Sylvia Ornelas realized at a young age that communities differed in their resources. “I realized something was wrong when I was in high school and there were not enough textbooks for everyone,” she says. “Even as a teenager, I knew that was not right and something needed to be done to ensure despite income, language, or cultural barriers, our educational needs were met.” This awareness of unevenly shared resources became more stark for Sylvia, “some neighborhoods had more than others – better roads, cleaner parks, less homelessness, higher police presence, and even better public transportation.”
Most would see a systemic problem like income inequality and do nothing. But that’s not who Sylvia is. “I grew up in a working class family and my parents taught me to speak up for what I believe in.” She shares, “My Dad is a union man and I recall he often came home and talked about job inequality and going to march in Sacramento on behalf of workers’ rights. My mother was also quick to organize school parents and go before the school board.”
Sylvia decide to take her passion for social justice to help shape land use in her own community. She pursued a Master’s degree at San Jose State in City, Urban, Community and Regional planning. While working toward her degree, she worked with small businesses on the East Side of San Jose and organized a Paint-A-Thon with Neighborhood Housing Services Silicon Valley and her colleagues at school. After graduating she went to work as an Urban Planner for the County of Santa Clara where she had a direct impact on the issues closest to her heart, from open space protection to housing.
She worked in this field for 9 years and then had a baby girl and took leave. Nearing the end of her maternity leave she came across the Community Advocates Leadership Academy and saw the program as an opportunity to gain new skills as she returned to her work. “I applied to Community Advocates Leadership Academy hoping to learn how to be more able to effect community change locally. This program exceeded my expectations, not only providing me tools and resources for effective advocacy, but more importantly bringing people like me together who are standing up to make a difference.”
But beyond the skills, tools, and network, Sylvia realized during the program what she wanted to do next in her career. “The program was inspirational and empowered me so much that I quit and started my own land use consulting company,” Sylvia shares. “We assist local property owners and developers maximize land use potential while preserving and protecting the environment.”
Now she has begun a new journey, and she attributes the leap to this program because, she reflects, “the Community Advocates Leadership Academy gave me the courage and strength to expand beyond my own limits. Without a doubt, this program makes the world a better place one person at a time.”
Thank you Sylvia!