The lyrics of an old Diana Ross song swirl around my mind when I think about Jesus “Jesse” Leon: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand and make this world a better place if you can.” As I spoke with Jesse about his life – the challenges and accomplishments – he was most vocal about his goals. And his number one goal is to help improve the lives of the people in poor communities. My conversations with Jesse seem to always end with me wanting to run out into the world and make a difference… somewhere… anywhere.
Jesse feels a strong connection to the people in poor communities because he grew up in that environment. He was raised in San Diego, California, the middle child in a poor, single-parent household. Growing up, Jesse and his siblings were not given many opportunities to improve their lives. In school, he was not a model student and showed no interest in his education. But despite his lack of academic success, Jesse was very much interested in helping the people in his community. When he was 18 years old, he was volunteering in San Diego’s juvenile hall for incarcerated young men, spending time with other young boys who may not have had anyone to talk to or counsel them. He also worked with local outreach groups in the Latino communities that provided assistance to HIV/AIDS patients, and that were trying to raise community awareness of the disease.
When he finished high school, Jesse enrolled in a local community college. He worked several jobs just to survive financially and was still active in the community. Although getting an education wasn’t high on his priority list, his San Diego City College experience was more positive than high school. He appreciated the specialized courses and the variety of subjects, especially those in ethnic studies. He took as many classes as possible on African-, Cuban- and Latin-American issues. Surprisingly, after receiving his associate’s degree four years later, Jesse transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. He continued to be involved in community outreach and organizing and became interested in researching HIV/AIDS statistics among black and Latino populations, especially the prison population. (His senior thesis was on the spread of HIV in the U.S. prison system. This work eventually led to a research project to study the spread of HIV through male prostitution in Havana, Cuba.)
In Los Angeles, Jesse worked with a community organization writing grant proposals for HIV outreach in the Latino community, but did not have much success. He noticed that while the clinics in the more affluent areas of L.A. were receiving a great deal of support, funding for his clinic was continuously denied. In his heart he knew they were being denied funds because the people they helped were poor people of color, and it was hard for him to accept. “I couldn’t understand why,” Jesse recalls. “But I knew it was because we weren’t seen as a priority.”
The stark realization of the social injustices in low-income communities motivated Jesse. He felt compelled to fight for these communities and the people who live in them. Jesse knows what it’s like to struggle, to have nothing and to have to find your own way. But why should they have to “go it alone” if they don’t have to? He thought the best way that he could help was to offer his time and whatever assistance he could. “I want to make myself accessible to other young people of color,” he says. “I view myself as a protector.” Jesse was also interested in issues that affect the everyday lives of poor people and people of color – like education, healthcare, housing and jobs. To develop a deeper understanding of policy issues, he enrolled in the Kennedy School at Harvard University to pursue a master’s in public policy.
How did someone who had almost no interest in learning as a child end up doing social research in Cuba and attending Harvard? According to Jesse, it was the people in his life who motivated him to do more. “I have had amazing mentors in my life,” he admits. “What did I know about studying abroad? I didn’t even know there was such a thing.” Being uninformed about so many things meant that he was missing great learning opportunities. He eventually learned to ask questions, to get the most out of his education. “There were people who knew the questions that I didn’t even know I needed to ask. Sometimes I needed people to ask the questions for me, or to tell me the questions to ask.”
After completing his education, Jesse worked for a short period in corporate America, but never felt a real sense of satisfaction. That changed in 2002 when he joined The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities – a network of funders interested in resolving the environmental, social and economic problems created by suburban sprawl and urban disinvestment. Jesse wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of smart growth. “I did not agree with smart growth because its policies did not benefit my community,” he explains. To him, smart growth was a strategy that helped suburbanites retain their secluded gated communities and open spaces and restricted further development, excluding working class and low-income people. Though smart growth is supposed to foster more human-oriented and efficient growth and development, Jesse’s opinion was that it lacked any real ability to help the poorer, underinvested communities “unless it focused on equity and justice.”
Fortunately for Jesse, the Funders’ Network was devoted to making equitable development a priority, and hired him to promote smart growth as a way to ensure that the neediest residents of targeted communities also benefit. Currently Jesse is managing the Regional Neighborhood and Equity Project, which helps funders to better assure that predominately low-income communities of color take part in the development of smart growth policies that directly affect their communities, like housing, jobs, schools and transportation. The RNEP sponsors conferences and forums for funders and practitioners to learn about and connect with community leaders involved in social equity work. The project also identifies funder-collaborative “demonstration projects” – examples of regional and national equitable growth – that can be used as national models.
For all the rewards and the sense of purpose his work brings, it is not without a downside. “It’s a challenge getting folks to think outside the box, to think beyond what they do everyday,” Jesse laments. In order to overcome the social and economic disparities of low-income people, it’s important to get those involved to “look at the broader issues, to get funders to move beyond their own areas of expertise and link to others to have a greater impact.”
Also, Jesse believes that we can hinder our success because of our tendency to use buzzwords. “We can’t use polarizing language,” Jesse advises, pointing out that “not everyone defines smart growth the same way.” For example, one organization might use “smart growth” to refer to the environment, while another uses it in reference to transportation issues. He suggests defining terms more precisely in areas where our goals may not be clear, and especially in minority communities – where some may interpret smart growth as another means of gentrification and displacement. Use language that everyone understands, he says. It’s the only way to get the right message to the right people.
Building on his work at the Funders’ Network and his consuming commitment to social justice and equity, Jesse sees two possible paths in his future. He thinks one option might be to go more deeply into philanthropy. “I want to be a part of the decision-making process, deciding where the money goes.” And for all the good work that nonprofits and funders do, the biggest impact on local communities often comes from private real estate development, another area Jesse is considering. It’s a field that “need[s] more socially conscious developers,” he says. “There are some, but we need more. I want to learn the ins and outs of the business, from site selection to build-out.”
No matter what he does, Jesse will never lose his desire to help young people. He remembers what it was like to have limited opportunities; it is what drives him. Pursuing social justice and equitable community development doesn’t end when he leaves the office; he carries the goal with him when he is volunteering in the community or mentoring a young person. Jesse will continue reaching out to people, and will always try to make the world a better place…as best he can.
The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities
1500 San Remo Ave., Ste. 249
Coral Gables, FL 33146