Syracuse University Magazine

Jessica Sotelo G'02

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Partnering for Prosperity

After graduation, Jessica Sotelo returned home to Idaho “on a wing and a prayer,” hoping for a job in state government, when a remarkable opportunity—one she never saw coming—fell into her hands. A community group in Eastern Idaho had received a competitive grant from the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) to create a 10-year strategic plan for reducing poverty. The group needed an executive director, and Sotelo, who holds an M.P.A. degree from the Maxwell School, landed the position. “But how do you go about reducing poverty?” Sotelo asks. “It was like eating an elephant.”

With the NWAF planning grant, Sotelo created Partners for Prosperity (P4P), a now multimillion-dollar nonprofit organization that helps communities combat poverty. Taking a grassroots approach, Sotelo included those traditionally left out of the decision-making process, gathering data and input from 2,500 community members. This allowed P4P to identify local assets, and design and implement community efforts to expand access to economic opportunity. “It was a huge challenge,” she says. “The day I was hired I was told in two weeks’ time I would be meeting a steering committee of 30 people with high expectations. They gave me a borrowed laptop and told me to go for it. It was an amazing experience.”

Sotelo is used to things not going according to plan. As an undergraduate at Idaho State University, she never dreamed she would travel cross-country to attend Maxwell’s prestigious M.P.A. program. That changed her senior year when she was awarded a Truman Scholarship, given to students interested in crafting policies and pursuing careers in public service. She threw her belongings in a car and, along with her 11-year-old son Edward, headed east. “The whole time, I had myself thinking I was the brave one, going to a new school where I didn’t know anybody,” she says. “I was bringing my son and we were going to start a new life. It took seeing Edward off on his first day of school for me to realize he was the brave one.”  

Today Sotelo and Edward live in Blackfoot, Idaho, where P4P now serves 330,000 people in 16 surrounding counties. “There are times in your life when you must get into high production mode,” she says. “That’s what Maxwell prepared me for, so that I could be at my best when a lot is hanging on the line.” Since its inception, P4P has worked with 200 organizations and leveraged $50 million to implement its poverty-reduction plan, which focuses on education, personal empowerment, and wealth-creation opportunities. For one initiative, P4P, along with its partners, has raised $30 million to establish the Energy Systems Technology and Education Center (ESTEC). The only such program in the nation, ESTEC partners with Idaho State University and the Idaho National Laboratory to provide education and training in engineering and energy systems. “We’ve carved out this unique niche for ourselves,” Sotelo says. “Ultimately, we take the approach of making stone soup. Everyone has to come to the table with an ingredient to get the job done. When we do that, and work together, we’re a catalyst of change.” — Hanna Dubansky