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LOCAL Interview :: Civil & Human Rights

Latino Activist Keeps His Heart in the Barrio

An interview with Daniel Alejandrez, the founder of Barrios Unidos.
I’m here with Daniel “Nane? Alejandrez for a short interview. My first question, Mr. Alejandrez is “What is a typical day like for you here at Barrios Unidos??

A typical day … first I want to say thank you, for this interview, and thank you in doing the work that you do. A typical day is very untypical because you never know what is gonna happen. You know, taking it from today, we have a visitor, Dr. Bear, that does acupuncture treatment. He works with people, and takes care of people. He just got here from Japan. He travels all around the world taking care of people, so you welcome him and show him that respect. You’ve always got to honor those that give of their life…give of their time. You’ve got to honor them and give them that respect. I got up at 5:30 this morning to write down a list of all of the things that have to go out today. You never know. Sometimes it might get slow, and I get a chance to go on the computer and do some research. A lot of it involves setting up meetings, conference calls, fundraising, attending meetings, and trying to find some time for myself.

It seems like you are very involved with the community at this point.

In different segments of the community, there’s a lot going on here in Santa Cruz. There are certain projects on the table that we need to be aware of, and also the projects that we have to make Barrios Unidos a stable organization here for the next generation.

What do you enjoy most about you current work here?

Well, I’ve been doing this job over thirty years, and it’s the people. There’s a lot of positive [people]. There’s also negative stuff that goes on in the streets that you have to deal with. But for me, watching someone change [his or her] life around. It’s something that you can see; [something] you can witness and have a little part of. It’s incredible work. I enjoy every day that I come to work. I feel good about what I’m doing, and I feel good because we are making some change in this world.

Sounds like a very inspirational line of work.

Very inspirational; sometimes it overwhelms you. The need is so great that you need to prepare yourself for this type of work. Sometimes you’re in Sacramento or Washington D.C. talking to legislatures or meeting with celebrities, and the next day you’re back in the streets going to a funeral, or talking to someone who just got raped, or talking to some kid who doesn’t know what his next move is. It’s got its downs too.

That actually leads into my next question; what do you enjoy least about your work?

Well, that would be it. You can’t be in many places [at once]. And there’s not a lot of people doing this. [Community work] doesn’t get the financial support that it really needs to make a difference. We need Barrios Unidos [or organizations that are working to help young people] in every community. We’re losing a lot of young people out there.

What skills are needed to be successful in your position [as the founder an leader] at Barrios Unidos?

Well I was lucky enough to attend college and university. Having the ganas (desire) to help people. Even if you don’t have an education, and you wanna help people, you develop skills to talk to people, approach people, how to do certain tasks that needs to be done. You definitely have to inform yourself about the issues that are out in the community to be able to help out.

Interesting…Where did you get a post-education at?

Well, I attended Fresno City College and got an AA degree there. Then I transferred to UC Santa Cruz and got a bachelor’s degree in Community Studies, with an emphasis on media. I was gonna do productions, but Barrios Unidos kept calling me more and more. I’m fortunate now that I have a little time to start doing some documentaries of my own.

What are some of the toughest problems/decisions that you face here at Barrios Unidos?

Some of the toughest problems we’ve had to deal with are financial problems. Trying to keep the organization going…trying to keep the programs alive. You bring in good a people, and in a year or two your funding runs out. You gotta continually seek funding. SO it’s very important that organizations such as ourselves develop other funding sources so that we can prepare for what’s coming. The last two or three years have been very difficult for non-profit organizations to survive. We’re lucky that we were able to purchase this sight here to maintain and keep our offices going.

What do you wish you had known when you first started out in this field?

I could have prepared myself better. I was accepted into several major universities, but I didn’t proceed with my education. Community work kept calling me more and more. More preparation to deal with the issues that are coming. There are so many layers of issues with the people that we’re working with. I wasn’t prepared to deal with all of them. I’ve learned a lot. But you’ve constantly got to prepare yourself.

It’s very respectable that you would keep your heart in the community to that extent.

Yeah, well in this line of work we have two kinds of people; the sixty-yard dashers and the marathon runners. In the beginning, because I was coming out of the neighborhoods I wanted to work in, I thought that I could make a change right away or in a short period of time. Twenty eight-thirty years later, those problems are still there, and some are getting even bigger. Sometimes I look back and say, “Am I really making a difference?? We just have to know that we do make a difference. We can see it. But it does take a toll on you. You just keep plugging along.

How can people seeking employment improve their marketability to gain employment?

The best thing people can do is to educate themselves about what folks need in terms of services, and to respond to people with different needs, from the social needs to the economic, to spiritual and cultural awareness. Spirituality is also an important tool because before we can help anybody, we must help ourselves. I truly believe that people wanna help. Sometimes they aren’t given the opportunity or don’t where they can go to help. We welcome people to come to Barrios Unidos to and volunteer to see which of our programs they like.

How are goals set and measured? Is there a consensus on what you guys decide to do? How is success rewarded?
Well, we try to look to what’s worked in the past. We have several programs, from the kids’ clubs to the youth groups. I think those programs work because we see the young people grow and go on. We’ve had a lot of them come through Barrios Unidos and move onto higher education. It’s hard to evaluate. We have numbers and records of people we’ve served. I try to look at it really simple: If a guy is using drugs all day every day and I can get him to use drugs once a day, that’s a success. You encourage them and hope that they will get to the point where they won’t use drugs at all, or they won’t drink at all. If a person is involved with violence, then you try to get him to practice non-violence, and you talk about it. Many times you see that those individuals do want to change. If you have a person that’s using every day, you can try to remove them from that, but basically it’s [his] choice.

Sounds like it would be one small step at a time for improvement.

Well we try to keep encouraging them to find better ways.

In what ways are you guys trying to branch out, in order to further sustain Barrios Unidos?

Right now we’re in a great position to look into how we can sustain Barrios Unidos for the next generation. We’re in the process of talking to some architects and some foundations so that we can have plenty of space to run our programs and begin on other community programs. Also to build housing: Housing for students going to the University, housing for elders, [housing] for those that are returning from incarceration. We want to provide them with a safe place to live. We’re gonna continue to write grants to expand our Juvenile Hall Program. Right now we’re looking to street outreach, so that we’ll be able to reach out to the community and take advantage of economic opportunities to employ people. The community has to come together to support some of these programs and some of these individuals and hire them so that [individuals] can raise a family and be productive citizens in this community.

What changes do you see occurring in the non-profit field over the next few years?

Well there’s a lot of changes going on in non-profit organizations. We’re looking to figure out how to serve people when there’s no funding. What I see for Barrios Unidos in the future is remaining strong. We’re gonna stay strong and work to develop different resources. We want to make businesses that are socially responsible to the community and to ourselves. We wanna feel good about what we’re doing. By creating economic development projects, I think we can do it.

Mr. Alejandrez thank you very much for your time, and I wish you the best in realizing your vision. It sounds like you’ve come a long way, and you still have a long way to go.

Thank you. I hope I still have a long way to go. We really appreciate the people of Santa Cruz and surrounding communities. We give them much thanks to them.

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