A poverty-fighting beast: The Unity Council’s cradle-to-walker plan for Oakland’s Latinos

Reaching a 55th anniversary takes good, committed leadership. Leadership that not only understands the issues the community is facing, but has the willingness and capacity to do what it takes to lift our community up. The Unity Council has had their share of good leaders, and it shows through their history, their successes and their resilience.

This year, The Unity Council celebrates this important milestone this month, and we pay tribute to their legacy and our partnership, and what it has meant for the betterment of Latinos.

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By Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, Content Specialist at UnidosUS

There was a war on poverty. It was the 1960s, and the poverty rate in the United States stood at 19%. President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the nation early that year committing to ending poverty, and Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 with the purpose of combating poverty by mobilizing the country’s human and financial resources. An amendment to this law by Robert F. Kennedy allowed for the creation of community development corporations (CDCs), organizations created to support and revitalize communities, and The Unity Council, based in East Oakland, California, became one of the country’s original CDCs.

“We were neglected for many, many years. There were just decades of redlining and divestment,” Chris Iglesias, current CEO of The Unity Council (TUC), explains. For this organization, and the core of the CDCs, it is not only about investing in people, but in places. “We wanted to build a thriving business district,” he says, and they did: the Fruitvale Transit Village has become a national model, a vibrant public space for people to live in that connects this neighborhood to critical services and access to the greater Bay Area. An study from the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative from 2018 found that “the Fruitvale Village Transit Oriented Development increased the socioeconomic well-being of residents while preserving the area’s diverse racial/ethnic diversity.”

Fruitvale Transit Village. Photo courtesy of The Unity Council.

Over its 55-year history TUC has grown from one of the original CDCs into a fierce local advocate.

A “poverty-fighting beast”

“Over time, we have evolved into a ‘poverty-fighting beast’ serving over 8,000 low-income families annually,” Iglesias says, and they now refer to The Unity Council as a social equity development corporation: “We are not only investing in our neighborhoods; we are investing in services that give our communities the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty.”

They call their program model “cradle-to-walker,” offering services to empower Latinos from the moment they’re born into their senior years. “Our programs start at ‘cradles’ with prenatal care at our seven Head Start and Early Head Start sites and end with ‘walkers’ at our three senior affordable housing facilities and senior center,” Iglesias says.

TUC’s early education program. Photo courtesy of The Unity Council.

And in between, TUC also offers career exploration and leadership building programming for youth, and workforce development, skills-building, and job placement for adults through their workforce development programs.

Strong leadership for a strong community

Leadership and its development has been central to the work TUC has done over the years, creating programs for building leadership, and focusing on placing our community in key leadership roles in the public and private sectors. Some examples include their very own team, starting with Arabella Martínez, founder, first chair, and first executive director, who drove the organization through its first 10 years of existence, and moved on to become the assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for President Carter.

Gilda Gonzales steered the organization from 2005, during what Iglesias renamed as “the great depression”—Iglesias specified: “It might have been a recession for Whites, not for Blacks and Latinos.” Their Board Member Rosa Ríos was the treasurer of the United States from 2009 to 2016, and also their clients have developed into leaders, like Exprinfil, a young Latina from Oakland who became an intern for District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo.

During their 55 years of history, The Unity Council has celebrated every Latino appointment for public office, a victory for our community at large, since it meant being represented where decisions are made: Joe Coto, Ignacio De La Fuente, Noel Gallo, among others have been part of the Oakland City Council, the California State Assembly, and the Oakland School Board.

Maria, a client of TUC. Photo courtesy of The Unity Council.

Having served in the public sector as senior advisor on jobs and contracting programs when the current governor of California, Gavin Newsom, was the mayor of San Francisco, Iglesias knows firsthand the importance of being represented in power. During Newsom’s run for office, Iglesias got involved with a group of Latino organizations (among them MAAC, MALDEF, ACLU, and UnidosUS) who wanted to ensure the new cabinet was going to have Hispanic representation, offering suggestions on who would become the new governor of California.

Once elected, and after some work, Latinos and Latinas have been appointed, and now the governor has invited the group to meet with him again and look at the budget, which will lead to policy: “We are going to continue looking at appointments, but he also wants to work with us on that budget and look at it through a Latino lens,” Iglesias says. They have a meeting scheduled for this month.

We count

With our voices represented in these rooms, we are part of creating the policies that ensure Latinos and all Americans can achieve their American Dream, one of UnidosUS’s strongest beliefs. And the Unity Council embodies this belief. They have created an organization focused on social equity achieved through innovative and strategic public-private partnerships.

“Everything that we’ve done in these 55 years has been in partnership with the city of Oakland: it is actually a public-private partnership that has been around for 55 years,” Iglesias explains. “I always tell people that The Unity Council and the city of Oakland are like a married couple that has been married for 55 years: we love each other, but we also get on each other’s nerves, there’s a lot of fighting, but the most important part is that we are trying to do what’s best for the community and that is the main goal of that partnership.”

Students of TUC with President Obama. Photo courtesy of The Unity Council.

Iglesias has shown that our voice, our priorities, our communities, count, and they have leveraged their influence, and ensured that, despite the current climate at the federal level, the local community continues to invest in the betterment of East Oakland, like the $3 million grant they secured from the San Francisco Foundation in 2015 to develop more affordable housing.

The Unity Council also recognizes how the partnership with UnidosUS has been crucial to the work they do: “We cannot do it alone, and it is important to have allies and advocates in all fronts speaking on behalf of the Latino community,” Iglesias explains. “UnidosUS gives organizations like us the tools and networking opportunities to have a greater impact in the work that we do.”

An organization of 300 employees, with an annual budget of $20 million, $125 million in assets, including affordable housing and real estate in the Fruitvale Transite Village, and holistic programs that range from high-quality early education and innovative youth programming, to strong senior citizen services and financial and career empowerment, it’s no wonder that The Unity Council has become a poverty-fighting beast, following its vision to promote social equity and improve quality of life.

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