We are in Charge of our Own Destiny

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 2.46.55 PMMy name is Andrés Connell and I’m a founding member of the Latino Men’s Giving Circle. As an immigrant and as Executive Director of Nuestra Casa, nonprofit dedicated to serving the needs of immigrant Latino families in the East Palo Alto region, I know the value of working collectively with sister organizations to bring about community transformation. This philosophy carries over to my philanthropic work where I see the importance that comes from pooling our personal resources in order to better serve our communities.

I had the privilege of attending the 2015 National Immigrant Integration Conference in New York City earlier this week. At this year’s convening, we heard from a host of leading academics and immigrant integration experts on the importance of genuinely engaging immigrant populations. We were inspired by the words of both New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, and New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, both of whom have strong ties to Italian immigrants. Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, also made an appearance and promised to continue supporting DACA & DAPA legislation as well as pursuing CIR (comprehensive immigration reform).

The messages from all of these individuals were right on point and powerful, especially given the rhetoric coming from some of those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, but they paled in comparison to the passion and fervor coming from those of us in the audience. WE are the masters of our own narrative and WE must take the lead on steering the political discourse in the proper direction! WE cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and let ‘others’ dictate the local, regional and national tones of these very important political conversations.

As I think about the work that we are doing locally through our numerous Latino Giving Circles, WE are showing the country that WE are in charge of our own destinies. As Latinos, WE come from all different walks of life and from different economic back grounds but WE share a common vision for our communities. By joining one of our giving circles, you have an opportunity to invest in our communities and become part of the WE movement. Adelante!

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.


Our Community has GANAS for Change

By: Alejandra Gutierrez, Youth Organizing Coordinator, Fathers and Families of San Joaquin (FFSJ)

FFSJ group

I come from a hardworking, Mexican family that taught me the value of ganas, which does not have a direct English translation, but for me, it means that if you have passion for something, you must work hard to attain it no matter what it takes. While attending the University of California Irvine, I was inspired by my community organizing classes and justice became what I had ganas for. The love that I have for social justice work was first developed through my studies, but it truly solidified through the teachings of my mentors, the ones that showed me how to organize. Grassroots organizing brings solutions.

I am honored to be working as the Youth Organizing Coordinator at Fathers and Families of San Joaquin (FFSJ). I grew up in a small town in the Eastern Coachella Valley – a poor, marginalized, and agricultural community.  Although Stockton is not where I was raised, I now proudly call it home.  On paper and via statistics, Stockton is not where you come to realize your dreams. In fact, Stockton has been named one of the most miserable cities by Forbes magazine and became the largest American city to declare bankruptcy. Stockton has very high unemployment rates and one of the highest homicide and incarceration rates in the State. But we, at Fathers and Families continue to work with the most powerful tool to bring about change- our people. And we are seeing real results. Last year, we joined forces with our community and rallied to prevent the development of a new prison in our county. This was a tremendous victory that deeply motivated our community to continue efforts to bring alternatives to incarceration and support for the formerly incarcerated, which will inevitably strengthen families and our greater community.

What makes us so successful is the fact that we don’t “serve” people, we engage the community and create a positive and empowered extended family. The people we engage through our programs feel like they are part of something bigger in their community, something that they help shape and lead.  We are a community-based organization and our organizing is led by a diverse Latino, African-American, and Asian community. There is no division between me, the organizer, and the person who walks into our doors. We treat individuals and all families with love and respect. Not one single person walks in and out of our center without acknowledgement, without a handshake, and very rarely, without a hug. Nor do they leave without hearing words of encouragement and hope that follow them throughout the rest of their day, and will hopefully follow them for the rest of their lives.

We are intentional about working with the most vulnerable populations. In our Youth Program, we reach out to the youth who others have failed to engage and would consider the most difficult to work with. Their stories become our story and they become part of our family. We follow the teachings of our maestros and maestras (mentors) that have guided us in bringing healing into our community. When we learn about our roots and cultura, we remove our blindfolds and gain the mental freedom to understand that in fact, we can change our destiny. We resist, insist and persist that we, the people, will shape a healthier, safer, and more prosperous future for Stockton.

I pass down the importance of having ganas as I organize our youth and partner with our elders. I know that if we can come together, we can achieve the impossible. I invite you to join our movement in Stockton or to find ganas for making change in your own community.