This article is part of a series celebrating Community Vision’s 35 years of building partnership, capital and power to advance community ownership of community assets. Learn more.


“I’m an organizer by trade, and after the 2016 elections I felt called back to the Central Valley because if transformative change is going to happen for rural communities, then it needs to come from us,” Mari Perez-Ruiz, Executive Director of the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance.

Mari Perez-Ruiz established the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance (CVEA) as a power and movement building nonprofit in 2019. Growing up in Visalia among a migrant farmworker community, Mari had a vision for empowerment and self-determination in the Central Valley’s rural communities.

Located in Poplar, CVEA serves residents in Kern, Tulare, King, Fresno and Madera counties. They promote access to affordable housing, quality education, food and health care. CVEA also creates civic engagement and leadership development opportunities.

CVEA operated without a physical location for nearly four years, often holding meetings in local resident’s homes, fields and cars. As the only service provider in the Poplar region, Mari knew the organization needed a place where people could receive services and support.

The organization successfully secured a lease from the City of Poplar for a vacant city-owned building on Road 192. The building is next door to the town’s main business hub, which includes Adam’s Market, a family-owned grocery store that houses a bakery, meat market, hair salon and taqueria.

In June 2020, CVEA opened the Larry Itliong Resource Center, named in honor of the Filipino farmworker who led the 1965 Grape Strike and co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez and Al Rojas. The resource center held their grand opening on October 24, 2021. They celebrated Larry Itliong and the farmworker movement and held a solidarity march and rally to commemorate the region’s organizing history.

The day was also a celebration of the strength and resourcefulness of the community. In July 2021, an electrical fire devastated the neighboring business hub and the resource center’s garage.

After voluntarily running CVEA for six years, the fire prompted Mari to quit her job and start operating the nonprofit full-time.

“In a small town such as Poplar, a fire like that has a huge impact on the community. There was so much that needed to be done to support people in recovering from the fire,” said Mari.

Unable to access federal, state or county financial aid, the business owners and CVEA partnered to fundraise for housing assistance and building repairs. CVEA applied for and received an $80,000 grant from California FreshWorks, a fund administered by Community Vision.

“The FreshWorks grant helped us achieve what others said was impossible—to clean the fire debris and have the property ready for the grand opening of the Larry Itliong Center,” said Mari.

The grant also supported the clean up and redevelopment of the Adam’s Market. The current owner, Anes Muthana, is committed to bringing back the businesses located on the parcel. He has future plans to expand the property from 2,800 to 3,500 square feet in order to incubate more businesses in the future, including a laundromat.

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