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.