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.
Wendy Ho serves as District Trustee at the San José-Evergreen Community College District, where she champions student success and equity. She also serves as Senior Policy Director at the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits, an advocacy and training network of nonprofit organizations.
Where do you go to get caffeinated in San José?
I like Academic Coffee downtown. There’s also a place called Moonbean’s in south San José, where I live. It feels very neighborhood- and community-oriented; you’ve got your regulars, it’s just a charming and quaint place.
What is your favorite place in San José?
Fowler Creek Park is in my old neighborhood, where I grew up. What I enjoy about that place is the vista point, where you can get a 360 degree view of the city. It’s a place I go to center myself.
What media are you into these days?
I’m a big Top Chef fan, although this season is really underwhelming. That’s where I find an escape from the everyday rat race of Silicon Valley.
If you are tackling a complicated work problem, who do you call to talk it through?
It depends on the scope of the problem. If it’s directly related to the work I’m doing at Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits, Patricia Gardner is usually my first call. I also lean on my SVCN colleague Marybeth Nacey.
I have some friends in the policy world that I seek counsel from, and if I need a completely different opinion, I seek out friends from childhood and get their take. I have a friend that is an architect, and he’s brilliant, and he has a different way of looking at things, so I appreciate his insights. I also talk with my best friend about work issues. She’s a stay-at-home mom, and has a very keen sense of the human spirit, so talking with her always helps ground me and makes me think about things in a different way.
What is your role at Evergreen Community College? What is Evergreen’s role in the San José ecosystem?
Our college district is comprised of two districts, Evergreen Valley and San José City College. I am a member of the governing board of trustees for the college district, and I’ve been in that role for five years. As a board member, I do mundane things like approving budgets, but we also do strategic things like providing direction and vision for the college district. We are the body that is accountable for all things that happen at the college district. Our values are equity, opportunity, and social justice, and that’s something we live and breathe every day.
We are the only college district that is wholly inside the city of San José, so we have a responsibility to provide the workforce that the San José economy needs to stay vital. We view ourselves as the equity engines for this valley. We are trying to make sure we have a thriving, inclusive environment for our students. I grew up here, and it saddens me to see people constantly being pushed out because they can’t afford to live here. For us at the college district, we have a role in insuring that all residents have access to a quality education that will allow them to stay and live and thrive in this valley.
What is a 2018 project you’re really excited about at Evergreen?
We have designed an outreach program to diversify our vendor pool, and that project really stems from our values: equity, opportunity, and social justice. The board is very intentional about making sure that our contracts – whether they’re related to our bond program or buying pencils – really prioritize the needs of our local community, because we want to be that economic engine of equity. And so we’ve done everything legally possible to maximize opportunities for small businesses, minority-owned business, women-owned businesses, businesses owned by disabled people and veterans within our college district. Procurement isn’t very sexy, but it’s something that’s meaningful to many of us on the board.
San José Promise is a college promise program that allows San José high school students to enter community colleges with tuition and fees waived, and have access to textbooks and transportation, as well as some specialized cohort supports to allow them to complete their educational goals. We’re trying to eliminate all the barriers students have to education. Anything we can do to remove some of those stressors and burdens on our students’ lives, that’s what we’re in the business of doing.
We’ve had tremendous success in our first full cohorts in our district, and we hope this program will grow into the Silicon Valley Promise and include our neighboring community college districts of West Valley-Mission and Foothill-De Anza.
Tell me about your goals as a community leader.
I entered the fray as an elected official because I didn’t see enough people who looked like me in office. And so one of my main motivations is to be a good representative to women of color, demonstrating that we’ve got valid opinions and experiences that are different from everyone else’s and we have a right to be at the decision-making table. I want to be a good steward and provide voice to those who might not have access to positions of power.
How do considerations of race, gender, and class interact at Evergreen?
In our community college district, the typical student is female, first-generation college student, 27 years old, usually an immigrant. That’s shifted a bit since we started the San José Promise program, but traditionally that’s been our student profile. As an open access institution, we meet people where they are, regardless of their educational background or economic status. We really see ourselves as a place where everyone has an equitable chance of completing their educational goals.
I think our faculty and our staff all recognize that we’re part of this vibrant and diverse community. Everyone gets treated pretty much the same way. The board has been intentional about making sure that our staff and our faculty reflect our student population. You don’t see that happen very often. There’s a new report out from the Campaign for College Opportunity that looks at the public institutions of higher education in California and the makeup of their faculty and staff compared to the student population. Not surprisingly, there’s a huge disparity. And so we really take pride in being able to say that we’ve got close to proportional representation across racial, ethnic, and gender groups. It’s so important for our students to see faculty and staff who look like them, who have the same experiences, who can relate to our students.
Tell me about the women and girls who benefit from your work. What do you want for them?
I want them to feel empowered. People come to our colleges and pursue higher education because they want to better themselves somehow. I can tell you story after story of stay-at-home moms who have come back to the college to either get a certificate or complete a degree, to change their trajectory for the better. Giving them that opportunity and being able to see them cross that stage at commencement is what fills me with joy.
Your role at Evergreen is an elected one. What is it like to be an elected official these days?
These days, it’s been a little bit more difficult. But on the flip side, it’s also been empowering that our college board is majority-minority. There are six people of color on a seven-member board, and there’s a pretty even gender split: four men and three women. That’s not normal. I’m really proud to be on a board with colleagues who are as committed to our students as I am.
But there are challenges and occupational hazards. We make controversial decisions, such as when we decided to develop some surplus land adjacent to Evergreen Valley College as a way to attract more resources and invest back in our students. We had some challenges communicating that effectively to the community, and we had some very heated board meetings. We have since mended fences, but it was a huge learning opportunity for us. As public officials, it’s not always pretty, it’s not always easy, but I’ve learned that it’s not personal.
It can be isolating to be an elected official — no one really knows what you’re going through unless they’ve been through it themselves. Finding a network of other elected officials to confide in has been its own challenge. I’m very selective about what I share and when I share it, and so I’m grateful to have a small group of other elected officials, including other women of color, and I know we have each other’s backs.
At the end of the day, I have to ask myself why I’m here in this role. I always harken back to commencement day and seeing the pride of those students and their families as they cross the stage and turn the tassel. That’s why I do it.