The agency began humbly in 1981 under the leadership of its first executive director, Donna Sherlock. Sherlock supervised a staff of three that included two social workers, and Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES) opened its doors as a storefront on Robert Street (between 9th and 10th streets) in downtown St. Paul. At the time, the acronym stood for Chicanos Latinos Unidos En Servicio. The agency moved in 1983 from downtown to a leased space on the corner of Plato Boulevard and Robert Street, allowing it to expand its services on the West Side.
Rafael Ortega succeeded Sherlock as executive director in 1984 and led CLUES to add services and locations. Over his 11-year tenure, Ortega expanded services to address employment, education, and chemical health services. He created a new program for seniors, introduced an afterschool program called La Escuelita, and launched a new service center in South Minneapolis. He also added a research component called Hispanic Advocacy and Empowerment through Research (HACER).
During the 1990s, the Twin Cities’ Latino community grew twofold, increasing demand for social services. In 1995, the CLUES board of directors appointed Jesse Bethke Gomez its third executive director, and over the next 17 years the agency more than doubled in size. It conducted its first capital campaign, built its headquarters on the East Side of St. Paul (797 East Seventh Street), and helped both HACER and La Escuelita become their own independent organizations. Construction of the new CLUES headquarters in 2004 was a major milestone that established CLUES as a mature institution.
In 2004, CLUES collaborated with the State of Minnesota to support an official state visit by His Excellency Vicente Fox, President of Mexico. Bethke Gomez and CLUES played a key role in organizing the meeting by connecting Mexican consul Carlos M. Sada with Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. In part because of the success of President Fox’s visit, in 2005 the government of Mexico chose CLUES’ St. Paul location as the site for the 46th Consulate of Mexico in the United States.
CLUES’ board of directors appointed Ruby Lee its president and chief executive officer in 2012. Lee refined the group’s mission, seeking “to advance the social and economic equity and well-being for Latinos by building upon our strengths and cultures, uplifting our community, and activating leadership for systemic change.”
Thanks to the efforts of Lee, staff, funders, and the board of directors, CLUES doubled the size of its East Side St. Paul location in 2019. The agency continued to support Latino youth, individuals, and families, and the new 40,000-square-foot building offered more open spaces to foster social capital: a Latino Arts Gallery, a Teen Tech Center, technology and arts classrooms, additional behavioral health clinics, and classrooms that could function as one larger meeting room. In 2022, Lee explained that “CLUES takes a transformational approach within the community. We are trauma informed, holistic, and culturally anchored whereby we work on changing narratives, changing behaviors, and changing systems for the better whereby people feel valued and live thriving lives.”
In 2022, CLUES has 150 staff, more than 600 volunteers, and thousands of participants who come to connect to resources, community, Latinx art, and cultural traditions. Lee says, “We are proud to provide a sense of belonging and networks of support for our Latinx community, and for people from all walks of life who choose us to connect them to resources and opportunities. Whether at our East Side St. Paul headquarters, or our Minneapolis locations, or our offices in Wilmar or Austin, Minnesota, we are a welcoming home that connects access to opportunities.”
MNopedia editor’s note: This article uses both “Latino” and the gender-neutral “Latinx” to reflect the evolution of terms since CLUES’ founding in 1981, as well as the diversity of preferences of CLUES’ constituents.
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