Author: Katherine Cushing
Imelda Rodriguez is the Community Director for CommUniverCity San Jose (CUC). Before joining CUC, Imelda worked for a Fortune 500 company specializing in organizational development. After working for decades as a corporate executive, Imelda moved to San Jose, California to care for her mother, who had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“When I was working in the corporate world, these issues were really far from my mind—it was when I came home that I noticed them. It sort of hit me in the face.”
Upon her arrival in San Jose, Imelda was surprised at some of the poor city conditions she saw in her own neighborhood. “Coming back, I saw the contrast between San Jose and other cities in the U.S. and Mexico. I couldn’t believe that a city in Silicon Valley could have so much need. I wasn’t happy with the level of public services. So I went to a community meeting to ask why we did not have a street sweeper like there was in other neighborhoods. That’s how I began advocating for more services.”
After helping her mother recuperate through treatment and remission (her mom is now cancer-free for 10 years), Imelda became actively engaged with community organizing and decided to stay in San Jose, redirecting her energy to building social capital in her community. She hasn’t looked back since.
Although Imelda didn’t start out professionally working on health and sustainability issues, she credits moving to San Jose and having some time for personal reflection as the motivation that prompted her career change. “When I was working in the corporate world, these issues were really far from my mind—it was when I came home that I noticed them. It sort of hit me in the face.”
Imelda sees sustainability and environmental issues from a social and global perspective and understands the importance of connecting people to the natural environment. For example, as part of her work supporting healthy food access for community residents, she organized monthly nature walks. As she recalls, interest was high. “We’d get about 100 people walking for one-and-a half miles. Afterwards, we’d distribute fruit and vegetables. They loved it.” She’s also been involved in educating elementary school children about local creek issues including helping fourth graders “become more aware of natural landscapes in our neighborhood and appreciating the biodiversity that is there.”
Rodriguez’s work in sustainability spans a wide range of issues. She launched a task force that led to the creation of CUC’s Growing Sustainably programs. This effort includes in-school garden workshops at local elementary schools, cooking classes for middle-schoolers, increasing resident access to urban gardening, and community fruit harvesting. Additionally, she was heavily involved in the multi-year effort to organize a group of residents in developing a community-based public transit village plan in the Five Wounds Brookwood Terrace neighborhood.
Imelda emphasizes the importance of building trust through small successes and communicating in Spanish as important elements of her leadership approach. “I was born in Coahuila, Mexico and I speak Spanish. That’s important to our community. . . . Getting others involved took making a personal connection, whether it was at a school meeting, talking to my neighbors, or just going to a community meeting.” She adds, “Previous success is important too. Once you are able to get a project done, then people can trust you and believe that you can change things together.”
“We need to show Latinos what they can do to protect natural resources—to provide the landscape for other lives to live in. It’s important. Latinos need to have a place at the table.”
Imelda sees the young adult Latinos around here rallying around social justice issues, such as gang prevention and food justice, and notes that more Latinos than you think are civically engaged. “On an almost daily basis, you see the news and things look bad for Latinos. Sometimes you feel you are alone working on these issues. But then you go out and you meet others who are working actively on them too.”
To better engage today’s U.S. Latinos in sustainability issues, Rodriguez stresses the need to build awareness. “A lot of people don’t have time to think about environmental issues, so there is a need to create awareness about sustainability issues in the community. Not just awareness, but what can we do, what behaviors need to change. We need to show Latinos what they can do to protect natural resources—to provide the landscape for other lives to live in. It’s important. Latinos have a place at the table.”