In 2007, Jorge Riquelme left a professorship at Cal State San Marcos to direct the Bayside Community Center, which assists immigrants and refugees in the diverse surrounding community of Linda Vista, focusing on social service, education, housing and public safety.

The center offers programs for toddlers, children, adults and senior citizens. Its website says it targets those “limited by language, cultural understanding, knowledge of our existing laws, and transportation barriers.” Riquelme adopts a broader definition: “We serve from the womb to the tomb,” on the model of early 20th century settlement houses that were one-stop assistance centers for impoverished neighbors.

I sat down with Riquelme to talk about Bayside, the challenges facing community centers citywide, and the role they play in empowering under-served residents and creating a sense of community in low-income neighborhoods.

You were a professor before you came to direct Bayside in 2007. Why the switch?

It was a life choice. I love doing research and teaching, but the academic lifestyle wasn’t for me. I had the opportunity to work on research I had funding for that got me a connection with Bayside. We did a project together and I fell in love. I really had an inkling to work on issues of changing communities, having impacts on real people.

Why did you fall in love with Bayside?

The idea of a community center was very attractive. Many nonprofits do wonderful things but I always felt that there was a need to do something community-based. Being an immigrant, I have a yearning to be in a place where I feel I belong, so I felt this place created that sense for people and created a real affinity for what’s being done. It’s a place that you try to address people as part of a community.

So how do you do that here?

That’s the big challenge. Ultimately what we try to do here is build community, not segregate populations. We do that by looking to the body of resources we have in the community that people don’t think is valuable.

Like what?

Their experiences. Their knowledge, their culture, their skills. There are so many talents that go untapped because they have not been connected to the right place. So being able to connect all those elements to start feeling pride in where they are.

You ask any immigrant why they came here and they tell you for a better future for their family. But if you’re working three jobs and your children are growing at home on their own, is that giving them a better future? We need to find a way to share the responsibility of nurturing our children so they don’t grow up alone. That’s where community-based organizations can help bridge the gap that exists and confront some of the challenges we have in this community.

You came to Bayside when it was facing serious financial difficulties. I’ve also noticed that senior citizens are teaching seniors how to use computers, and seniors are planning to sell coffee to seniors to raise money. Mixteco people and not professionals are teaching Mixtec language classes. Does that structure respond to the financial need?

There is a sense of urgency when you are facing financial challenges, but it ultimately is consistent with the mission of this organization, which is to empower diverse communities. Ultimately the goal is that people have ownership of what happens here. That people take care of the center.

There are ridiculous things that prevent people from being creative and finding solutions to their own problems because they’re incredibly costly. Public spaces that communities could manage on their own like libraries and recreation centers, they’re not. There are issues about liability that prevent the population from feeling ownership over what’s in their communities.

What does the community center scene look like across the city?

Being a community center is a challenge. There are not a lot of community centers out there. Some people would suggest they’re a dying species among nonprofits.

Unfortunately for the community center model, the trend in California and San Diego has been to consolidate into fewer numbers of organizations. Or if they’re smaller, to hyper-specialize. Larger organizations handle substantial amounts of funding from large public agencies. Spreading the wealth among smaller agencies becomes impractical.

Yes, you’re going to achieve more efficiencies with larger agencies but what do you do when you take a community base out from that equation? That’s a problem.

Community centers are at this point at high risk of disappearing altogether because of the preference of public funding and foundations for bigger or specialized organizations.

What does that mean for places like Bayside and neighborhoods like Linda Vista?

You lose the capacity to empower people. You lose the capacity to strengthen civil society. So what ends up happening is not citizens, but clients. That’s the very unfortunate language that we use in nonprofits. We refer to people as clients. “My clients are black, my clients are Hispanic, my clients are seniors, my clients are over 65.” Why the distinction? That’s the source of funding. Suddenly it’s no longer Jose, Maria or Peter. It’s, “He’s a Medicaid recipient.” And if you don’t have a legal status, well, you’re a non-existing entity. So what that funding does is help fragment communities.

So how do you convince funders otherwise?

That’s my challenge, that’s my challenge, that’s my challenge.

Is there a possibility that unless there’s some kind of monetary contribution from your beneficiaries, that they won’t feel a personal investment in ensuring it’s successful, or that there’s a risk in letting it fail?

Absolutely, 100 percent.

Seniors to me are my favorite example of what you can do. Seniors were complaining that our services suck. I showed them the budget. You have to show them the budget! They started getting creative about rummage sales, accumulating money to do their own field trips. Other people, we provide the service and they see the carpet is destroyed. They fix it. Our doors were broken, they were fixed by someone that used our services. That’s the culture we need to nurture. The culture that this is yours, protect the facility. There are so many ways you can help build the assets that you have, the skills you have in the community that can be of great value to everything we do here.

— Interview conducted and edited by ADRIAN FLORIDO

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