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The Power of Community Engagement

Q&A with Irene Cermeño '05

Irene Cermeño


Irene Cerena

Irene began her Santa Clara University experience as an undergraduate in 2001. After graduating in 2005 with a BS in Political Science and Spanish, Irene began working in the Leavey Business School’s Graduate Business Programs Office as the Office Manager. From there she transitioned into the Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center where she worked as a bilingual legal assistant for the workers’ rights program. It was during that time that she attended graduate school and earned her MBA in 2011. In 2013, Irene transitioned to the Ignatian Center to work on the newly formed idea of Thriving Neighbors.

“When I was applying to the job, I received a Case of Support to review. I realized that it was really just an idea, but there was no structure in place or plan on how it was to be launched. There was a need for the SCU community to be deeply engaged and the Greater Washington neighborhood was the chosen community, but other than that there was nothing else in place.”

What is Thriving Neighbors and how did it come about?

“Thriving Neighbors is a partnership between the Santa Clara University community and the Greater Washington Community in San Jose where we work together to create sustainable projects and programs that address the needs of the greater Washington Community while utilizing the assets of the University and community.

As far as how it came about, the desire for a place-based initiative came from the fact that we had been doing the Arrupe Engagement program for 30 years and we had been doing it well, but now there was an expressed need to dive deeper and become more committed. We chose the Greater Washington Community because we had 14 established community partners within the neighborhood already, we had a relationship with the Principal at Washington Elementary, and there was an expressed need in the community.”

Thriving Neighbors Leaders Awards

When you look back at the work you’ve done over the past 6 years, what are you most proud of?

Well, I would say that the thing that I'm most proud of is the establishing of a genuine relationship with the community. I really feel like that is what has made Thriving Neighbor what it is today. The trust of the community and the trust that we are working in partnership with them is what matters most. I often say that if the community did not believe in our work we would not be where we are. So for me just taking the time to really establish and cultivate that relationship is what I am most proud of.

Do you ever see that changing as the people in the neighborhood change? Are you having to re-establish those connections?

About 90% of the community leaders group has remained the same - which is amazing. I have seen some change within the community as it is a transitioning  immigrant community and the cost of living and housing issues are definitely causing members of the community to transition out. But in terms of our leadership group, the transition has been pretty low.

However, I have seen more transition within our Community Partners. We are continuously having to re-establish relationships because the people working for them can’t afford to live here and the lack of opportunities in the nonprofit world causes people to leave. For young professionals who are willing to live with five or six roommates it is doable, but for married people or those with families it becomes unrealistic, unless you have a spouse who is working in high tech, allowing you to do the work that you love to do and still meet your financial obligations.

Family Engagement Day

If you could think of one thing that you would love to see happen with Thriving neighbors over the course of the next year. What would that be?

Right now we are in a bit of transition. We went from having an after-school program to not having one. So I would like to see us establish a new model of the work that we're doing. We have not grown in terms of our staff, but programmatically we've grown a lot. Again, the reason we've been able to do that is because of the community and the value they see in the work that we're doing together. I’d like to create a structure that will allow us to do what we want to do within our capacity.

We have increased the number of student fellowship positions for that purpose, as well as a means to increase student engagement. But, that doesn't respond to the needs of the community partners or the community leaders. I've had some leaders that have been working on the same project for 6-years already and they have expressed a need to grow professionally. So for me, I would love to revamp the leadership model and create a structure for them to feel like they're advancing their own professional growth. We need to really be mindful of all the parties involved and figure out a way where it becomes meaningful to everyone; not to say that it's not meaningful now, but I know that it does get repetitive.

What do you think the biggest challenge is going to be over the next year to do that?

We really need to start thinking about what Thriving Neighbors is going to look like in 5 years from now, in particular, taking into account gentrification in the community. We're already starting to see it with people leaving because they can no longer afford to be there. When you consider the location of the Greater Washington neighborhood, pocketed between Willow Glen and downtown San Jose, we are starting to see a shift in the population and the kinds of businesses popping up. With Google coming into San Jose, I definitely see that the community is going to change. That's something that we really need to think of over the next few years. I think that's going to be our biggest challenge.

How do we take on that challenge?

I think we just need to be aware and be diligent in making sure that we are not overseeing. You have to ask the question - are we contributing to this gentrification? It's just being mindful of how we have an impact both positively and negatively in the community. It’s hard because we believe in the work we’re doing and I do think that we're doing amazing work. But I often wonder if we are having a negative impact and that's hard to gauge.

There are so many challenges for the community members – for some, their legal status and current political climate prohibits them from getting a social security number, which prohibits them from getting better paying jobs, buying a house, etc. However, through our partnership with the MOBI program, we are able to support community members by providing them with opportunities to know that there are other ways to achieve the economic prosperity they are seeking. And, although there are a lot of obstacles in the way for the parents, there are steps we can and do take with the children so they can eventually work and contribute to the economic prosperity of their community.

What message would you give to SCU students about the Ignatian Center?

I always say I'm a product of the Ignatian Center. When I was an undergrad, it was hard for me. Like many SCU students, I chose to come to SCU because of the university’s core values. But I didn’t really experience those values until I started an Arrupe placement for one of my classes, which really sparked my interest to look further and deeper. From there I went on an immersion, then lead an immersion. I strongly credit the Arrupe Engagement program for shaping who I was as a person and cultivating my interest.

Thriving Neighbors provides a way for students to experience injustice locally. But more importantly, it provides a way for them to enter into a community, form strong relationships and, along the way, change the world - even if it's in a small way. It provides them with the ability to impact others, but ultimately, they will find that they are the ones most impacted.

If there's a message I can send it is that if you want to make a change and you want to be a part of something and you want to belong to a community that will embrace you, you don't have to look beyond San Jose. Through Thriving Neighbors, you will find a community that is strong and resilient and will embrace you and work with you for what we're all striving for – a more just and equitable world.