Interview with Masha V. Chernyak, Vice President of Programs and Policy
- What is your superpower?
The ability to overcome hardship and bounce back from the worst situation – to be a fighter.
- You’ve started a lot of community project and organizations, what are you proudest of?
My life’s biggest accomplishment and source of pride is my daughter Sophia.
I feel the most pride when I hear back from young people whom I’ve mentored. I love to see them succeed. When I am invited to graduations, I am so excited to attend and feel a sense of gratitude for what I ge tot do with my life. For me, what really matters is that I am a part of people’s lives. My whole model for organizing for change is about building real community relationships. I’ve learned that a lot of people just need someone to walk beside them. I am proud to have done that for our young people and their parents.
- Where did you learn how to organize?
It’s been very organic. Since I was young, I have been organizing with my mom around health issues. My mom is a community healer and I learned a lot from watching her. Because I was one of the oldest in my family, I had to figure out how to be resourceful. My parents taught me how to be “trucha” or community savvy. Using your community’s resources and relationships to find the answer. At Berkeley, I learned a lot from my peers and their parents who were organizers. Later I would also attend and lead many organizing trainings.
- What was your first organizing win?
Saving Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley in the late 90s.
- How did it feel?
It felt like we could actually create change. I never felt that before. I grew up in a very poor, racist and very conservative community. I read Malcolm X and learned about Cesar Chavez in school, but I never saw it in my own community in the Central Valley.
- What kept you at Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center for 10 years?
I helped build their school health centers, launched their first Promotora academy, the first mobile Health Van, and the first program to support Boys and Men of Color. I loved the job. I was given an opportunity to look at health from an organizer’s perspective. It’s not just physical health, it’s your mind, body and spirit that also matters.
- Why is this view of health so important in the Latino community?
You can’t detach the head from the body. You can’t empower young people and not provide a space for them to heal through their pain. I grew up in an alcoholic and domestic violence household. I was going to all of these leadership retreats and trainings but I was hurting. My brother was suffering too. We always talk about how quickly we can identify that pain in others. My sister is a kindergarten teacher and she sees it in the little ones. The kids who didn’t get enough sleep because their parents had a big fight or didn’t have dinner. Parents who are living in poverty are struggling and also need a safe place to heal. Otherwise they take their pain out on their children. We need to pay attention to this pain our community.
- As the new CEO of SIREN, what are you most excited about?
I see many young people crack on us. They don’t have the coping skills or access to mental health support. They are helping organize and empower others, but need help themselves. It’s not just about awakening their consciousness, it’s about helping them move forward as healthy leaders. That’s what I’m most excited about – bringing health and healing to our organizing work. Otherwise, It won’t work for the long haul.
- Who is your hero?
My whole family… they are my heroes. My oldest brother was born in Mexico and had a tough time growing up, being bullied and recruited by gangs. Luckily, he found sports and went to community college, then to Fresno State where he realized he was good at math and science. He went on to get his Masters in Biochemistry and learned that what he really loved was holistic health, like my mom. He got his Doctorate in Chiropractic Health and a PhD in Chinese Medicine. He has three kids and his own practice in Sanger. He’s amazing, just like my other brother and sister. We are a product of my whole family.
My parents taught us to be humble and hardworking. I never heard them complain. They were always thinking of others. Always giving back.
- What is your wish for your daughter, Sophia?
Her teacher came to me the other day with some feedback- “Sophia thinks she’s the best at everything.” It was a criticism. But for me, it’s a sign of strength. I want her to feel like she’s #1 for as long as possible, because a lot of people are going to tell her otherwise. I want her to be proud of who she and to believe in herself no matter what. When I was at Berkeley, my father was put in jail for a year. I didn’t feel like the strongest or most capable person at that time. When your parents are struggling, you don’t feel like you’re #1.
I want her to be a strong, confident Chicanese (Chicana / Vietnamese) woman. And right now, she is.
11. What gets you up in the morning?
Knowing that I’m not alone in this work. It’s way bigger than me. There are a lot of people fighting. I want to be there for the folks who are really struggling to stay alive.
Maricela Gutierrez is the CEO of SIREN (pictured in the far left). She is a founding member of an Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth and Families Collaborative and the Soñadores Invencibles Program that work to develop safety net systems for children and families seeking asylum. Maricela currently serves as the Chair of the statewide Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project, and is founder of an intergenerational traditional Aztec Dance Program, Grupo Cemanahuac. Maricela has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Berkeley, is a Shannon Leadership Program Fellow and Blue Shield Foundation Clinic Leadership Executive Management graduate.