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Author: Elizabeth Figueroa

The year was 2009, and I was a struggling student in pursuit of a ‘fit’. I was testing a fifth major at San Jose State University while working a retail job under an admirable mentor who positioned me to meet other admirable people in the City of San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI). They were Maria Le, whose newsletter for the E. Santa Clara Street Business Association (ESCBA) caught the attention of my mentor;  Erica Shinohara, who led a major community engagement effort for ESCBA; and Paul Pereira, the legendary ambassador of community engagement. All were great trainers of new community leaders.

Erica Shinohara at the Uptown Festival in 2011.

The effort led by Erica was one of many SNI efforts across areas of the city that were considered blighted and in need of revitalization. Efforts included both businesses and neighborhoods. Over the years, seven of these areas have partnered with CommUniverCity to begin creating a more healthy and vibrant environment in their neighborhood. The general SNI process began with identifying leaders in each community and was followed by working meetings where residents, SNI Team Members, and the community at large compiled  a “Top 10 Priorities List.” These meetings served as a vehicle for empowering residents to make decisions and advocate for their neighborhoods, but expectations were also set: the work would be divided among all partners. By many measures, SNI was an overwhelming success with immense community support for the 11 years it was in operation.

Director of Public Safety and Neighborhood Quality of Life for the city of San Jose, Paul Pereira attending an Uptown Festival planning meeting along with other members.

Before SNI came to an end, former Councilmember Sam Liccardo started a Neighborhood Advisory Group (NAG) where experienced neighborhood leaders met with their elected official monthly to discuss and try to solve Downtown issues related to quality of life, safety, and anything in between. Now, under new Downtown Councilmember Raul Peralez, and led by Northside Neighborhood Resident Tomika Price, the group still advocates to solve neighborhood issues and has also added neighborhood walking tours to show successes achieved through resident advocacy. The biggest change is in the name. The former NAG is now the Community Leadership Council (CLC).

The CLC is flanked by other programs, projects, and organizations trying to fill the leadership pipeline by having trainings and workshops for community members on how to become an effective neighborhood advocate. Some organizations involved in this community leadership effort include SOMOS Mayfair, the Office of Immigrant Affairs, and of course, CommUniverCity.

Back in 2009, Susana, my mentor, had unknowingly led me to my ‘fit.’ That fit turned out to be in the community engagement and non profit field with CommUniverCity. Here, I’ve been led by amazing mentors like Maria, Erica, Paul, Imelda, and others. I have also had the chance to lead community members and students. The positive results of being able to lead and collaborate with like-minded individuals and groups working toward a common goal is a driving force in planning and implementing CommUniverCity’s Community Leadership Program (CLP) where the goal is to bring out the leader in residents that are participating from the sidelines.

Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association and former council member (current mayor) Sam Liccardo just before a night of reporting broken street lights​.

Unlike SNI, we do not have a direct link to City Manager’s office at a moment’s notice and we do not regularly meet with four city offices to triage resource and efforts. But similar to SNI, CommUniverCity’s CLP listens to its participants, builds and develops relationships, and responds to community needs. The positive results that drive the continuation of  these programs are possible because, as exemplified by SNI, the NAG, the CLC, and Project Hope, this beautiful City of San Jose cares about creating leaders from all walks of life and knows that community leadership matters

Today, at a very grassroots level, CommUniverCity is in the midst of identifying leaders to participate in our most recent installment of our CLP. In this Spanish language program, participants will learn practical skills to lead their communities in issues that closely affect their safety and quality of life. Potential candidates can sign up at cucsj.org/clp

Grassroots organizations don’t have the resources SNI had, but we hope for an SNI outcome described by the Institute for Local Government: “The residents originally became involved in the program because of the projects, but stayed because they felt a sense of community, success and empowerment.”


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