Early volunteer work in the Mission District helped to shape foundation leader
By Melissa Dudum-Maya
On a Tuesday afternoon, Claudia León, program coordinator for the Chicana/Latina Foundation, is sitting in a café on Burlingame Avenue in Burlingame. She’s insisting I share half of her grilled panini sandwich, though I politely refuse, knowing that my latte will suffice. But León won’t hear it and offers her Lays potato chips. I joke that her Mexican heritage is immediately apparent, and she can’t help but to agree. In the U.S., food might be offered once, but in Mexican culture it is customary to offer several times until the person finally accepts.
León is the youngest of seven children. Born to immigrant parents—and the only child to be born on U.S. soil—her family came to California as so many do: undocumented. She grew up in the Martinez in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco when she began college at San Francisco State University. She spent her freshman year living in campus dorms, then moved the following year into a Mission District apartment with her sister—the same apartment she still occupies today.
León fit right in with the Mission’s Chicano/Latino community. “It was the most comfortable area,” León said. “I felt like home.”
During her time at SFSU, from 1992-1997, León majored in Urban and La Raza Studies. While she didn’t excel in high school, she found that “college is where I flourished.”
León began making friends and got involved with Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MECHA, at school. It was during her stay at SFSU and through MECHA that León began working in the Mission. For two summers, León got involved with the Mission Neighborhood Centers where she went to high schools and became involved in student field trip days and even arts & craft activities. She also worked with immigrant parents, which “came naturally” to her.
During another job the following summer, León worked part-time through the Mayor’s Youth Employment program with the Cesar Chavez Institute. There, León worked with the Si Se Puede after school program at Mission High School.
León worked here for one year while still in college and was given creative freedom to come up with a program. “I created a mentoring project from scratch,” she said. The program that León designed involved pairing up Raza students from SFSU with students from Mission High. The high school students would ask questions about college and the SFSU students would offer advice via email—a new technology at the time.
León worked hard to match up 50 mentors with 100 students based on common ground, including sex, race, interests, and language. The email topics focused on exposing the Mission High kids to college life, including information about how to get to college and financial aid.
León also trained everyone—students and SFSU mentors—on e-mail, though it was something she had just learned herself.
León said she learned a lot about herself during the three years she ran the program. “I grew up in Martinez but I matured in the Mission,” she said.
After she graduated from SFSU with a B.A., León went to work with Arriba Juntos on Mission St. as a Vocational Computer Instructor. León taught full-time classes for people looking for jobs and were going through a transitional phase in their life, whether coming out of homelessness or on welfare. The class taught necessary applications for the workforce, including Word, Excel and Windows. There was also help with resume writing and job searching.
Immigrants were more than welcome, though there wasn’t any funding for classes to be taught in Spanish. León saw this need and decided to create a Spanish evening class anyway—staying late three times per week to teach the class. “If I knew it was a service to provide for people I would make it happen,” León said.
In 2001, at age 27, León applied with Yo!SF for the position of case manager at high school RAP—Real Alternatives Program. Though, RAP wasn’t just a high school, there were mainly kids who face barriers to continue their education and had already dropped out of school or were about to.
As case manager, León worked with students to develop a step-by-step plan as to how they were going to reach their goals, whether that was attending college or finding a job. The program was even able to cover fees for tuition and books once youth made it into college. She met with kids’ ages 14-to-21 years of age, all coming from different backgrounds.
“I had 130 students all at once,” León said. She goes on to explain that these kids were dealing with traumatic issues, including gangs, rape, abortion and teen pregnancy.
León said that gentrification also started to take off during this time, which only added to the problems Mission youth were facing. “There was more poverty so more families started getting pushed out,” she said.
León added, “The Mission changed from being a community to a neighborhood.” Along with poverty rates, violence escalated too.
“When kids started seeing million dollar buildings next door, it changes the psychology of people,” León said. “They start feeling poor and people start hustling.”
Though León never felt her job was too much to emotionally handle, she does say that one person who cares isn’t enough. “There has to be a community effort,” she said. “There needs to be a whole safety net [for the kids to feel secure].”
In the end, León helped 60 youth enter community college and university. Others also went on to vocational schools or took jobs after high school. “A lot of positives came out,” León said.
Unfortunately, once President Bush took office, funding for Yo! programs ended and they were forced to close. “It broke my heart,” León said. “I had no where to send 130 kids.”
In 2006, León went to work with the Chicana/Latina Foundation in Burlingame, where she is today. In her capacity as program coordinator, León helps to develop programs for the organization.
In partnership with El Concilio de San Mateo County, the Youth Adelante After School Program for 7th and 8th graders just completed its second year. Through this program, students are tutored in math and study skills, plus are given presentations on topics relevant to them.
Through this program, a main focus is also on supporting schoolwork and leadership of Chicana college students and creating something for middle school kids. “We need to get more girls going to college,” León said.
Students are also worked with to improve their self-esteem and foster leadership skills—something León has mastered since she her own college days.