Iconico has been engaged in the work to cultivate capacity with organizations for the last four years. Although our team has collaborated with numerous partners during this time, the origin of our organization and the motivation behind it isn’t something we often share. In a year where there is so much upheaval within our communities - sociopolitical unrest brought to a fever-pitch because of the continuing issue of police brutality, a global pandemic that has devastated the globe, and even close encounters with murder hornets, asteroids on paths of impact with the planet, and toying with the idea of World War III - a lot of us are taking the time to reflect on where we’ve been so we can understand where it is we want to get to in the work that we do.
As the newest member of Iconico, I of course recently went through our on-boarding process where I was walked through our organization’s mission and a brief history of our genesis and our “north star” - to build advocacy capacity within communities so that they can effect the change they want to see, but I wanted to learn more. I took this blog post as an opportunity to dive more in depth with our founder, Luis Avila, about his vision for the organization, his motivations for creating it, and where he would hope to see us going in the future. What I was left with after our discussion was a renewed faith in the resilience of our community, and the belief that we’ve already lived through decades of battles against some of the cruelest injustices and attempts to maintain the current power structure that keeps those most privileged at the top of the so-called food chain; 2020 was not going to be the year that brought us down. I realized that our work has only just begun.
Even though I would have preferred to conduct my interview of Luis in person so I could have an opportunity to really feel his presence, his humor, and his vision that so many of my coworkers and partners have told me about, but because of COVID, I was limited to trying to gather all of that through the bright screen that separated us. As I pulled out my notebook with my predetermined list of questions, I looked at the man sitting on the other side of the glow. In this moment, at least in my eyes, Luis didn’t embody what the vision you normally concoct in your head when you think about the founder of an organization that helped strategize some of the most effective campaigns for local to federal candidates as well as some of the largest advocacy organizations in the country and the globe. He was the average guy on the street, someone you wouldn’t pick out in a crowd, in a slightly worn, light gray T-shirt and hair that was a few weeks overdue for a cut.
Luis is the guy that it seems like everyone knows. Not just in our home-base of Arizona, but literally everywhere he goes. I had heard it so many times from people around me. My colleague, Monica, who is currently the most senior member of Iconico’s staff after Luis himself, had shared the number of times people would walk up to greet him, no matter where in the country they would be travelling. But at the same time, he’s never been the frontman. In all of the work he’s done, he has always been mostly behind-the-scenes, helping others take on the leadership roles they find themselves in either intentionally or by circumstance.
I wondered what would motivate an average Joe like Luis, with no desire to be recognized, or lauded, or incessant need to increase his own personal wealth to become the leader he was to everyone who surrounds him. How much did those leaders know about him? About his motivations? It made me excited to find out.
Luis is an immigrant who grew up in Mexico. When he came to the U.S. over eighteen years ago, some of his first experiences were confronting the thinly veiled racism of a large portion of the population in Arizona. Having had a few experiences in Mexico of riling up students to demand changes of their schools and even initiating a pirate radio station, Luis was not one to easily back down from a good (political) fight. As he grew more confident that the organizing skills he had inadvertently picked in Mexico still applied in this new country he now called home, as is Luis’ nature, he began riling up people here when he wanted to create change for his community.
Luis’s work in advocacy and electoral campaigns began in 2001. Since then, he has been a part of numerous initiatives and has coached hundreds of organizers throughout the world. Through his work he began to see a glaring issue regarding consultancy firms and their interactions with clients. The ultimate goal of the contracts he saw from other advocacy consulting firms was to create a dependency on the consultant so that the contract would continuously be renewed and prolonged, instead of being centered around what he believed a consulting firm should really be focused on; adding more capacity in the client’s work. This reality is what laid the foundation for Luis to launch what is now known as Iconico Campaigns.
People of color, and those most affected by the impacts of social inequity, have historically not been included in campaign leadership, regardless of whether it was electoral and/or advocacy-focused, and this was also seen in the leadership of existing consulting firms. So in 2016, Luis, knowing he had the ability to change this culture that leaves these valuable communities out and the know how of how to move communities to push for the change they need, he began to do so through Iconico. The mission, simple: build capacity within organizations to fulfill their missions, effectively working Iconico out of the job by eliminating any dependencies in the shortest time frame possible. All of this while imparting the knowledge, skills and attitudes for organizational leaders so that they can not only continue doing the work without Iconico, but build new leaders of their own. He felt it was also paramount that his firm provide excellent services to partners that aligned with his values, so that the entire team could feel proud of being a part of the organization.
“I wanted to create an anti-consultancy consulting firm,” Luis said to me, “and I knew I could do it. I knew we could do it. Our community has seen so many challenges, and not just recently. We’re talking about decades of organizing, marching, protesting, registering voters, and training new leaders. If you look at everything that our community has fought for and won in a vacuum, it’s hard to grasp just how resilient we have been and how far we’ve come. I had to recognize that I had been a part of the fighting back and I was no one special. I had the ability to teach others how to fight back as well. No one needs a savior to swoop in and save them. We have the answers within ourselves. We can call upon our community to support us. What, historically, we’ve been denied and pushed out of is power. I wanted to create an organization that would teach people to take it for themselves instead of waiting to have power granted to them.”
At first, the resources were simply not present to expand the team, so Luis began his work at Iconico solely. But that changed quickly as more clients began to seek out the consulting firm. The growth of the team commenced as soon as Luis saw that he could sustain himself, the members of Iconico, and the company itself in responsible and supportive ways.
This growth would not stay contained exclusively within Iconico. Eventually, in 2017, what began as a project to assess Arizona’s viability as a battleground state contributed to the creation of another entity. That summer, a series of training sessions were offered to organizations within the state; the turnout and interest far exceeded expectations. This led the Iconico team to see that there was an opportunity to establish a permanent resource. Thus, Instituto was designed and launched to be a nonprofit accelerator and incubator dedicated to cultivating capacity wholly within Arizona-based organizations.
In the time since Luis founded each entity, Iconico has worked with a multitude of folks and organizations, locally and internationally, with this objective in mind. As the world continues to grapple with the ever-present threat of COVID-19, the Iconico team acknowledges that now is a pivotal moment for organizations working within the community organizing sector; a significant amount of change is occurring every moment in all aspects of life due to presence of the virus and lack of government response to safeguard our communities. Despite this, Iconico is ready to provide support and capacity to organizations stepping into a nebulous future, just as it has been doing since the beginning.
When I asked about what Luis sees for the future of Iconico, he responded, “Advocacy and elections are changing as we speak. We need to stay on top of that, basing the recommendations we make and the support we offer in real-world evidence. That’s why being affiliated with Instituto is critical. It allows us to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. And we can see the impact almost immediately because we work so closely with partner organizations that have created such a close relationship with us and our efforts.”
“Even the way we talk about power has changed just since Iconico’s inception. But organizations are so deeply embedded in the work itself, in building relationships, in collecting signatures, and the million other things that we have to do on a daily basis that it leaves them with little to no time to sit back and think about 10, 15, or 20 years into the future. I want to help create and facilitate spaces for that. To work with forward thinkers. The people they come to when they know the need to step back and look ahead. And I want us to be prepared to offer the resources and tools they need.
“The work is never going to end. Even when things change, there is always someone else trying to oppress, or take advantage of, or even abuse communities. But the way we build power with those most impacted by injustice will always change because we are able to change consciousness. We are currently seeing a mind shift with Gen Z. They are more politically involved, they are more informed, and they are more angered at the future that has been laid before them. I am excited to learn and participate in shaping that passion into a brighter future for everyone."