” the event to PROPAZ; for the Economic Development Tour we worked with the Chamber of Commerce; with our English-language tutoring we work with INA and ITCR; with each organization we focus on filling voids and providing creative solutions, organization, communication and energy; in the end we achieve our objective however the credit goes to the partnering organization. 
  • Focus on Results – we always start at the end; we identify the desired outcome and then develop a strategy on how to get there; along the way we are focused but flexible; we don’t let ego, power, or credit get in the way; we are organized, communicate aggressively, and focused on solutions not “problems”.   

These are practices that have worked for us.  Every community is different and therefore different practices may be required. 

To organize a group of people and truly make a difference in the community takes a lot of work; it will likely require skills learned during the course of your lifetime and others you have not yet learned; it can try your patience and frustrate you.  It can also be the most rewarding and noble work you have ever done.  It is not for everyone and no one should or can be forced to do something they don’t want to do.  But all of us can make a difference and that is a great feeling to wake up with every day.