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Pots and Pans
in the William Reed Corridor

(Learning the joy of working in the community)

by Federico Salas
San Jose, California

When you cook, it’s sometimes extremely freeing to veer from a recipe. Usually when I change up a recipe, it’s out of necessity. The vision of how a multi-disciplinary non-profit arts organization could help empower its immediate neighborhood was ready for a change and I got the opportunity to help figure out the change. For over fifteen years I have worked in the non-profit arts world including programming films for a large film festival and coordinating performance and literary arts events for MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana in San Jose, CA. I never imagined that I would work in community organizing or as a project coordinator for neighborhood development, but working in the Shifting Sands Initiative funded by The Ford Foundation and managed by Partners for Livable Communities, I did both, and although at times it seemed like trying to prepare a meal on a moving sidewalk, I did my best and what follows is my recipe.

I miss seeing the neighborhood characters stand up and voice their concerns or just introduce themselves and tell their stories. I never could have guessed how important neighborhood association meetings would become to my work because, well, frankly I never gave them much thought before. Now I understand that meetings are one of the most important parts of neighborhood work. Yeah, sometimes I was tired on a cold Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. and would rather have been home, but I would go to the meeting and always be very happy that I did. I loved seeing Sandra Soelnner’s smiling face and getting her quick report of what was happening around O’Donnell’s Gardens Park and her ideas of how MACLA could partner with the South University Neighborhood Association (SUN). I knew our work was moving forward when she told me that partnering with MACLA had made the association so much stronger. It was sometimes very difficult to see success in our neighborhood work, but when Sandra asked me if MACLA would partner with the association on a neighborhood appreciation picnic, or could we write a grant with them and could they partner with us for next year’s National Night Out, I knew that MACLA was doing good work. So I kept going to as many neighborhood meetings as I knew about, or was invited to. I even got on the monthly agenda at the SUN meeting-welcome, introductions, old business, MACLA update!

Going to meetings proved to be one of the great tools in helping to understand the personality of our neighborhood. The William Reed Corridor has a vibrant and prickly personality. The diversity that makes it wonderful, the strong Vietnamese, Latino, Indian, Asian, and the proverbial “other” cultures also make it difficult to connect. It was difficult until I realized that we must redefine connection in contemporary neighborhood work in the William Reed Corridor. Working in this neighborhood made me realize that trying to impose the old-school “America is a melting pot” approach wouldn’t work here. This neighborhood is more like an old stove with many different pots cooking at the same time and we (MACLA) know that a brand spanking new glass top stove (aka gentrification) is being delivered in the very near future and we need to help the pots adjust and the pans plan for future success.

I miss the Family Portraits project, especially the portrait sessions at O’Donnell’s Gardens Park and at the corner of William and 10th Streets, yes, on the corner. It worked! Photographing families from the neighborhood on a busy street corner in front of Fortune Cookie Chinese restaurant on a Saturday morning was splendid. It all came together with people talking and storytelling and complaining about their lives and the neighborhood while getting their portraits taken.

Connecting to the Vietnamese and Indian community is still a sizeable problem we need to overcome. I don’t discuss the Latino community in this paper because I am Latino and was immediately accepted. It also helped that I could speak Spanish (although some neighbors would have a laugh at me proclaiming that.)

The main issue here is making sure that the ability to translate quickly is in place. We very successfully built a written translation network, but we still need to work on the spoken side of that communication. Community work in the modern San Jose shifting sands neighborhood has to be done in many languages all the time, not just on flyers. We are well on our way, though.

You give them snacks, they will come. It cannot be overstated that providing free snacks at community meetings and events helped bring people in. The gesture even brought MACLA lots of good will and humor. People always knew MACLA would come through with the grub and were waiting to see what healthy snacks we would bring. It was fun introducing neighbors to the joys of Trader Joes, but all kidding aside, many families have no idea that delicious healthy snacks are available at affordable prices, so I always felt that providing snacks was an effort to do some grass roots nutrition training -- it’s got to start somewhere.

It was always very important to me contact people by phone and/or email to invite them to come to a meeting or a neighborhood event. Folks really appreciated being remembered and reminded. Teresa, an active neighborhood mother, was always happy to be called and she would always tell Clara and she would tell Carmelita and vice versa and so forth. Get to know the mothers in the neighborhood! Get business cards from the neighborhood people and businesses and keep them in a book. I can’t tell you how invaluable my biz card folder was.

One of the most vital avenues to success in our neighborhood work was getting connected to Lowell Elementary School. I made a visit there soon after coming onboard and met the parent/school liaison Brenda Almazar. Brenda became one of our strongest allies in our neighborhood work. She helped MACLA and Lowell Elementary school work together on many programs. She would make sure that all flyers I took to her would be placed in each of the 436 student packets that went home weekly. Those take-home packets helped make our Family Portraits Project and the Family Giving Tree project wildly successful.

The work can seem so daunting and endless and complicated and the results can be very hard to see. I always tried to keep it as simple as possible. So we are organizing a National Night Out. What is the desired outcome? We want neighbors to come out and meet each other, have some food and maybe see some entertainment. That’s it--get a budget, buy some food, hire a dance group, contact the neighbors and you are on. If the city has difficult ordinances and permit requirements, figure out how to work around them. Talk to neighborhood partners you have that have done this before. I was never afraid to tell people that I really didn’t know what I was doing and to ask for help. I always tried to remember that it was not my party or my meeting; it was the neighborhood’s event. I learned to plan it so that I could turn it over to Teresa and her group of madres or to volunteers from Lowell Elementary School or Lupe, our neighborhood mascot from over on 3rd Street.

I strived to help people feel invested and feel ownership and when they did, they would always come through. For our National Night Out, I recruited the help of neighborhood mothers to welcome people and serve the pizza and watermelon. We also recruited a neighborhood bicycle shop owner, Chuck from Chuck’s Bicycle Express, to come measure kid’s heads for bike helmets that we were giving away (the helmet donation was coordinated by another important partner, the city of San Jose’s Strong Neighborhood Initiatives, SNI). I only coordinated the logistics for the event and put the contacts together, I didn’t run the whole thing. This was their party. What I didn’t do was give up. If the city said we needed permits to have the event at the park, why not have it on the sidewalk in front of the park where we wouldn’t need a permit? This was an idea from a partner whom I probably shouldn’t name here. So they won’t get in trouble. If one city agency says no, go to another. There will always be a loophole or agencies that will say yes-- just keep calling. Do not just email, CALL!

The highlight of our National Night Out was when a Vietnamese martial arts group, Vovinam, performed a martial arts demonstration to hip-hop music played (“spun,” as the kids say) by a young hip Latino DJ, Chatos 1013. It was so incredible to see and hear the spontaneous blending of two cultures on a street in a neighborhood that is working to come together. Vovinam performed again at our Christmas neighborhood party. This time, it was wonderful to see many Latino parents rush up after the performance and ask if they could get their kids to join this Vietnamese group. The energy going back and forth between the two groups was so healthy and positive and was so forward pointing. I just imagined what strong friendships and partnerships would be forged as a result of this performance at this party that had its roots at a street demonstration in August! Our visioning was working.

I can’t say enough about volunteers: find them, court them, and call them back. They will make everything so much better. It is also very important to plan for exactly how many volunteers you will need; there’s nothing worse than good volunteers standing around not being engaged. Volunteers are so essential to all neighborhood work! In my entire non-profit work over the past 15 years, it’s always been about the volunteers. It may seem somewhat elementary to talk about volunteers, but they are so vital--take care of them!

I got results by walking the neighborhood and talking to people. I made sure to always schedule walking-around time. And as a fringe benefit, I got to do some shopping at Guru’s dollar store for the fiercest t-shirts and sun glasses on William Street. Where else can you get a “TROY” movie t-shirt for $1.00? Faux FENDI shades for $1.99?

I learned that community building was calling people back, calling them for the first time, popping into their shop, running by the school. Community building is visiting the Plaza Maria apartment complex on a regular basis and checking to see how things are going. I saw what a strong community they were, and that empowered my community-building; it really all goes around.

Do not give up! It was very frustrating at times when only five or six people would come to a meeting. But then I understood that these five or six folks would be inspired and would inevitably talk to their neighbors. Don’t give up! Really.

Buy a staple gun. One of the best strategies in our neighborhood was stapling flyers to telephone poles. It really works. I got many calls from those fliers. There were occasions when neighbors would walk into the MACLA office or to an event with a crumpled up stained flyer in their hand looking for me. That was always a gratifying moment.

Working with Tom Borrup, of Community & Cultural Development and one of the technical assistance team members from the Shifting Sands Initiative, to design a six-month community visioning roadmap was a distinct turning point for me. This roadmap and the dialogue from the meetings gave me clarity and direction on where we wanted to gently push the neighborhood. It was from this meeting that I got a clear vision of what I could help accomplish in the neighborhood. I needed to help encourage an empowered movement towards a vision for the neighborhood’s future. Monthly meetings would help the neighborhood develop the tools necessary to actively participate in their future.

As we hoped, the roadmap grew and changed month to month. By the time we got to our November meeting (facilitated by Russell Simmons, Community Development Concepts, Inc. and another of the technical assistance team members available through Shifting Sands), it became clear that helping neighborhood businesses develop their skills was essential to a better quality of life for the neighborhood in the future. Another strong collateral win from the plan was the realization that we could use these meetings to bring other partners to the table. I learned that MACLA didn’t have to do everything for the various constituents, we just had to help connect the William Reed businesses to the appropriate partners to help them learn, survive, and flourish.

These meetings were hard to coordinate, but they are very effective. Plan them long in advance, set topics, schedule the appropriate facilitator for each one, and move the meeting locations around the neighborhood. Don’t forget free snacks, childcare, and translation.

We worked on a business directory for the William Reed Corridor for many months. The idea was to produce a business directory in the traditional style, but instead of selling ads, we listed all the businesses and then featured fifteen of them. The business feature is a full page and consists of an interview with the owner and photographs taken by students from our youth photography classes; and the directory is in English and was translated into Vietnamese and Spanish.

Conducting the initial mapping of the businesses for the directory was a long process. We partnered with the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, which is run by the City of San José. These partners were incredibly valuable, not just for their help in gathering information, but also for the Vietnamese translation provided by one of their staff, Kim Luc. I loved doing the interviews. Everyone’s story was so different and so colorful and full of determination and strength. These people are all so talented and brave. I loved seeing the beautiful photographs of the businesses and I loved seeing the look on their faces when I took a proof to show them. They were so proud.

The directory proved to be a great tool to help establish the neighbors trust in me. They realized after many times of me approaching them that I was in fact not trying to sell them anything and they finally let their guard down. We had realized after the November community visioning meeting that the life of the neighborhood was in large part based on the health of the small businesses, and the business directory gave us a great connection to them. The directory can live on indefinitely, and updating the information annually would be a great way to keep in touch with the pulse of the community.

I loved walking around the neighborhood. I loved developing relationships with the business owners and the people who worked in the businesses. I learned so much about how our neighborhood functioned, about how close-knit Vietnamese families can be and how their kids take their after-school naps behind the cash register counter. I learned to sense that the person telling me that the owner wasn’t around was the owner. I learned not to let on that I knew. I just let respect take over and I simply passed on the information.

I learned that in the William Reed Corridor the playing field has evened out somewhat. The relationships that are being renegotiated every day are very balanced on the human scale. Silicon Valley is ruthless and success is the currency. BMWs are the new Volkswagens. But somehow in our neighborhood everyone is getting a voice. I grew up poor and sometimes angry. I always was the underdog, so it is a gratifying experience when you realize that the home owners are listening to the tenants. That the Chinese restaurant owner really wants to know her Latino neighbors and that she will gladly let you use her store front as a backdrop for your Family Portraits project. She even fed us and wanted nothing except to make her neighbors feel good. When business owner Harminder Dalliwal had some issues about noise and vandalism, he trusted us enough to take Tamara Alvarado, MACLA Executive Director, and myself to his favorite Indian restaurant to voice his complaints and break bread with us. He knew we would listen because we are all neighbors here. The food was great.

It is important to find a Lupe in the neighborhood. Our Lupe is a vibrant 73-year-old woman who lives right smack in the hood on 3rd Street. She walks daily and knows everything that goes in the neighborhood and almost everybody in it. She is our friend and super volunteer. Lupe wants to help, wants to be noticed and heard and wants to use her time to help the neighborhood. There are so many Lupes around who don’t know how important they are or how valuable their sweat equity is. From Lupe I learned about parking issues on her streets, neighborhood concerns about a teenage homeless shelter that is coming into the neighborhood and that my Spanish was sometimes laughable. The Notre Dame High School website doesn’t tell you that the parents are running roughshod over the neighbor’s driveways and making the residents feel like the school doesn’t care about them, but Lupe filled me in on that. And we can pass that info to the school and get a dialogue started. Lupe also helped us make plenty of phone calls and wrap many Christmas presents for our neighborhood holiday party. Find a Lupe in your neighborhood -- she is waiting for you!

Working in the William Reed Corridor was one of the greatest experiences in my non-profit arts career. I had to do a completely different job than I had ever done before, and I needed to use all of my prior experience as an arts programmer to do it. I wasn’t choosing films for a film festival or coordinating an author’s series, but somehow coordinating arts events and helping a neighborhood plan a vision for its future was not as dissimilar as I imagined. People trust art and know instinctively that art will make their lives better and so I learned that the trust that the William Reed Corridor had in MACLA would be the key. What I learned being part of the Shifting Sands Initiative from The Ford Foundation and Partners for Livable Communities was that mixing trust and art and my coordinating skills and MACLA’s resources and an immigrant neighborhood makes a delicious strong spicy recipe that puts those old pots and pans to the test.

About the author: Federico Salas has been a non-profit arts worker for over 15 years. He started in Las Cruces, NM as the Executive Director of the Mesilla Valley Film Society, was the Co-Director of the San Diego Latino Film Festival and worked as a program coordinator and community organizer at MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana in San Jose, CA. He lives with his partner Scott in Portland, Oregon.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 25, 2008

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