Spotlight on Leaders: Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, Executive Director, SOMOS Mayfair

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re putting the spotlight on five community leaders in San Jose, and sharing their insights about the civic issues facing Silicon Valley, their approach to leadership, and the key projects they’ll tackle in 2018.

Camille Llanes-Fontanilla serves as Executive Director of SOMOS Mayfair, a nonprofit in east San José that supports children, organizes families, and connects neighbors to uplift the dreams, power, and leadership of community and address systemic inequities.

What is your favorite place in San José?

My favorite place in San José is Emma Prusch Farm Park for a few reasons. I was born and raised in East San José. My grandfather tilled a piece of the community garden at Emma Prusch Farm Park, my son had his first birthday there, my husband is now on the board of Veggielution, and so I feel like it’s just a part of who I am.

Emma Prusch Farm Park is also a space here in San José that is full access. You don’t have to pay for parking; you don’t have to pay to see the animals. I think about all the other assets in San José and the equity issues that I spend a lot of my life working on, and it comes to full fruition at that farm. Kids and families from all over the city can go there, without barriers, and enjoy it.

How do you see SOMOS Mayfair’s role in the San José ecosystem? What issues you trying to address as an organization?

SOMOS’s place-based, intentional leadership development model is based on the premise that leadership can come in all forms: it can come from our Mayfair community, it can come from a monolingual, Spanish-speaking immigrant woman. We know that that she is powerful and can make a difference in her home, schools, and community. We center our work on this philosophy and recruit, train, and organize resident leaders (mothers, fathers, youth, grandparents) who develop their shared vision for the Mayfair neighborhood and San José more broadly and become agents of change. We redefine leadership, power, and the perpetuated narratives of east San José.

If you’re tackling a complicated work problem, who do you call to talk it through?

Oh, that’s easy. Usually it would be SOMOS Mayfair’s associate director, Zelica Rodriguez-Deams. She and I first met at the Rockwood Institute of Leadership, and she understands where I’m coming from, both from a personal perspective and a professional perspective. And, she isn’t afraid to challenge me. I’m doing everything I possibly can do invest in her growth and leadership, because I look forward to the day when I see her across the table as another executive director, where we get the chance to solve a complicated community problems together. And I actually feel the same way about all the emerging leaders of color on our team because investing in their leadership and growth will only strengthen our sector, and more importantly sustain social justice movements.

What are you working on in 2018?

Two years ago, Zelica and I were away on a leadership training, and kept talking till 4 o’clock in the morning, when an idea emerged about how we could use SOMOS’s leadership development model and figure out how to codify it to yield two things: greater economic opportunity for the people who live in this community, and a way to transform other institutions and nonprofits. That idea became SOMOS Fuertes – a peer education network of leaders called promotoras who are from this community. They have gone through our full leadership development training and can take on economic opportunities in the areas of community organizing, outreach, translation, and child care.

Our first grant for SOMOS Fuertes came from the Health Trust as a disruptive innovation grant. We spent two years developing it, thinking through it, getting trusted advisors. We’ve launched it for a year now and gotten additional investors behind the thinking. What I’m excited about is that it stretched us in a few ways as an organization. It gave us some muscle around innovation: how do we challenge our own assumptions, and then how I give my staff the space to actually think through things in a very Silicon Valley way? Let’s throw stuff on the wall and see what sticks, and then get rid of what doesn’t. I don’t think enough people in the nonprofit sector get to do that. This year, our focus is ramping us this program and ensuring its impact and sustainability.

What are your goals as a community leader? What are you trying to accomplish?

One of my biggest things is to really invest in the leadership of others. At SOMOS I have a team of five really strong directors, and I really want to see them get into positions of power and run their own organizations. I’m very invested in that.

There are a lot of emerging leaders in this valley, and I feel like nobody sees them. I do spend the time to take people to coffee and get to know them and help them think about what is next for them. If there’s an opportunity here, I try to get them on board or I try to match them up with other organizations. Personally, my goal to continue to do that, to continue to shift the tides of leadership in this valley.

On a personal level, I’m in this discovery space – this is my second job out of college!


I’m happy to go the record and say I’m not a lifer here at SOMOS. That ties back directly to our mission – we’re supposed to be creating pipelines of leadership, and if I hold the most powerful position in this organization forever then I didn’t do that, right?

How do considerations of race, gender, and class interact in your work?

On a very personal level, the notion of being the first non-Latino leader leading a primarily Latino-serving organization was a huge one for me to take on and be comfortable enough to run this organization.

I have a very deep concern around paternalistic models of change: people coming into our neighborhood or community and telling us how we need to lead, how we need to run things. And so I had to really challenge myself to make sure I wasn’t doing the same thing as the first non-Latino running this organization. I had to be vulnerable enough and open enough to say if that I wasn’t the community’s choice to lead SOMOS, that’s cool. And my team at SOMOS will call me out anytime: that’s part of it, surrounding yourself with people who will challenge you.

As a leader, I’ve also learned to uplift my lived experience. I was born and raised in San José, my grandparents lived in Mayfair, I know what it felt like to lose an uncle to cancer because he didn’t have insurance, his son was detained and almost deported even though he grew up here in Mayfair: this is the lived experience that I have, and I try to put that experience to the table and lead from that vantage point, not from my education or my other qualifications.

I don’t feel like enough leaders get the time or space to take stock of their relationship with race, gender, and class. When dealing with constant fires, we don’t often get to ask: What is my relationship to these three things, and how do I wield power in any of these areas and show up as a leader? It’s a really hard thing to do. Two programs have given me that space (On the Verge and the American Leadership Forum) and I feel very privileged to get spaces to do that.

Tell me about the women and girls that benefit from the work of SOMOS. What do you want for them?

For the women and girls who live in Mayfair and have demonstrated their leadership, whether they’re speaking at a school board meeting on behalf of their children or are starting a new business, I want them to continuously see the power that they have. Yes, SOMOS is here to support them and provide them with skills and spaces to learn, but at the end of the day that power was always in them. And I hope that they take that and share it with their neighbors and the next generation of people here.

I think it’s very similar for SOMOS staff: it’s an immense privilege to lead a team that is primarily women, women of color, and making sure that they see themselves as able to move up, that there isn’t a glass ceiling for them. And that they can be authentic, vulnerable, and open in their leadership too. I’m trying to show my staff that leadership doesn’t only have to look one way, and they’re only going be successful if it looks like me or Zelica.

What do you want for the future of San José?

One of the things that really excites me about Mayfair as a neighborhood is its reputation. I was in Mexico on a family vacation, and I was talking to the waitstaff, and this gentleman said “Mayfair? I know Mayfair!” And I said, “You’ve been?” He said, “No, but I know that if I ever to the United States, to California, I’m supposed to go to Mayfair, because that’s the place where everyone’s welcoming, and it’s the place where I’ll get support.” I shared that with city leaders: for generations, this place has been a landing pad for people, and so how do we invest in our infrastructure – have better parks, better schools, better libraries, better streets, all of that – while making sure that the people here aren’t displaced, and that we are always welcoming to immigrants from across the globe.

Last question: where do you go in San José to get caffeinated?

As the wife of a Starbucks manager, I frequent Starbucks often! It helps pay for my child’s education. However, I love Roy’s because of its community aspect; I’m also big on Philz, because I love me a mint mojito.

Thank you!

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