Spotlight on Leaders: Teresa Alvarado, San José Director of SPUR

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.

Teresa Alvarado is the San José Director of SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.  Through research, education, and advocacy, SPUR promotes good planning and good government in the Bay Area.

Where do you get caffeinated in San José?

I’m a Social Policy gal. Mainly because it’s a great space, and they make their own almond milk. For me, the milk makes all the difference.

What is your favorite place in San José?

Alum Rock Park.  I grew up on the east side, and I used run a lot. I spent many blissful hours there. Plus I was an environmental studies major, so I love the environment and nature, and I love the history of Alum Rock Park. It was the first municipal park in California. People used to take the trolley from downtown San José and go up there to the mineral springs!

What are you reading and watching these days?

I love The Atlantic. I’m a sci-fi nerd, so I can’t wait for Legion to come back. I just finished The Handmaid’s Tale: it’s amazing. It’s a lesson for today! It’s incredible.

Talk to me about SPUR’s role in the San José ecosystem.

Our strength is thought leadership. We came to San José six years ago, before all this talk about urbanism really took hold. It was a perfect time to introduce these concepts to San José, and SPUR brought 100 years of urban policy background to the table.

We also share best practices from around the world. Last year we took a group of civic leaders to Holland and France to look at high-speed rail stations and think in an integrated way about the city-building opportunity we’ll have. Train stations can be a catalyst for tons of growth and improvements, so how can we build rail and public spaces that really work together? That’s what we wanted them to see.

The third thing is integrated regional thinking.  SPUR is a San Francisco-based organization with offices in San José and Oakland, and we think very holistically about the region, because the big issues we have are not stopping at any municipality’s borders.  

What’s a 2018 project you’re really excited about?

We’re about to launch a big initiative around the Guadalupe River Park. We’re inviting the vice president of the High Line in New York to come to SPUR on March 28 to talk about that civic project. The High Line has created billions of dollars in value, and also has created this outdoor spine for the community. In hindsight they’re realizing there are some things they could have done differently, and so we want to hear from them. In April, we’re going to have Omar Brownson, the head of River LA, talk about the work they’re doing to revitalize the LA river. We’re going to bring in other speakers from Atlanta and Toronto to talk about their open space initiatives. It’s about rethinking urban infrastructure and creating these central gathering places for the community, because that’s what we need in San José with the Guadalupe project.

If you have a complicated work problem at SPUR, who do you call to talk it through?

If it’s an organizational problem, I call Alicia John-Baptiste, who is SPUR’s deputy director, and just a really wise person.  She’s worked in a lot of challenging environments. SPUR has expanded a lot in three years, and she’s trying to build internal systems and do the change management work inside the organization.  

The other one is my mom. She is super wise. She is really thoughtful, super smart, an amazing speaker. She never went to college but she’s super well-read, she’s just pretty incredible.

I’d also reach out to Karla Lomax – she’s just so freaking solid.  

What are your goals as a community leader?

Well, I always keep this by my desk:

That’s what I strive to do. I think in this role, it’s super important because urban planning affects everybody, although in the past it’s been led by a very elite group. How do you provide access to make sure everyone can participate in urban planning decisions? It can be very technical, and the city doesn’t have the resources that it once did for outreach, so how can SPUR as an urban policy organization and an organization that convenes people – how can we bring in voices beyond the usual ones? We’re talking about doing more community surveying through neighborhood associations and social media to solicit feedback.  

I love SPUR’s cross-sector approach.  There should absolutely be people at the table advocating for very specific positions, but I think SPUR plays a crucial role by convening across those interests and those sectors.

We represent the public interest. We should be inviting people who are in conflict with each other, because all of these issues are complicated! So how can SPUR really suss all of that out, and identify common ground?

How do you see considerations of race, gender, and class playing out in San José, and in your work?

I grew up on the east side and, after my parents divorced when I was four, my mother had primary responsibility for us. She had five kids, she made $500 a month, and she was on welfare, but we always talked about civic issues at the kitchen table. I would love for that to be the case in all of our neighborhoods, in all of our households, for people to feel like they’re a part of building the city and part of those civic issues.

You changed sectors for this job.  What has that been like?

I started in city government: I worked for the City of San José in environmental services when I was at San José State. And then I worked at NASA Ames Research Center in environmental safety. And then when I came back from grad school, I worked for PG&E. And then I left there to be the first executive director of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, so I went to philanthropy. And then I went to regional government, and I was an executive at the Santa Clara Water District. And now I’m here, at a nonprofit urban policy organization. Infrastructure, systems change, and looking at root causes tie all of those experiences together. SPUR is such a perfect combination of all those things, and all those issues I care about.

What do you want for the future of San José?

This is my favorite article of all time: The Place Where the Poor Once Thrived, in The Atlantic. It talks about why San José was the best place in the country to live. We had the highest upward mobility of any city in the country in the 1980s, on par with Denmark and Canada. That’s the city I grew up in: we had tons of opportunities. There was a lot of job growth, a lot of housing, and everything was accessible.  

San José is a pretty open ecosystem, because we’re so used to people moving here. We have a very diverse community, with 38% or more residents being foreign-born. That dynamic exchange of ideas was amazing: I remember going to school with people from all over the world, and the schools were good (pre-Prop 13)!  Even though I grew up on the east side, with a mother who was on welfare, I was able to go to twelve years of Catholic school, then San José State, then I got a full scholarship to Tufts University for a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering. Every person should have that. It makes me sad that we don’t have those open doors any more. We want our kids to succeed: we want them to have equal pay, equal opportunities, a great education, all those things. That’s what motivates me.

Thank you!

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