In the 1960s, Maryvale, Arizona, was a thriving, working-class community. Over the past several decades, the community has struggled with crime and poverty, and its residents have lower levels of education than other areas of Phoenix and in Maricopa County. Mike and Cindy Watts want to restore hope and opportunity.

‘Moving ahead at the speed of trust’

The One Square Mile initiative is a hometown tribute for Mike and Cindy Watts.

ASU Foundation
9 min readDec 22, 2020


Mike and Cindy Watts grew up in Maryvale, a community on the northwest side of Phoenix. Created in the 1950s as Arizona’s first master-planned community, Maryvale was where the couple went to high school in the ’60s, met and dated. Maryvale was home to them then, and part of their hearts have been there ever since — after more than five decades of marriage and a partnership that built one of the Southwest’s most successful businesses, Sunstate Equipment Co., from the ground up.

The Wattses wanted to acknowledge the importance of Maryvale and communities like it across the U.S., so they did something extraordinary: They endowed a college.

In 2018, their gift of $30 million to Arizona State University established the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Their goal was to build on ASU’s record of training young people to enter public service, expanding the college’s impact by recruiting students who don’t wait to graduate before they start making a difference in the communities they serve.

With this mandate and the Wattses’ gift, the college began applying ASU’s knowledge and resources to create programs to transform communities nationwide. But one program, the One Square Mile Initiative, starts closer to home: Maryvale.

Watts College Dean Jonathan Koppell says One Square Mile is a concept shift for addressing societal challenges, away from interventions in multiple challenge areas — education, health, transportation, employment — to a single geographical area.

“We are mustering the talent and ingenuity of faculty and students across ASU to focus on the interconnected web of education, health, employment, transport, environment, civic engagement, local leadership and more,” Koppell says. “We are testing a hypothesis: If you really want to reverse the fortune of a community, you must treat it as a whole, in all its complexity. By working with the community of the One Square Mile, we intend to show how a university, as an institution, can be an agent for positive transformation.”

The power of One Square Mile is in creating alliances with existing groups in the community, Koppell says.

“Maryvale is an incredibly rich, vibrant community. We’ve encountered groups of citizens who have taken real ownership of the future of their neighborhoods. What we think we add is to bring the power of the university to support those efforts, and to connect the dots. Lots of people are doing things, but they’re not always aware of what each other are doing and they’re not always in sync. If we can provide that coordination, the efforts that are already underway will be that much more powerful.”

Two One-Square-Mile areas (out of Maryvale’s 35 square miles) were selected for the first collaborations, one centered in the Isaac School District, the other in the Cartwright School District. For each area, Watts College hired a community champion — residents of Maryvale who have full-time jobs there, speak Spanish, and are willing to become part-time employees of the college, representing their neighbors.

Rosie Espinoza, wellness coordinator for the Cartwright School District, is the community champion for the Cartwright One Square Mile. Born and raised in Maryvale — “51st Avenue and Thomas,” she says with pride. “My dad still lives there and I live just a few minutes away.” — Espinoza says she resonates with what goes on in the community.

“Our community is very apprehensive about new organizations,” Espinoza says. “Because of broken promises; of starting a program, something the community really likes, and then just disappearing so we’re only able to experience it for a short time, and then we’re left with, ‘OK, what do we do next?’ When that happens time and time again it leaves the community nervous about working with or opening up to an organization.”

Meet the community champions for Maryvale

Still, Espinoza says, “Our community is strong and willing and ready to work with an organization or group that wants to take the time to hear them and listen to them, and …” she shifts pronouns unconsciously, “… provide us with the opportunities to be part of that work and the thought process.”

With that in mind, One Square Mile kicked off with public meetings at Isaac and Cartwright, identifying five community aspirations to address through its first collaborations:

  • early childhood education and quality childcare;
  • economic opportunity and housing;
  • awareness of and access to health and social services;
  • safe, affordable, accessible ways to get around;
  • and opportunities for youth engagement.

Finding ways to meet those aspirations is the responsibility of the Watts College Design Studio.

Erik Cole, who directs the studio, explains how the college is making a difference in three of those aspirational areas.

1. Awareness of and access to health and social services

Supporting community gardens in Cartwright schools

“The Cartwright district had a piece of land that had been vacant — full of tires, just kind of an eyesore. Before we engaged with them they had turned this eyesore into a garden area. Now the district actually uses some of the produce in their food services, and the garden is run by food service staff from the district. They’ve also added garden sites at some of their elementary schools, but they’ve struggled with keeping volunteers to manage those gardens and to improve the main garden.

“So one of our community champions is helping run the garden at Cartwright. Then a landscape architecture class from [ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts] spent the entire spring working with the garden. They looked at food heritage — what kinds of foods are important for the stakeholders in the community and how could the gardens look like that — and what came out of that was a whole set of master plans for the future of this garden and other gardens in the Cartwright area.”

myPlan App for gender-based violence

“The Office of Gender-based Violence at Watts promotes the myPlan app, which students and people in the community can use to find resources if they are facing dating or relationship violence. The app is a nationwide program, and they wanted partners in an area like Maryvale to figure out how to speak to the community to promote using such an app. We brought together community block watch leaders and women to expose them to this app and talk through their concerns: Would this work for you? What could make it better? They were able to tell us the Spanish translations that were used were not dialectically appropriate for the folks in this focus group.”

2. Safe, affordable, accessible ways to get around

Pedestrian Fatalities Research Working Group

“Dean Koppell met with the Phoenix city manager to discuss some of the challenges in west Phoenix and Maryvale specifically. One of the top issues is pedestrian safety. Phoenix is one of the most dangerous cities in the country for pedestrians, and Maryvale has specific hotspots where a lot of tragic accidents occur. At the same time, we were talking to the community to understand people’s concerns and the challenges of getting to work, to services or even just to shopping. They told us it’s really dangerous to cross these really big streets. There’s a lot of speeding, as well as limitations and questions about public transportation.

“So working with Michael Scott, one of our criminal justice professors who is also embedded in the Phoenix Police Department, we pulled together a cross-disciplinary team at ASU to look at the research side of this issue; folks from urban planning, health services and the sustainability school as well as our professors and team. They just finished the research, and we’re all working together to put that in a digestible format to share back with the city. This was done with very little additional funding, but because of the Wattses’ gift we were able to offer the project management to the city and try to get to the root of the issue.”

3. Opportunities for youth engagement

School and club sports expansion and support

“Through our meetings we identified an unfortunate lack of high expectations for young people. Some of the confidence-building and leadership opportunities young people can get through extracurricular activities and sports were lacking. ASU has the School of Community Resources and Development that trains the parks administrators and the sports administrators of the future, and some of our faculty members jumped right in with the school districts, asking how they could help them problem-solve and raise funds.

“After we heard these concerns we stood up an internal grants program that would help fund community-engaged research among our faculty. One of the two projects will work with the Boys and Girls Clubs on increasing the amount of youth sports in the Isaac district.”

Cole says the reason Watts College is already achieving results in Maryvale after only two years of existence is because of the one thing they haven’t done: told Maryvale what to do.

“Our premise in these one-square-mile areas is to drive solutions that are co-designed with the community,” he says.

To evaluate how engaged community members feel with the initiative, the Design Studio collects public comments at each meeting.

  • “So happy to see these conversations are taking place!” wrote a school board member. “When we all work together, we can create great impacts. Thank you for always working towards solutions.”
  • After one of the traffic meetings, a member of the Estrella SuperMoms Blockwatch group tweeted, “Today a great conversation, #security, high speed cars and accidents on N.75th Ave. Thanks for the interest in the subject!”
  • “To see all of the work that they put in,” one attendee wrote after a meeting about the community garden, “all of the ideas they came up with, even with the barriers and them being unable to be in the garden and in the community (due to COVID), was just amazing. Whenever I see their projects, I just get so excited. These [ASU] students see what we see and what we feel.”
  • Another comment read, “They listened, asked awesome questions, brought up things we didn’t even think about before. And the ideas just make us really excited. To be able to see that it’s achievable with things we already have (we don’t have millions of dollars), you know we could do these things. Those students see that.”

Cole says engagement on the part of Maryvale residents isn’t just gratifying; it’s vital to the success of the One Square Mile initiative.

“We’re ASU,” Cole says. “We’re a big institution from the other side of town, and trust-building takes time. But we know there are good things that can happen if we meet the community where they are.”

Community Champion Espinoza says, “Erik came up with a slogan that I immediately fell in love with: ‘Moving at the speed of trust.’ As we move forward with our work, when we’re able to get more community interaction and presence, that’s what I’m hoping to put forward, to let them know that we’re not going to just come in and get out.”

Cole agrees: “Our best asset,” he says, “is trust.”

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ASU Foundation, one of Arizona’s oldest nonprofits, raises and invests private contributions to Arizona State University.