The daughter of Mexican-born immigrants, Ofelia Bello knew at a young age that she wanted to make an impact through community organizing. She studied Urban Planning and achieved early career success as a regional housing policy analyst. But she felt that the work she was doing was too disconnected from her home and her community. Born and raised in East Palo Alto, she wanted to have a direct impact in her hometown. “I wanted to transition from sort of vanilla desk work to talking with people day in and day out. Do real community organizing.”
So, in 2017, Ofelia looked for opportunities to hone her skills in grassroots and coalition work: that’s how she found Green Foothills’ Leadership Program. After completing her Leadership Program training, she decided to join Envision, Transform, Build—East Palo Alto, setting her on the path to realizing her goal of creating a positive impact in her community.
Having an Impact Close to Home
In 2019, even though it was “intimidating for a young woman of color without a lot of experience,” Ofelia applied and was hired at the age of 26 as the Executive Director of East Palo Alto-based nonprofit Youth United for Community Action (YUCA).
As the new Executive Director, Ofelia found herself leveraging the skills she learned in the Leadership Program – including engaging with elected officials, community organizing, civic engagement, and designing campaigns for tangible impact.
Making a Permanent Home for Young Organizers in EPA
YUCA lit a fire in Ofelia’s belly around environmental justice. She learned about the Shut Down Romic Fight, where the community played a critical role shutting down a toxic waste facility close to homes in East Palo Alto. This taught her the role that equitable land use plays in protecting her community and the environment. YUCA has organized trainings to analyze remediation, soil contamination, and air quality to empower young people to ensure their city remains a safe place to raise their own families one day.
Perhaps the defining issue Ofelia faced as Executive Director of YUCA was the eviction from their long-time headquarters in 2020. When the landlord was going to sell, Ofelia asked for time to put together an offer. Ofelia and her team organized an immense fundraising campaign in a short period of time, securing an initial investment from the local community land trust as a sign of community investment in YUCA. They raised $1.2 million – a significantly larger amount than this small non profit’s operating budget – and were able to purchase the building!
What this means to Ofelia is “putting mission to action” and for the “community to be able to continue counting on YUCA being there.” It was validation of how much the community wanted them to continue serving this need – to train and empower young people to lift up their voices. With the purchase of the home, now they can.
An Unexpected Award – Women of Courage San Mateo County
In June of 2021, Ofelia won the San Mateo County Women of Courage Award. She was not only surprised and humbled, but found the award to be reaffirming. Ofelia regards those who nominated her are “powerhouses in their own right” in community organizing and social justice. After a few challenging years, Ofelia felt this award “was like a giant hug from the community.”
Ofelia says she would not be who she is today without the “first and best organizers” she knows – her parents. While her parents would not call themselves organizers, they just cared about things like housing, and never hesitated to have people over, and to feed and talk to them.
“They taught me love for our community, love for the world, and to be open minded and compassionate,” Ofelia says.
We think she is making them very proud.