Giving What You Have: Community Development in the Washington Neighborhood, San Jose, California

This post is an adaptation of a project by students Ashley Clark and Mason Wells for Professor Lorlene Hoyt’s course on Community Development, Planning and Politics

Maria Hernandez stood up from her seat and scanned the room full of senior year Berkeley planning students. Maria’s presence was magnetic. She was the kind of person you never forget meeting and everyone in the drafty classroom was captivated by her presence. Unimpressed by these students’ presentation and first findings, she spoke passionately about her community and family. Her heartfelt dedication to Washington was immediately apparent and it became an inspiration for the students. Acutely aware of the resources and legitimacy Berkeley planning students could provide, Maria successfully rallied the group to rededicate themselves to the project. For the rest of 2014, the energized students would continue working alongside the network of neighborhood mothers known as Madre a Madre.

The Washington Neighborhood is 0.236 square miles and has a population of just over 4,000 people (City Data). Two major freeways intersect at its northwesterly corner, cutting it off from the downtown and surrounding communities. Central to the neighborhood is Washington Elementary School. It is a gathering place for not only students, but also parents and siblings. Parents view it as a safer place than nearby parks (Burga, 2015). The neighborhood is in an old part of San Jose and its housing stock is primarily single-family homes built before 1939. 59.6% of residents have less than a high school level of education.

Map Credit: City Data

Map Credit: City Data

Washington is largely a Latin@ immigrant community and many residents are undocumented.  The county’s current deportation policy reflects its history with immigrants, who have been around since at least the 1940s. (San Jose Mercury News 1948). It has declared itself a sanctuary and will not turn those who are undocumented over to the federal government. The role of the school has changed in the neighborhood from a place that instills American beliefs and culture, to one that embraces diversity. For example, the school has made it a priority to include the mothers by issuing all correspondence in Spanish and English. The school also plays a large role as public space that creates opportunities for organizations and institutions to connect with families that live and work in the neighborhood.

James DeFilippis and Susan Saegert argue that “communities are places of interdependence, even if that interdependence can be limited and not always beneficial to everyone involved” (1). In Washington this interdependence can be found in the connections between local universities, nonprofits and community-based organizations that are working as community developers. The school plays a strategic role in the coordination of these connections. For example, Santa Clara University has two programs that focus on Washington Elementary and the surrounding neighborhood. The Leavey School of Business has a program called the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative and the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education has its Thriving Neighborhoods program. Both programs are designed so students can gain valuable field experience while providing resources for the community . As it stands, the university, the students and the community all gain from these relationships and programs. There are not only institutions working from outside the neighborhood, but from within Washington Elementary School as well.

Photo Credit: The Friend of Washington

Photo Credit: The Friend of Washington

Madre a Madre

Madre a Madre, a weekly discussion group for mothers at Washington Elementary School, covered topics from helping students in school to working on issues of self-esteem and stress. Beronica, one of more than 40 mothers in the group, describes the many benefits she derives from her participation in this community:

Yo me siento muy contenta de tener estos programas en la Escuela Washington porque nos sirven de mucho. A mí en lo personal me ha servido asistir a las juntas de Madre a Madre porque he aprendido a como ayudar a mis hijos en sus estudios y como ser con ellos.  Todos los programas que nos han ofrecido son de mucha ayuda para saber sobre nuestros derechos.  A saber que todos los niños tienen sentimientos y que hay que saber escucharlos sobre lo que les pasa. También me ha ayudado a estar informada sobre todo lo que pasa en la escuela y mientras pueda voy a seguir viniendo para aprender y poder lograr a que mis hijos salgan adelante ya que siempre los voy a apoyar.

I feel very fortunate to have a program like this in Washington elementary because it is giving me a lot. Personally, to come to the (?) Madre a Madre meeting has helped me because I have learned how to help my kids in their studies and how to be more with them. All the programs that have been offered to us are of a great help to understand our rights. It has helped me to understand that all kids have feelings and that we need to learn to listen to them about what is happening in their lives. It has also helped me to inform myself about everything that is happening at school, and while I can, I will keep coming to learn how to help my children move forward because I will always be by their side. (translated from Spanish by Carlos Iñigo)

Photo Credit: The Friend of Washington

Photo Credit: The Friend of Washington

Yet, out of this network of mothers emerged something more than a parent support group. The women began to develop and share a deep collective understanding of their communities’ assets, as well as potential areas for community development and growth. Madre a Madre instilled confidence in the mothers to expand their work into the community. Through their collaboration with students at Berkeley, this network of deeply embedded community members would break out of a community development framework centered on education and what seemed like increasingly restrictive roles at Washington Elementary School.

The school and Madre a Madre were safe spaces that provided an outlet for the mothers to grow in their capacity and ability to define what a better Washington community meant on their own terms. It was not a university saying “We are going to conduct a workshop and help you identify your needs.” The mothers already know what they need.

DeFilippis and Saegert refer to this as collective and aggregate power, or a network. The mothers aggregated their voices and power by organizing and agreeing on a common set of goals. Currently they are in the process of starting their own organization outside of the school called Mamas Unidas. They feel this would legitimize their claims and place in the community. They built their model based on what they outlined as their common goals: creating a safe and vibrant neighborhood with access to healthy food, parks and schools.

Unlike the other organizations currently working in the neighborhood, Mamas Unidas is the only grassroots organization that puts members of the community first. The knowledge the mothers have of the neighborhood and its families is incredibly valuable and an important asset for any program that seeks to be a change agent in the community. We suggest that for community development strategies in Washington to be most effective, the mothers must partner with other active organizations .

The failure in this case is that these different pieces of the community development puzzle are not talking to each other. Democratically organized community groups growing out of community directed capacity building could leverage assets and strengthen institutional networks in coordinated support of community defined and centered development. This type of strategy centers on the voices of Washington Neighborhood residents and more specifically on the collective power of these mothers. The organizations have access the mothers’ intimate knowledge of the community, while the mothers can access programs and financial resources.


At the heart of this story is a group of mothers who care deeply about their children and community. And from that experience we learn that community development can begin by drawing connections between groups with shared interests at various levels of organization and size. The school was able to find leaders within the community and, through its association with universities and other nonprofits, became a hub for interaction and recognition that the other even exists. The next step is to develop connections and forge partnerships. This is a lesson from which other communities can learn. Understanding the fractured nature of the communication between the mothers group and outside organizations exposes areas of opportunity. There are always ways to improve communication between various groups and ways to center community development efforts around those who will be most impacted by these decisions. As one of the mothers told me, “damos lo que somos,” or “we give what we have”.


Burga, Fernando. Lecture, UC Berkeley, 2015.

Burke, Brian J., and Boone Shear. “Engaged Scholarship for Non-capitalist Political Ecologies.” Journal of Political Ecology21 (2014): 127-44. Accessed October 1, 2015.

DeFilippis, James. “Communities Develop.” In The Community Development Reader, 1-7. New York, New York: Routledge, 2008.

DeFilippis, James. “Community Building Limitations and Promise.” In The Community Development Reader, 209-219. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Noguchi, Sharon, and Patrick May. “California Won’t Turn Arrested Illegal Immigrants over to Feds.” San Jose Mercury News, October 5, 2013. Accessed October 1, 2015.

“Washington (Guadalupe) Neighborhood in San Jose, California (CA), 95110 Detailed Profile.” Washington (Guadalupe) Neighborhood in San Jose, California (CA), 95110 Subdivision Profile. Accessed October 1, 2015.