Ben Vo, on Learning Critical Consciousness and Activism

Ben Vo, a second year student at De Azna College who recently earned his Leadership and Social Change certificate, grew up in San Jose, about a 25 minute drive away from campus. It was an interesting place to grow up, Ben says, in part because the city in many ways mirror many of the socioeconomic trends happening nationally, like widening wealth and income inequality. “Especially in my community, on the East Side of San Jose, which was more the working class side of the city.”

San Jose was also an interesting place to grow up, he says, because it provided him with ample opportunity to connect with and learn from his Vietnamese-American background. The city is home to more Vietnamese people in any one city outside of Vietnam—estimated around 180,000 residents. “So there was always a really big emphasis on my Vietnamese-American identity growing up,” Ben said.

“These weren’t things I was ever taught in high school, or if we were, maybe there was a single paragraph about it.”

It was partly this focus that led him, while a sophomore in high school, to apply to a summer program at the University of California, Berkley for Southeast Asian youth. The all expenses paid, five-day four-night program “taught me a lot about what it means to be Vietnamese-American in the United States, and all the injustices that Southeast Asians in general have experienced” he said. He noted, by way of example, the thousands of Vietnamese refugees that sought asylum in the United States during the 1970s, only to face discrimination in their new home as they tried to assimilate. “These weren’t things I was ever taught in school, or if we were, maybe there was a single paragraph about it” he said. “So it really got me on the social justice track that I’m on right now.”

Ben learned about the CLP-affiliated Leadership and Social Change certificate quite by accident—he enrolled in one of the program’s core courses, Critical Consciousness and Social Change, without realizing it was the first required class of the certificate. “I only enrolled because another course I was hoping to take didn’t fit my schedule, so it was kind of just lucky,” he said. “Looking back, I’m glad that I stumbled into something that I’ve been looking for this whole time.” One of the main skills he says he has taken from his time in the program is the ability to listen. “And I mean empathetic listening, which is harder to do than you think,” Ben said.

“We don’t talk about race without also talking about how it interacts with things like gender and ethnicity more broadly.”

Though he says he’s been inspired by much of what he’s learned through the certificate program, Ben says he was particularly moved by coming to understand how social movements and issues overlap. “It’s like how people used to think of ethnic studies as just its own thing—only focusing on the experiences of black, Latinx or Asian people by themselves,” he said. His De Anza coursework, he says, was intersectional. “We don’t talk about race without also talking about how it interacts with things like gender and ethnicity more broadly.”

Though Ben already had quite a bit of experience learning about advocacy and organizing through the Berkley summer institute, he says the CLP certificate helped him realize that it was possible to pursue any number of careers related to community change. As only a second year student, he is still unsure which path he hopes to take when he graduates. He sees any number of options in his future, including teaching, pursuing a law degree, or working in public policy. “Whatever I do, I’ll be taking the social justice framework I’ve learned with me,” Ben said. “If I do something like teach, I’m now going to teach from within this social justice perspective,” he said as an example. “It’s this outlook and framework I’ve learned from the certificate that will probably stick with me most.”



Nahje Royster: On Finding Her Voice in a Whitewashed World

Nahje Royster, a student at West Chester University, was born and raised in a diverse neighborhood in northern Philadelphia. “There were a lot of different communities within in my neighborhood,” she says, including lots of people from Latinx, Hispanic, and Black backgrounds. “I grew up with a lot of people with a similar story to me—lots of people from working class communities, or single parent homes.”

She experienced culture shock, then, when she first enrolled at West Chester University. She was excited to be enrolled in an institute of higher learning—her parents, she explained, weren’t college educated. “But this was also the first time I had ever been around predominately white spaces,” she said. It was a change that, while abrupt, also helped crystalize some of her ideas around race and racism. Philadelphia may be predominately black, she said, but “you soon start to realize that most of your teachers are white, your doctor is white,” she said. “Basically anyone with authority.”

Nahje also began to recognize some of the implicit biases in much of her previous education, particularly around the history of her hometown. “We maybe learned that, oh yeah, we have the Liberty Bell here and Benjamin Franklin lived here,” she said. “But the history is all pretty whitewashed.” She remembers being particularly struck, while in 6th grade, by the intense disappointment expressed by one of her teachers after Barack Obama was elected President for the first time in 2008. “At the time, I didn’t know enough about politics, but as I got older, I began to realize there were probably a lot of unsaid reasons he was upset that [Senator John] McCain didn’t win.”

Her experiences with education began to improve, she said, once she met Doctor Hannah Ashley, who encouraged her to enroll in West Chester’s Youth Empowerment and Urban Studies (YES) Program, an 18-credit interdisciplinary social change minor. Her coursework within the program, Nahje says, dove deeper into her city’s vast and rich social movement history. “We focused on a lot of the civil rights and other activists that worked right here in Philly, many of them led by black people and black women in particular.” It wasn’t until she joined the YES program, she said further, that she felt like she was part of a community that was actively learning to speak a common language around issues related to social justice. “When I use words like ‘supremacy,’ or say I want to smash the patriarchy, people aren’t confused or question it,” she says. “It’s like, yes, that’s actually exactly what where here for; that’s what we’re doing.”

One of the biggest leadership skills Nahje says she’s acquired, as part of the YES program, is the ability to recognize there are many different ways to mobilize people. “One of the biggest methods I’ve learned is to just listen,” she said. “Rather than automatically judge someone, it’s important to hear what people are actually saying—I now realize I need to understand someone’s motivations, and meet them where they’re at, rather than getting angry because they don’t understand something like racism or classism.”

As part of the fieldwork required of the YES program, Nahje worked with a group called Youth United for Change, made up primarily of working class youth of color, who are working to improve the experiences of public school students in Philadelphia. “I wish I’d known about this group in high school,” she said. “It’s very radical to it’s core.” She was impressed by the group’s focus and recognition of intersectional identities at such a young age. Group discussions often revolved around the work of queer and trans leaders, she said, and women of color. “Lots of revolutionary movements are led by black queer people, or feminine people in general,” she said. “They are learning how to be leaders and activists, which aren’t lessons you always get as a minority child.”

Nahje says she’s still figure out what, exactly, is next for her after she graduates from West Chester University, but says that law school or a doctorate program are both possibilities. She’s particularly interested in working at the crossroads of criminal justice, race, and gender and sexuality. “Whatever I do,” she added, “I want it to be radical and revolutionary.”







The Only Constant in Henry Ford’s “Community Leadership” Program Is Change

The Community Leadership Program at Henry Ford College may already be in its fourth year, but its curriculum is far from set in stone—and Professor Robert Yahrmatter, who leads the program, plans to keep it that way. The core of the program, he says, is the Introduction to Community Leadership course. “We teach the fundamentals of community leadership,” Professor Yahrmatter said. “We sharpen and enhance leadership skills, and then look for ways to put it all into action.”

Putting leadership skills into action, however, requires some pretty frequent deviation from the day’s lesson plan. “If you were to ask me to share what my curriculum is in some written way, I’d just say I couldn’t do it,” he said, adding that it changes each year and is dependent on the students he has in class. In interviews with professor Yahrmatter and three of his current students, it’s clear that this emphasis on flexibility has contributed to important moments of experiential learning, skill development, and team building—and is part of the secret sauce of what makes the Community Leadership model at Henry Ford a success.

“One of the best ways to learn is to go out and do”  -Professor Yahrmatter

Henry Ford College offers two pathways towards gaining community change credentials. The first builds towards an Associate Degree in Community Leadership, with an opportunity to transfer to a four-year college. The second is a Certificate in Community Leadership that can be earned as a stand-alone credential, or can be part of another associate degree program. “Of course, both pathways have certain requirements,” Professor Yahrmatter said. “But so much of the substance is dependent on what the students are interested in.”

For instance, this past semester, during a class discussion on food insecurity, Professor Yahrmatter saw that the issue was resonating deeply with his students. That day’s lesson quickly went out the window as he saw an opportunity for his students to apply some of the conceptual leadership skills they were learning in class to a real situation. “One of the best ways to learn is to go out and do,” Professor Yahrmatter said. “And they did—they had the idea to organize a food drive around Thanksgiving. They organized it, ran it, and turned it into a really great event.”

Several of Professor Yahrmatter’s students mentioned the opportunity to organize the food drive as a particularly impactful experience. “Professor Bob allowed us to discuss our interests and say what should be in our syllabus,” said Staci Lowry, who is in her second semester at Henry Ford, of the experience organizing the food drive. “I’ve never been in a class where a professor was like, ‘what do you want to get out of this?”

Importantly, Professor Yahrmatter didn’t lead the effort, said Dawn Wilson-Clark, another student in the class who is currently in her second semester. Instead, he encouraged the students to take action, and helped problem solve when challenges arose. “Originally, we only planned to make baskets for around 10 families,” Wilson-Clark said. “But more than 20 people signed up.” Rather than turn away hungry families, Professor Yahrmatter spoke to the students about ways to tap into their own networks. After doing so, the group was able to come up with enough food to create baskets for everyone who signed up. “It really inspired us to think bigger, solve problems, and do better,” Wilson-Clark said.

For an upcoming project this semester, Prof. Yahrmatter says several of his students plan to lead delegations of students to Michigan’s state capital to meet with legislators about the concerns facing community college, including issues around food insecurity. Once again, the students will be given the opportunity to take what they’re learning in class and apply it to a real situation—this time at the same table as actual decision makers. “They’re in charge of identifying the issues they want to discuss,” he said. “They’re developing the agendas right now, and have to conduct some pretty extensive research so they’re knowledgeable about what they hope to discuss when they walk through those doors.”

“It became really easy to look at the people in class not as classmates but as part of a family” -Dawn Wilson-Clark

The flexibility that Professor Yahrmatter brings to his program tends to have a profound effect on the students in his course, many of who form an intense bond by the end of the semester. “I used to dread coming to school every day when my alarm would go off at 8am,” said Stacey Johnson, who will graduate with the Associates Degree in Community Leadership this May. “Now, I’m excited. This group of people has become like a family. We reach out to each other for support. It’s incredibly interpersonal, and they’re relationships I’ll have for life.”

“It became really easy to look at the people in class not as classmates but as part of a family,” Staci Lowry agreed. The flexibility for students to lead discussions in class also tends to reveal some deeply personal challenges, she said—as well as create an opportunity for the student to rally around them and provide support. “We’d say, hey, this is what’s going on in my life, what’s going on in yours? We heavily relied on each other for moral support. We keep in touch, and will stay in touch after the semester ends.”

“There’s so much happening in our class that’s amazing,” Dawn Wilson-Clark said, for her part. “One of our classmates has a mother in a nursing home, and I’ve experienced that. We’re there for each other as we’re struggling through all sorts of things in our personal lives. We are all leaders in our communities, but we’re also wounded healers. It’s been a blessing to me.”

“These credentials I’m earning are necessary for me to be taken seriously and do what I want in the world” -Staci Lowry

Students in the Community Leadership program at Henry Ford cited a wide variety of goals for their future—and the ways they hope to apply what they’ve learned in the Community Leadership Program are just as varied.

Stacey Johnson, who is 19 years old, says she is still unsure what she hopes to do with her degree once she graduates, exactly, but does know that she feels better prepared for the challenge thanks to her coursework. “I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to work with different communities that aren’t like my own,” she said. “I’ll be the first person in my family to graduate, so much of this is still really new to me.” Whatever she chooses to do in her future, she says she now feels prepared to bring the “ethics, professionalism, and appreciation of cultural differences” she’s learned in class with her into the future.

Dawn Wilson-Clark, who is 47, already had extensive experience in community change work prior to entering the program at Henry Ford. But she, too, says she’s gained skills and experiences she plans to apply to her current profession as a community organizer. She singled out the guest speakers who spoke to her classes, in particular, as a particularly important resource. “One of the guest speakers, Kathy McDonald, talked about different leadership styles and the type of leaders that exist,” she said. “At my job, I have three different teams I work with, all with three very different personalities. She helped me get a better understanding of why people do what they do in meetings or in their actions—it helped me understand my people more.”

Staci Lowry, who is turning 35 this year, also already had extensive experience in the non-profit sector prior to enrolling in the Community Leadership Program at Henry Ford, but says the credentials she will gain upon graduation will be invaluable as she hopes to continue advancing in her career in community change. “I was already doing community work,” she said, who has worked and volunteered for a variety of non-profits focused on children and education. But, she says, she’s found it difficult to advance, despite her experience. “I think it’s because I didn’t have the degree,” she said. “These credentials I’m earning are necessary for me to be taken seriously and do what I want in the world.”

“We need to blow the pathways wide open for our students,” -Professor Robert Yahrmatter

Professor Yahrmatter’s take on the CLP curricula has been influenced, he says, by his background in the private sector. “I’m not a pure academic,” he says, “so my program isn’t based on a pure community organizer model.” He hopes his background allows him to bring a unique perspective to his curriculum. “I’ve been doing this for three years now,” he said. “I’d love to see it grow and have a couple of ideas for ways to improve the program.”

Continually evaluating and adjusting his curriculum where necessary, he says, will be key for the Community Leadership Program’s long-term survival. One area he hopes to make changes in the coming years relates to the internship component of his program—an element of all CLP programs as a way to ensure students get out of the classroom and into the field. “The experience is great, but when I sign someone up for a three credit internship, that’s basically 50 hours of contact time,” he said. Finding placements for his students for that few of hours, he says, is an extreme challenge. “I’m also not sure it does the students a benefit to pay anywhere from $600 to $800 when you’re barely getting your feet wet with 50 contact hours.”

Professor Yahrmatter hopes to reimagine the internship component of his program by eliminating the “for credit” model in favor of paid jobs. Many of his students, he says, are in need of work. “So I want to hunt for paid internships,” he explained. “This will be a no credit model that can get people more hours of experience, hopefully, and also allow them to make a few bucks.” He noted as an example a student he was able to get placed in the office of a state representative. “She’s done way more than the requisite number of hours there,” he said. “But she could also get a permanent job out of it.”

An additional change Professor Yahrmatter is considering—rolling the Community Leadership Program into Henry Ford’s broader Liberal Arts degree—will help, he believes, attract more students to community change studies. “Basically, it would be a liberal arts degree with a concentration in community leadership,” he said. An Associates Degree in Liberal Arts, he explained, is more flexible and can be parlayed into many different sectors, including non-profits, government, and political science. “We need to blow the pathways wide open for these students; I think we’ll grow our numbers this way.”

Whatever the future holds for the Community Leadership Program at Henry Ford, one thing is certain—don’t expect it to look the same one year to the next.












Yonci Jameson: On How Community Development Can Lay the Groundwork for Long-Lasting Change

Yonci Jameson grew up in the North Side of Minneapolis, a predominantly black neighborhood. But she went to high school across town, where her classmates and teachers were mostly white.

The contrast was stark, and made a big impact on her. “It was clear that my neighborhood has been historically disinvested in, with lots of marginalized folks living there,” Yonci said. “And it’s starting to gentrify now, which is bringing a lot of change to the area.”

But Yonci, who finished her last semester in the Community Development Program at Minneapolis College this month, says here interest in community organizing and development started at an even earlier age—at her Montessori grade school. “It was very intensive individualized learning, and I think it really helped drive my interest in community development. The community aspect was always present growing up.”

She further developed her interest in community change work in high school, particularly after Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. “There was so much light being shed at the time on police brutality and violence against black people,” she said. “I participated in a lot of protests and activism in high school, but it also made me start to wonder: how can we translate this into laying the groundwork for something bigger?”

During her senior year of high school, she began earning dual credits at Minneapolis College. There, the community at the school immediately struck her. “I was like, wow, there’s all different types of people here, from all types of backgrounds, and my teachers aren’t all white,” Yonci said. “Some of the students are older than I am; some are even older than the teachers—I can learn a lot from people here.”

After discovering the Community Development Program, her interest also grew in community development as a potential path towards more sustainable, ongoing change. “During protests, there’s always a lot of momentum going, until it’s over or gets shut down,” Yonci said. “Afterwards, I would always wonder: where is this all going? I wanted something more tangible.”

She particularly enjoyed the practical applications of what she learned as part of coursework in the Community Development Program. In a class taught by Syd Beane, who helped found the CLP program in Minneapolis, Yonci learned about how government funds are used in developing neighborhoods. “He taught us what a community development corporation is, what government funds are used, and the different type of development that can result,” Yonci said. The class also visited the nearby Native American Corridor, a stretch of several blocks in downtown Minneapolis that has been intentionally developed with native-owned business.

“We talked about theories and concepts,” Yonci said, “But we also applied those concepts on the ground.”

As for what’s next for Yonci, she isn’t quite sure yet. “Part of me wants to travel and learn more about community development in other parts of the country and world,” she said. But don’t be surprised if you find her back in Minneapolis, fighting to make the place she’s called home her whole life a better place to live. “I love my community here, I want to do this work full time here, and keep learning how to uplift my own community.”

CCNY Students Help Save Non-Profits From Improper Tax Collection

Over the course of a semester, three students enrolled in the CLP-affiliated course Community-Based Research at City College of New York (CCNY) helped save dozens of non-profits and religious groups from improper tax collection. The students—Edward Garcia, Lindsey Johnson, and Felix Kuadugah—partnered with the community-based organization 596 acres to investigate the impact of tax collectors on non-profit organizations as part of the fieldwork component of their class.

Though non-profit organization are supposed to be exempt from property taxes and water and sewer fees, the Department of Finance requires organizations to recertify every year—a requirement that only came about in 2012. Many non-profit organizations, unaware of this change, find themselves with liens against their properties.

As the students point out in an op-ed published in the New York Daily News, the Department of Finance has done a poor job educating non-profit and religious organization about the policy change, putting them at unfair risk. Groups are notified by mail, but the correspondence often doesn’t reach it’s indented recipients thanks to a change in address or leadership. “Unsurprisingly,” the students write, “these groups are located disproportionately in majority black and Latino communities.”

Over the course of a semester, the City College students worked with 596 acres to help remove 108 non-profits from this summer’s lien list. 235 nonprofits, synagogues, churches and mosques remain on the list, however, all for taxes that should not have been charged in the first place.

The students reflected on their experience in the research class, writing in part:

“Community-based research is mostly a class about methods, but we learn something in the process about how government works, or doesn’t. What does the sale of nonprofit tax liens tell us?

Read the entire op-ed here.



CLP Students and Faculty at Macomb Community College Featured in Tech Center News

A recent article in Tech Center News explores the CLP affiliated program at Macomb Community College (MCC), focusing on the program’s mission to prepare graduates to identify and address challenges in their communities.

Sean Patrick, manager of Media Relations at MCC, said of the program, “The CLP is an opportunity for students to develop a variety of leadership, organizational and conflict resolution skills through courses in sociology, psychology and business management.”

The article also explores the experience of an alumnus of the program, Christina Young of New Baltimore, who is a single mom of two children. Christina said of her time working with the CLP-affiliated coursework at MCC, “I wanted to be able to be out in the community, to be a leader and to be able to help others who can’t help themselves.”

Rochelle Zaranek, CLP coordinator at MCC, describes the practicum component of the CLP certificate, saying in part, “the students are learning not just through course work and guest speakers, but learning how they can be a change agent through actual hands-on experience.”

The article also points out that, of the first five Macomb students to receive the CLP certificate, all exceeded the required 45-hours students must contribute towards their practicum. Each of the students is also now pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Asked where Christina hopes to focus her new skills, she responded, “I’m still looking at how I can best benefit the community, but promoting resources in suicide awareness and assisting the developmentally disabled population is definitely where I want to be.”

Access a pdf of the article here.


Nina Tinikashvili, On the Importance of Cultural Competency

Unlike many students who enroll in coursework associated with Community Learning Partnership programs, Nina Tinikashvili already had quite a bit of experience as a community organizer while a college student at CUNY’s City College in New York.


“I worked with a local Council Member, Helen Rosenthal, on an organizing project to help her office launch participatory budgeting,” she said, referring to a process by which local residents are given power to decide how to allocate a given amount of financial resources. “I’d never heard of community organizing, but I’ve always been interested in policy,” she said. “And this was such an amazing project particularly for me.” Nina, she explained, is a green card holder from Georgia (“The country not the state,” she clarified, laughing) and so can’t vote in elections in the United States.

“It frustrated me, as someone interested in policy, that I couldn’t vote.”

Participatory budgeting, however, introduced Nina to a way to become politically engaged, even though she is unable to vote. “It frustrated me, as someone interested in policy, that I couldn’t vote,” Nina said. “But participatory budgeting is great because you don’t need to be a citizen to vote. You’d don’t need to live in the district if you work or go to school there. You don’t even have to be 18.”

She also appreciated how straightforward participatory budgeting is in regards to the issues it can help to solve. “Politicians often talk about all these complicated laws, but participatory budgeting worked on issues everyone can understand,” she said. “The school or park needs new swings, or the school needs a new tech program. To be able to have a say in local decisions like these and in how real tax dollars are spent is just genius.”

“To be able to have a say in local decisions and in how real tax dollars are spent is just genius.”

After concluding her internship with the Council Member, Nina decided she wanted to learn more. “My internship really solidified my interest in working in public service,” Nina said. So when one of her advisers told her about the Community Learning Partnership courses on offer at City College, she jumped at the opportunity.

12819344_1720783501524512_9104919946811369676_oIn the fall semester, she enrolled in “Intro to Community Organizing,” taught by Kevin Ryan, who was a Program Director for New York Foundation at the time. “I wanted to learn skills to help me organize, and that would help me in a public service career path,” she said. “His course taught us about all different types of organizing.” She was particularly impressed by faith-based organizing. “I had underestimated the power of religious groups, and their ability to make change. It made me a better rounded student.”

“I wanted to learn skills to help me organize and that would help me in a public service career path.”

In the spring semester, she took Participatory Action Research with Hillary Caldwell, a Professor at CUNY City College. “I really enjoyed the fall semester course, and wanted to learn how to do this kind of research,” Nina said. “I was a sociology major, so this fit in really well my interests. It’s basically learning to do people-focused research.”

As part of the course, students take on a group field project. Nina chose to work with Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), a tenant rights group in the Southwest Bronx. “The director of CASA had been noticing more immigrants of African descent moving to the area, and wanted us to see how we could help involve them to their housing organizing efforts,” she said, noting the majority of CASA’s current membership is Spanish speaking. Nina and her group set about identifying institutions that new immigrants were already active in, such as churches and sports clubs. “We found that the best way to engage people was to partner with organizations where people are already a part of,” she said.

IMG_2495Nina graduated last spring, and has since taken a job with the New York City Health Department in the intergovernmental department. Though she isn’t working directly as a community organizer, she says she finds ample opportunity to apply what she learned in CLP-affiliated coursework in her new profession. “This job is more policy based,” she notes, “but I speak with constituents every day about their problems and about what kind of help they need. The organizing courses taught me how important it is to understand people’s backstory. If someone asks for help, you don’t know what’s going on behind that. It’s important to assist people in a culturally competent way that’s also effective.”

As for the future? Nina has a couple of ideas. “Ever since working with the Council Member I’d like to one day run for office in New York City,” she said. After her work with different immigrant communities, she says she’d also love to create a community based organization for people of Eastern European descent. “There’s not all that many immigrants from Georgia, Russia, and Armenia,” she said, “But there’s been a big influx in the last decade, and they need help, too.”








Lisa Owen, On Organizing in the Private Sector

Lisa Owen and her partner, Vivian, own a successful signage company, Adobe DeSigns, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As far as they know, they are the only woman and minority-owned signage company in the state.

“My partner has been in the construction field for twenty plus years, and has been fighting to get fair…” she trailed off for a moment, thinking. “Well, fair everything.”

Leading by example, the two are attempting to change the way the construction industry operates in the state. It’s a daunting task, but one Lisa says she is well equipped to take on.


Lisa with her partner, Vivian Guerra

Several years ago, Lisa would never have guessed she’d be a small business owner. But following a major life change, she decided to enroll in Minneapolis Technical and Community College (MCTC) which set the wheels in motion.

“My motivation was survival really, because I’d just gotten divorced,” she said. She decided that perusing higher education—something she had started and stopped many years ago—would be beneficial for her. “But also I had been a stay at home mom, raised four kids. We’d recently moved, and they started new schools. It felt like something I needed to do for myself.”

Her father, Sydney Beane, happened to be a professor at the school, and introduced her to the Community Development Program (CDP), a degree program affiliated with Community Learning Partnership.

“I had been a stay at home mom, raised four kids. We’d recently moved, and they started new schools. It felt like something I needed to do for myself.”

“My father explained the CDP program to me,” Lisa said. “It seemed like a really interesting place to start because of the variety of classes I could take.” Also, MCTC had developed a pathway to Metropolitan State University, where she could complete a 4-year degree, which was her ultimate goal.

Even though her father was intimately involved with the CDP program at MCTC, Lisa didn’t know much about it prior to enrolling. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she laughed. “But I took a leap of faith.”


Lisa with her father, Syd Beane

The first thing to strike Lisa about the CDP program was just how familiar the coursework’s emphasis on community building and organizing felt to her.

“We’re organizing all the time, even without a degree,” Lisa said. “You’re organizing when you attend a Parent-Teacher Association, or a Neighborhood Association. That was really eye-opening about CDP. I’ve been doing these things all my life.”

Much of her prior experience to community building, Lisa says, is owed to her background and upbringing.

“You’re organizing when you attend a Parent-Teacher Association, or a Neighborhood Association. That was really eye-opening about CDP. I’ve been doing these things all my life.”

“The classes really spoke to me as a Dakota person,” Lisa explained. “As tribal people, community is very important to us. The building of community is involved in all we do.” Lisa and her ex-husband, moreover, were very active in their tribe. “He was kind of the head spiritual leader there, and so for 17 or so years, I was involved in planning traditional cultural ceremonies. I helped guide people and organize them.”

Newer to Lisa, however, was the cross-cultural elements underscored in her coursework. For an assignment in a multicultural communications class, for instance, Lisa and her classmates were asked to interview someone of a different culture.


Lisa with her daughters: RayLeigh, Mahpiya, Isabella and Amelia

“There was a Somali student who was also in program, and we interviewed each other,” Lisa said. “We got to ask each other questions we may not have felt comfortable asking in a different setting,” such as the purpose of certain cultural traditions important to each. “We found a lot of differences, but I was more impressed by the parallels. Somali and Native Americans have more in common than you might think.”While she was still pursuing her 4-year degree at Metro State, Lisa and her partner hatched the idea to create a signage company. “I created an individualized study program that I built around being a small business owner,” Lisa explained.

Lisa may not have pursued a traditional organizing career as did some of her CDP classmates, but she nonetheless found herself applying much of what she learned to her life’s work. In particular, she often finds herself applying an organizing staple—the “one-on-one”—which is a relational meeting used by organizers to learn about someone’s motivations, concerns, and resources.

“They’re so valuable, in any situation,” Lisa said. “I’ve always been a good listener, but a ‘one-on-one’ takes it to a different level—it’s not just about having a conversation.” Lisa and her partner began attending construction networking events and “meet and greets” to help drum up new clients. She quickly noticed that many people use these types of opportunities to talk about themselves. Lisa, instead, decided to apply her one-on-one skills and listen. “I want to find out as much about a company and their culture as I can,” she said. “CDP taught me how to ask the right questions to get helpful information from someone.”

“I’ve always been a good listener, but a ‘one-on-one’ takes it to a different level—it’s not just about having a conversation.”

She has also found organizing skills useful as an employer. “We’re in a target for neighborhood development, where the majority is lower-income and minority. We try to hire within our own communities.”

Lisa and her partner enjoy going above and beyond what might be expected of a traditional boss. “We try to teach people skills,” Lisa said. “Everyday stuff that maybe people don’t realize is important, like getting to work on time. We try to give people chances where many others might not.”

Neighborhood Development Center Awards

Lisa and Vivian, honored by the Neighborhood Development Center in 2016

The two are also careful to look out for their employees. “We speak out when things aren’t right,” she said. “We support our employees. If people give you trouble, or if there is racism on the job site, we want to know about it so we can take care of it.”

The two also seek to share their knowledge about their industry, and best practices they have identified to help make their business successful. “We give interviews and go to events to help others who want to start a business open their business,” Lisa said. “We don’t charge for knowledge. We help people when we can.”


“We support our employees. If people give you trouble, or if there is racism on the job site, we want to know about it so we can take care of it.”

Her impulse to do so, she says, stemmed in part from what she learned in the CDP. “We were taught to look at our community and ask—how can I make this better? By utilizing the resources of somebody else, how can I help?”

As for the future, Lisa hopes to keep growing her business. But additionally, she’s begun looking for ways to engage further with her community. “I just got elected to Indian Chamber of Commerce board,” Lisa said. “And I’m on the Minneapolis Indian Child Parent Committee for my daughter.” She hopes to look for additional ways to become involved and apply her CDP training, particularly now that she’s done with school.

For those currently in the program, Lisa also has some words of advice:

“Don’t be completely dependent on your degree to get where you want to be,” she says. “You have to use what you’re learning to build relationships along the way.” For this reason, she appreciated that MCTC provided her with many opportunities to do so. “They brought in people that were doing work in the community and guest speakers.

“Still,” she added, “make sure you use those skills you’re learning. You have to be the one to initiate.”








Angelica Esquivel, on Building a Network Through Organizing

As a high school student, Angelica Esquivel didn’t think college was for her. Sure, it seemed prohibitively expensive. But mostly she figured the challenges to obtaining higher education as an undocumented student were insurmountable.

“I wasn’t really ready,” Angelica admitted. “I never thought I would go to college because of my status so I hadn’t really prepared myself mentally to go.”

Her senior year of high school, however, that all changed when an outreach coordinator from DeAnza College came to speak with students and do placement testing. “My cousin and I went and asked him: ‘Can we take the placement test and go to DeAnza if we’re undocumented?’”

When answer came back an unequivocal “yes,” Angelica wasted no more time in pursuing her education. “I started at DeAnza in 2009 and right away I joined the student club for undocumented students, called I.M.A.S.S., that was just getting started,” she said, using the group’s acronym, which stands for Integral Movement for AB 540 Student Success. “That’s where my activism started,” Angelica said.

Through I.M.A.S.S., she learned about the16835845_10158367038415790_2378396731832344514_o Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy In Action (VIDA), which in turn introduced her to Cynthia Kaufman, VIDA’s director. Cynthia informed her of the certificate in Leadership and Social Change (LSC) program, which was just starting up in the fall of 2011. After joining the LSC program and becoming an intern with VIDA she worked on institutionalizing a resource center at De Anza Community Colleges. The resource center is called Higher Education for AB 540 Students. (HEFAS) and has been serving undocumented and low-income students for the past 4-years now.

“When I read more about the LSC program and the classes, I thought: ‘This is perfect! I don’t have to take random classes to learn more about civic engagement, I can take the classes for the Certificate.’”

“When I read more about the LSC program and the classes, I thought: ‘This is perfect! I don’t have to take random classes to learn more about civic engagement, I can take the classes for the Certificate.’”

By the time Angelica enrolled in the LSC program, it was already her fourth year on campus. “I was already really active in movements on and off campus, mostly around immigration,” she said. But being part of the LSC cohort helped her connect more with students who were similarly active and passionate, but on a whole array of community issues.

“It broadened my thinking about movements and how issues are connected,” she said. Angelica said she benefitted the most from being part of a close-knot cohort of students, who she studied and worked with through the LSC coursework. “Student were there because they choose to be there,” she said of her cohort. “It’s not just a random group taking the class because it fit their schedule. Everyone was involved in social justice because the issue affected them or someone they know.”

Her cohort didn’t always agree ideologically or politically, Angelica pointed out. “But having a consistent group to work with created a safe space where we can be open,” she elaborated. “And you need that safe 941946_307837246015883_1747324306_nspace because a lot of social justice is about being vulnerable. We don’t all have to agree but we have to be willing to hear and respect what other people have to say. For me, having that space to share about my life and experiences and learn about other’s was really important.”

Angelica also appreciated how the LSC classes relied upon the lived experiences of the students in the classroom. “Usually, it’s the other way around,” she said. “You take what you learn in the classroom, and then apply it in your life.” In the LSC classes, she said, “I brought to the class what I had from my experiences on the streets. That’s the whole message of LSC—Come here with your experiences. Your experiences are important.”

“Student were there because they choose to be there,” she said of her cohort. “It’s not just a random group taking the class because it fit their schedule. Everyone was involved in social justice because the issue affected them or someone they know.”

Angelica’s first job after obtaining her four-year degree was with a social justice nonprofit called Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA). Even though she was new to the professional non-profit world, she felt her classwork through the LSC program gave her a leg up in her new position.

“Thanks to LSC, I had the vocabulary and concepts I needed to understand the ideas and strategies we were using,” she said. “When you come from DeAnza, and especially with the full-on training we get through the LSC, you come out and lead with a certain kind of experience. A lot of people running nonprofits have been there for more than 20 years and yet they never received that kind of training.”

This past November, for instance, she started working at San Mateo Adult School, which is part of the San Mateo High School District as a college and career counselor. Here, too, she’s found opportunity to apply what she’s learned through LSC to her community change work and professional life. In particular, she’s found the ability to list the certificate on her resume as a conversation started in the interview process.
10366234_10152506057264540_8578356611956464755_n“For me to have a certificate in Leadership and Social Change at the college level is really important,” Angelica said. “When I interviewed for the jobs I’ve had at TIGRA and now with the school district, they would point to the Certificate on my resume and ask me: ‘So what is this Certificate about? What did they teach you and what kinds of skills did you learn?’ I’m always very proud to list the Certificate on me resume and explain what it is—that I have these extra skills and knowledge.”

Angelica also attributes the LSC program for helping develop a useful network. “In the LSC, we had to do community service hours every quarter,” she said. “That was great. Cynthia would bring nonprofits with different volunteer opportunities to meet with us, and that’s how I met TIGRA. “

Her time in LSC has also provided her with a surprising source of comfort, given the current political environment. Angelica says she, like many around the country, is concerned about the potential reversal of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, which allows her and other children of undocumented individuals to work and study legally in the country. But the LSC program, she says, helped her to build the confidence to face whatever the future has in store.

“Of course I want DACA to continue,” she said. “But I lived before DACA and I can live after DACA. If it doesn’t survive, I know I’ll face obstacles. But I also know that I’ll still have possibilities.” If DACA is repealed, for instance, she and some friends from LSC have considered starting their own non-profit. “Non-profits can have private funding,” she said. “We can still be entrepreneurs even without DACA.”

“I feel very confident that there will always be a space and place in the community organizing and social justice world for me to work and volunteer in,” she continued. “I see myself doing this work for a very, very long time.”

For now, Angelica is back at De Anza Community College as the Program Coordinator for VIDA. She says she is honored to return and work with the program that gave her the tools to become a change agent in the community and pass the knowledge to current and future LSC participants. She is also the Director of HEFAS, the program she co-founded, which is now part of VIDA.

More than that, however, Angelica says she has the “tools, knowledge and networks” to be active in here community. “I feel very confident that there will always be a space and place in the community organizing and social justice world for me to work and volunteer in,” she continued. “I see myself doing this work for a very, very long time.”

Guadalupe Vidal, on Refusing to Watch History Repeat Itself

Guadalupe Vidal never thought much about community organizing. That quickly changed, however, when President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides protections to undocumented students.


Guadalupe on a recent trip to Mexico where, thanks to DACA, she was able to visit family she had not seen in 24 years.

“I realized it was through movements that DACA passed,” Guadalupe said. “It passed because people fought for it.  It didn’t pass because Obama woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m going to make this law.’ It passed because there was a movement of people moving towards a goal.”

“[DACA] passed because people fought for it.  It didn’t pass because Obama woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m going to make this law.’”

Guadalupe, who is herself undocumented, had been pessimistic about the prospects for change prior to DACA’s enactment. “I thought, ‘that’s never going to happen for us,’” she said. “They always promise and then nothing happens. But DACA changed my life completely. It’s allowed me to work and to plan my future.”

This sudden, drastic improvement in her life left Guadalupe inspired and eager to become involved in the social movement that made it all possible. “I just thought, ‘I have to do something to give back,’” she said. At the time, she was a new transfer student at City College. There, she met Yatziri Tovar and Isabel Mendoza, who co-founded the “Dream Team,” a group of students organizing to provide a safe space for undocumented students at City College. (Check out CLP’s recent profile of Yatziri here.)

“I told them I was so grateful for DACA and wanted to get involved, whatever I could do,” Guadalupe said. “I admired that they were both open about their immigration status, which I never was before. They just had this attitude of ‘We can do this.’”

“I admired that they were both open about their immigration status, which I never was before. They just had this attitude of ‘We can do this.’”

Though new to the group, it didn’t take long for Guadalupe to rise to the leadership challenge posed by her newfound advocacy—after participating in the group for some time, the Dream Team elected Guadalupe as their President. “I felt so honored,” she said.  “They saw that I was trying my hardest. It’s like anything: when you try your best, there’s a good outcome.”

IMG_0823Nervous about her new role, however, she decided she needed to learn more about community organizing. “That’s what pushed me to take the class,” she said, referring to a course taught by Professors Susanna Blankly and Hilary Caldwell called Introduction to Community Organizing, and is associated with Community Learning Partnership’s Minor in Community Change Studies at City College.

“I took the course so that I could bring something back to the Dream Team,” she said. “We want this team to keep on going through the generations. It’s like a legacy.  Whatever I can learn, I want to learn and bring back to team so we all learn it.” Eager to be able to apply what she would learn to her everyday organizing, moreover, Guadalupe appreciated that the class wasn’t purely academic an academic pursuit; her professor Susanna Blankly, for instance, was a full time organizer at Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA).

“From day one, Professor Susanna put into practice everything that she knows and does in her organizing at CASA,” she said, noting she was particularly inspired by the opportunity to watch Susanna in action at a tenant’s association meeting in a building that had not had gas for six months. “I gained great admiration and respect for how she was organizing,” she said. “She just knew her work – how to control the environment. We’re talking a room full of more than 20 people and she was able to manage it and say this is how we’re going to do this. I just thought, Wow. I want to be her. I want to know how to be that kind of leader.”

“It seems like history repeats itself. We won’t change things doing what we’ve been doing.  We need to learn new ways of organizing.”  

IMG_1553Guadalupe hoped to put into practice some of the organizing she was learning through the course. “It helped me see what we were missing and what we needed to be doing,” she said. “We’d been reading about movements that fail.  We studied history to see what we did wrong. But it’s still happening! I asked my professor, ‘When is it going to be over?’  When will we learn?  It seems like history repeats itself. We won’t change things doing what we’ve been doing.  We need to learn new ways of organizing.”  

The need to continually find innovative organizing techniques, Guadalupe says, is all the more important following the Election of Donald Trump. “The election allowed us to see the bigger picture,” she said. “Our organizations and what we support are at risk under this new President. It’s probably going to get worse so we need to wake up and unite. We have not done enough.  We have to wake up from this idea that things are okay and make a greater movement for everyone instead of just looking out for my organization or my community or what I believe in.”

As an example of this type of collaboration, Guadalupe points to some recent organizing she’s witnessing between the immigration rights movement and Black Lives Matter, a group dedicated to combating police brutality. “Now, Black Lives Matter is saying we support immigration reform and we’re saying we support Black Lives Matter. We have to be united. This is a great lesson that the election has taught us and the class has taught us because we learn from each other, from our interests and our beliefs.”