If You Don’t Ask, the Answer is Always NO!

isabel and mom

Isabel Cortes

At the age of nine, my school backpack was the first thing I picked up when my mom told my nine siblings and me that we would leave Oaxaca, Mexico. I did not pack clothes or special belongings. I held on to my future tightly and my vision of going to college remained with me until the day I crossed the stage holding onto my Master’s degree. My parents did not have a college savings account nor did they plan for a pathway to prepare me for college. Due to my immigration status, I had zero financial aid assistance and at an early age, I learned the importance of advocating for myself. Today, I am not afraid to ask others for help and I want to inspire that same fearlessness and determination in others.

Reflecting back, I think that my immigration status was a blessing in disguise. It pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and to fight for my dreams. I applied for every financial scholarship and leadership opportunity available. I learned that there is no shame in asking others for help. Organizations like the Greenlining Institute, Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project, Chicana/Latina Foundation, Educators for Fair Consideration, and the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation among others, welcomed me with open arms and provided me with something even bigger and more empowering: community.

Aside from financial aid support, these programs provided a sense of empowerment, leadership skills, and a great support system.  This is exactly what our Latino youth need today—they need mentorship, financial support and people who deeply believe in their potential. The other thing our youth need is something they can and must find within themselves. Latino youth need to internalize the belief that indeed, they are the leaders of tomorrow. When the number of Latino college graduates continues to shrink and the Latino population in California continues to expand, our Latino youth need to believe and advocate for themselves.

Personally, I converted the burning fire inside of me into determination and perseverance to achieve the goals I always dreamed of. I was able to graduate college with two Bachelor degrees, a Master’s degree and zero school debt. I didn’t do it alone; I did it alongside all the organizations and people who believed in me. All I want to do now is pay it forward. I cannot return every dollar given to me, but I can certainly mentor other Latino students and I can start to give back little by little.

I joined the Latino Community Foundation, Latina Giving Circle because this is where it starts—this is where I hold myself accountable to give back, to share what I know, to empower others, and most importantly, to explore the endless possibilities of making the world a better place. I hold onto this dream as tightly as I held onto my backpack when we left Mexico. I am excited to give back to my community and to continue to move forward.

isabelIsabel Cortes, Mario O Alvarez, and Kira Vilanova – All Latina Giving Circle members!


This is What Leadership Looks Like

camille By: Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, Executive Director, Somos Mayfair

Somos Mayfair is a grassroots, place-based organization that has been working in the Mayfair neighborhood of East San Jose for more than 16 years. In our largely working-poor, immigrant, Latino community, our mission is to cultivate the dreams and the power of the people living here.

We are most known for our robust Promotor leadership development model that equips community residents with the tools they need to claim their individual power, take collective action, and address the most pressing issues and challenges that confront them on a daily basis. But because the core of our work is community engagement and leadership development, many wonder how we measure our success.

  • What does leadership look like?
  • How do you measure it?
  • How do you know when you have succeeded?

I have grappled with these questions for some time now, and while we use an array of measurement tools- pre and post surveys, an annual community assessment, quarterly dashboards, focus groups, and testimonials – nothing does our work justice.

Our work is often NOT linear, in which it goes from a problem, to an intervention, to a result…from point A, to point B, and point C. Rather it’s a process that moves, ebbs and flows, as a person grows and learns; as she runs into her own barriers, and has to navigate a new way around them.

Nearly 2 years ago, I met Dilza, a mother of three young children living in Mayfair. Immediately, I picked up on the deeply rooted sense of isolation and disconnection with her community. As a daughter of immigrants, I immediately recognized these emotions.

As we launched our partnership with parents at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, I saw Dilza more and more. She came to Somos because she was invited and welcomed. She had a space to engage, a place to connect with other parents, and ultimately, she connected with her OWN power within. 

Dilza is now a Somos promotora who advocates on behalf of not only her own children but all Mayfair children daily. This past fall, Dilza came into my office to share her OWN plan of action in response to a challenge that the parents were facing on campus and started to organize.

Today, Dilza is the President of the Chavez Parent Advisory Committee and is working closely with another parent leader and promotora, Olivia, to engage Mayfair parents in our District’s Local Control Accountability Plan process. They went to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) hearing in Sacramento; have conducted parent educational session; and are organizing around the biggest education-finance reform in our community.

Dilza’s story is not an isolated one. At Somos, there are countless stories of transformation and examples of leadership that keep our movement going.

  • Irma and Maria Teresa, long time Somos Promotores are invited to community events across San Jose and the Silicon Valley region to speak about their experiences and reflections of leadership. They don’t get invited through Somos and show up with talking points. Rather, they get their own invitations; show up; and have a voice at the table amidst policy makers and other executive directors.
  • Saul, a Mayfair father, organized a free, neighborhood soccer league for Mayfair children. He raised the money, bought the equipment, and recruited volunteer parent coaches to run weekly practices and games. He has organized three 12-week sessions thus far.

Our work has been described to me by one of our major investors as “SOUL” work

It is the work that taps into people souls, into their core, and transforms the way they think and how they take action. This work supports individuals to move from acting as an individual, to acting as a community.

  • At Somos, we support the shift from isolation to connection.
  • We move people to organize themselves into a community that does, not a community that just is.
  • We support people in strengthening their self-confidence, so that they can challenge the multigenerational misconceptions of our community and of ourselves.

As you can imagine, this “Soul Work” gets messy from time to time. So, when it gets messy, I have to remind myself that amidst all the issues that Mayfair families confront on a daily basis, they continue to SHOW UP! They show up and fill our front room with chatter and commotion to learn from one another; to plan community actions; and to identify new ways to attack the root causes of their problems.

They show up, because they are driven by HOPE, the hope and dreams that their children will have a different life, with greater opportunities and more possibilities. So, if they are willing to show up, time and time again; then so must I.

It takes daily renewal. It requires every staff member, Promotor and volunteer to recommit every day -to center everything on this hope.

So, in Mayfair, showing up, taking collective action, and being continuously driven by hope, even on the toughest of days…well, that is what leadership looks like.