Picture of CC Ciraolo

CC Ciraolo

“If You Want Something Done, Turn to the Powerful Women:” Sonoma County Organization Empowers Latinx Community

Latino Service Providers is a Greenbelt Alliance partner and we are honored to spotlight the women-led organization with a special interview this Women’s History Month.

Alayza Cervantes found her passion to serve the Latino community while studying psychology and Chicano Studies at UC Davis. Born in Sonoma County as a first generation Mexican American, she got her first job as Latino Service Provider (LSP)’s Community Engagement Manager. Soon after, she spearheaded a program dedicated to engaging promotoras (or community health workers) in support of COVID outreach in her own community. 

Latino Service Providers (LSP) builds bridges across generations in the North Bay. As a community-based organization, they envision “a Latinx community in Sonoma County that has equitable access to lead healthy, just, and resilient lives.” Founded in 1989, LSP empowers the Latinx community through advocacy, resource sharing, youth, and community development. And with their recent relocation to the Roseland area, they can fulfill this mission, at the heart of the community that they serve. 

Greenbelt Alliance’s North Bay Resilience Manager CC Ciraolo caught up with Cervantes to ask her about how LSP is addressing some of the challenges for Sonoma County’s Latinx community through women-led organizing and how their advocacy improves the lives of multigenerational North Bay residents. Check out the conversation:

CC: Latino Service Providers has been rooted in the North Bay for many years. What are some of the biggest challenges that you see in Sonoma County right now?

AC: One of the biggest issues is the lack of Latino voices being included. We really first realized it with the 2017 wildfires. They hit our communities super hard because not only did people have to run from their homes, but they didn’t even know where they were running to because all of the notifications were in English. There was a lot of advocacy to make sure messaging was going out in Spanish for our monolingual community members. We also started seeing a lot of issues in the fields, so we were trying to find ways to support farm workers to make sure that they are still getting resources. Finally, we realized that a lot of spaces in Sonoma County don’t feel safe for our community. When the evacuation centers in Petaluma and Santa Rosa opened, our community members didn’t feel like they had a place to go because there was a fear that ICE would show up. LSP really responded to that by just being present so that people knew that at least there would be one person who spoke Spanish there.

CC: This sounds like so much great work, but this is only one small part of your organization. How else is LSP supporting the Latino community and what other programs do you help run?”

AC: We have the youth promotores program, a paid internship for youth between the ages of 16 and 25. We train them in areas of mental health, environmental practices, emergency preparedness, housing advocacy, and civic engagement in Sonoma County. They train with us for about a year and when they graduate, they have the opportunity to continue working with us in different capacities. We also have smaller programs like our diaper program, where we distribute free diapers every week. We do a lot of tabling events and resource navigation. Whenever a resource comes to us, we then help promote it to our community. We have a bilingual newsletter that goes out to about 2,000 people every week. When COVID was in full swing, we were at all of the clinics, so people knew that the vaccine was safe, and that there was someone there to support or help translate. Now we’re moving into consulting work, supporting other organizations who are interested in creating programs for youth or community engagement.

CC: I can imagine this work really expanded when COVID hit, with the need for direct response escalating and LSP providing direct engagement and constant outreach with the community. Can you tell us more about the Promotora project?

AC: [At UC Davis] I started working on a project with a group of women that were labeled ‘promotoras’ in their community. We saw that if you want something done, you turn to the powerful women because they are the voice that carries. When I came to LSP, they had started a similar program. We brought on about 30 individuals from our community, women of all ages. We asked them what they wanted to know and structured trainings around computer literacy, conflict resolution, outreach training, etc. I’m really proud of the fact that we got some money in their pocket with a stipend for doing the work that they were doing for an entire year before for free even though it wasn’t as much as we wanted to pay them. This is a huge focus for LSP: making sure we get paid for our thoughts and our ideas and proving to our community that those are worth something. Continuing to build that community and those connections and trust with our promotoras, that was the number one thing that filled my cup.

Alayza Cervantes at Emergency Prep Event

CC: That’s really powerful and I agree it’s important to pay community members for their participation. You mentioned that the promotoras project was led by 30 women. How does women’s leadership inform LSP’s work?

AC: I think it’s just really rooted in our culture. Our women are the ones who are taking care of our families. It’s great to see how empowered they are to step into those roles and be the one who’s at the front lines when our communities are in need. But we’re here to serve everyone and would love for anyone to join us, regardless of gender.

We need to include the Latinx voice in planning.
Alayza Cervantes, Latino Service Providers

CC: As you know, LSP and Greenbelt Alliance started collaborating last year by hosting community focus groups on urban planning and green spaces. Why do you think these focus groups are important?

AC: We need to include the Latinx voice in planning. These land-use decision processes are so non-inclusive and it’s not a coincidence. We’re thinking about ways to make them more inclusive, and how we can hold local governments to make them more inclusive. We need to meet people where they’re at. If we truly care about the community and how it is affecting the people that we are working with, we need to go to them, because they have plenty of other things that they need to worry about. And sometimes they don’t even know something is worth worrying about until it is affecting them directly. That is by design. Seeing our community engage in these focus groups, I saw how passionate they got when someone was finally willing to listen to them. They have really great ideas. And I think that if we can find a way to get those ideas to the people who are making the decisions, then we can finally start making some changes here in Sonoma County. I hope that we continue to grow this awareness of how important it is to take care of our green spaces but also continue to add them in our community, sooner rather than later.

CC: It’s so important to hold local governments accountable to include all community members in land-use decisions, and it sounds like community involvement is key to so much of your work. My last question is, what inspires you most about your work at LSP?

AC: What inspires me most is watching the youth get involved. Their passion for serving our community in so many different ways has really driven me. We focus on wellness in our communities and making sure that they are resilient, although we’re trying to move away from using the word resilience. We want to build a community where resilience is not necessary to survive. We want everyone to feel like they belong and can afford to live here in Sonoma County. 

The following conversation was edited for length.

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