In order to be successful, aspiring entrepreneurs need to get used to rejection. So, participants in the Grow Your Own: Community Advocate Training course were tasked with making an outlandish request in order to hear a “no.”

To kick off their training session Feb. 13, over dinner at Billy’s Southern Pride, several community advocates-in-training shared their experiences completing the “rejection assignment” they’d been asked to complete the previous week.

One participant said he got an unexpected “yes” when he asked a local bar if he could paint a mural on the side of its building.

For another especially outgoing participant, asking police if he could help with an arrest hadn’t gone so well. He joked that he’d almost gotten arrested himself.

The rejection assignment — for the week themed “Social Enterprises & Financial Sustainability” — was about “going out and building your resilience,” Julie Ramirez, class instructor and community coordinator for the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, explained later.

“They were supposed to go out and seek a ‘no,’ and how they did that was kind of up to them,” Ramirez said, adding with a laugh that it “wasn’t my intent for them to get involved with the police.”

But CONO’s community advocate training does involve hands-on experience with leadership, organization, strategic planning and entrepreneurial skills, aimed at helping prepare trainees to make a difference in their neighborhoods.

The 10-week training program is free to residents of the 80910 and 80916 ZIP codes. In fact, people who attend every session, complete the homework assignments, and who participate in the final presentation receive a $250 stipend, Ramirez said.

“We’re looking for … people who can basically gain the community’s trust and organize in some way,” she explained, “whether that’s a neighborhood group or just more … getting involved in groups that already exist; and then people who might be interested in sitting on boards and commissions.”

The program, funded through the state’s Transforming Safety grant, incorporates hands-on training as well as presentations from business owners, nonprofits and local leaders. Each week’s two-hour training session is held at a different location so participants can get to know their neighborhood.

More than advocacy

Nathan Ramirez, 18 (no relation to Julie), heard about the community advocate training about a year and a half ago, while he was volunteering at the Deerfield Hills Community Center.

Ramirez’s supervisor at the community center referred him to the program because she thought it could help him improve his confidence and meet other people, since he’d just moved to the area.

“I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who’s feeling like they are alienated in a sense,” he said. “Maybe if they just moved here and want to get to know the community. People who need the confidence boost, people who want to work on their networking and maybe have some sort of team encouragement if they’re thinking about starting a business.”

Following his participation in the training, Nathan Ramirez was hired at the community center as an after-school leader for elementary school students. And he’s found plenty of other ways to make a difference.

As part of the Panorama Park Youth Advisory Council, he helped create a new vision for a mostly underdeveloped park in Southeast. The new Panorama Park Master Plan — a collaboration between the city Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department, multi-agency RISE Coalition, the Trust for Public Land and the 13-member youth council — was approved by the city in July.

Nathan Ramirez is still involved with the Panorama Park process, he said, and he’s also helping to plan the “Community Cruise” bike ride series for kids with RISE coordinator Joyce Salazar, whom he met through the community advocate training.

“Along with confidence, I learned how to network better and [find] different opportunities in different places,” he said of the training. “So I feel like that can help with anyone in any job position.”

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Building community

Julie Ramirez says the basic framework of CONO’s community advocate training came from Jeannie Orozco, now president of the Harrison School District 2 Board of Education, who conducted a grant-funded survey in 80916 to learn more about the community’s needs. Ramirez has added her own elements with each new class.

So far, CONO’s community advocate training has graduated three classes, with a fourth class of 15 participants set to graduate March 20.

In its current iteration, the program, funded through the state’s Transforming Safety grant, incorporates hands-on training as well as presentations from business owners, nonprofits and local leaders. Each week’s two-hour training session is held at a different location so participants can get to know their neighborhood.

When the training kicks off, students identify an issue in the community that guides their overall project. They talk with nonprofits that already exist, and identify how they can help with “filling in the gaps,” Ramirez said. Among the questions: “Where are these organizations lacking? How do they need help?”

The trainees collect contact information of community members who are interested in a particular issue, Ramirez said, to help with the larger effort of building a coalition of people interested in making a difference in their neighborhoods.

“I think the biggest takeaway for the community is just that there are more individuals that know of all the resources,” she said. “It’s just kind of a trickle effect after that. Now they can share that information with their network.”

While the current program is contingent on Transforming Safety grant funding, Ramirez thinks the training could eventually expand to other ZIP codes or be replicated in different cities.

“It’s really about learning what your city has to offer and how you can kind of take advantage of what there is out there,” she said.

Get involved
Interested in signing up for the Council of Neighbors and Organizations Grow Your Own: Community Advocate Training? If you’re a resident of the 80910 or 80916 ZIP codes, apply at


Faith Miller is a Colorado Springs native and a 2018 graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Miller’s past experience includes a multiplatform editing internship at the Los Angeles Times.