Spotlight on Leaders: Zulma Maciel, Director, The City of San José’s Office of Immigrant Affairs

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.

Zulma Maciel is the inaugural director of The City of San José’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which was established in 2015 for the purpose of creating a more informed, engaged, and welcoming experience for immigrants; increasing opportunities for shared prosperity, and becoming the most successful multi-cultural city in the world.

Where is your favorite place to get coffee in San José?

Home! I make a pot of coffee every day. It’s easy.

What is your favorite place in San José?

I love the area around City Hall, because I feel safe walking through these streets, I like the eclectic group of people that cross these streets, I enjoy seeing students, children and seniors and people going to yoga or other events in the parks during the summer. It’s a great vibe.  It’s super diverse at every level.

What media are you consuming these days?

I don’t watch much television, except for a little CNN here and there, and “Scandal.”  I listen to a lot of NPR. There’s where I’m getting my information: KPFA, KQED. I’m currently reading Catherine Clinton’s The Road to Freedom, a biography of Harriet Tubman. It is fascinating.

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

Julie Edmonds-Mares, the former deputy city manager of San José, who’s now City Manager of Milpitas. She has been a wonderful mentor who has believed in more than I’ve believed in myself, and I know that she’s always had my best interests in mind. If I need guidance and honest feedback, it’s Julie.

My personal kitchen cabinet includes Patricia Gardner and Suzanne Wolf, whose exuberant candor I enjoy and value.

What is the role of the Office of Immigrant Affairs in the San José ecosystem?  What issues are you trying to address?

The Office of Immigrant Affairs was established in 2015.  Which is fitting for a city of a million people, where nearly 39% are foreign-born, and where in San José’s immigrant households, 80% of children are speaking a language other than English. It’s about considering the various needs of our immigrant population: not just undocumented residents, but legal permanent residents, H-1B visas or L1 visas holders, immigrant business owners – the diversity within the immigrant population is wide and complex.  

The Office of Immigrant Affairs provides a lens for the City – all departments – to ensure that we’re facilitating and accelerating the integration of immigrants into our community. We want to make sure immigrants trust local government, are engaged in public processes, feel comfortable providing feedback in areas that need enhancements, and use city services. We want to support our departments to deliver services that are accessible in the languages that are spoken in San José and are culturally responsive to the needs of our communities.  

This is an ethnically diverse valley, with a very diverse set of skills. It’s not just about the high tech industry; it’s also about the middle skills workforce, about manual laborers, and we envision a place where everyone is given a chance to maximize their economic potential.  

What is a 2018 project that you’re really excited about?

San José is now a member of GARE, the Government Alignment on Race and Equity. We have joined over seventy other cities across the US, and we’ll be learning how to provide a framework around race and equity for routine decision making in the City. 14 city employees from various departments will be working together for a year to produce a Racial Equity Action Plan, that will look at policies and practices that take into account equity; issues of access for all, appropriate community engagement, and cultural responsiveness.

When I first started in this role, I brought together a multi-sector steering committee to develop the Welcoming San José plan. And in the very first meeting I said, “we can’t talk about immigrant integration in San José without talking about race.” The room was silent. And finally, Michele Lew said, “Zulma, thank you for using the R-word at City Hall.” And that was when I realized that we have some work to do this area, but I felt enthused that our City leadership understands the value and the benefits of considering equity in our decision-making. When you focus on improving the quality of life for the most disenfranchised in our community, there are benefits for everyone.  

That’s a fundamental tenant of civic tech: all the people on Kip Harkness’s team will tell you that if you make, say, the permitting process more accessible to edge cases – to people who don’t speak the language on the form, to people who haven’t done this process before, to people who don’t have this expertise – you’re going to make it better for everybody who engages in that process.

That’s a good example, because we’re doing similar work with several departments on language access.  Many departments like the Library and Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services have got it down: they hire people who can speak the languages of the communities they serve and are currently making adjustments to other types of access: online, telephone, etc.  We’ve also assessed other departments, in particular forms that are heavily used by the public, and frankly they don’t really make sense in English, so we should start over and simplify these forms. Everyone benefits!

Tell me about your goals as a community leader.

At the end of the day, my work leads me to ask what I want for my children. I have a 20-year-old daughter in college, and a 15-year-old son in high school. I want to see increased respect and appreciation for our diverse community, and access to opportunities for everyone. Diversity encompasses racereligious affiliation, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and life experiences, but unfortunately there are disproportionate outcomes on various indicators among these groups.

Especially for my daughter, I want a community that respects and appreciates the value of women’s views. When you make it right for women and children, and consider them from the beginning, it makes it easier for everyone else. Women demonstrate, over and over again, that we can operate from a place of head and heart. I hope that when my daughter is in the workforce, that balance is fully appreciated.

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

In my work, you can’t talk about immigrant-friendly policies, programs, or processes without talking about race. While the GARE framework leads with race, naturally we’ll reflect on gender, class, and other considerations. I believe that we’ll get to a place of social equity through allies: men being allies for women, women being allies for women, humans being allies for children, and so on.  

What do you want for the women and girls of San José?

The women and girls I work with through the Office of Immigrant Affairs – from undocumented to DACAmented to legal permanent residents to visa holders – they all want the same thing you and I want. We all want to feel like we belong, we want to feel safe, we want access to opportunities to thrive in San José. The women I interact with regularly are hardworking, resilient, compassionate, and courageous. They have incredible assets: they’re binational, bicultural, and bilingual. These women are the future.

Professionally, I’ve mentored a lot of women in public service. I’ve been with the City for over twenty years, right out of college. It’s always such a pleasure and a privilege to get to know other women who are so passionate about public service, the way that I am. Successful public servants need to reach back and bring other people along: invite women to meetings, bring them to the table.

Everyone should find their professional network. For me, that’s HOPE – Hispanas Organized for Political Equality. I’m an alum of the HOPE Leadership Institute- a wonderful network of women leading change in the public and private industry.

What has it been like to create a brand new department in the city?

It’s been thrilling and emotional, for sure. In 2015 I was working in Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood services, handling contracts, grants, fund development, legislative issues, a number of things, very administrative. Julie came to me and asked if I’d be interested in starting an Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Who really is prepared to establish anything totally new? I was a little skeptical, and wanted to make sure the City Manager’s Office was really interested in making this happen. I wanted to establish something, not just explore it. Julie believed in me, and she said that I didn’t have to have all the answers or a perfect vision for everything. She told me that I already had the essential skills, the technical skills and the community relationships; the right ingredients to do something.

Going through the process was exciting – I really enjoy strategic planning, the connecting with external partners, the listening tours, design-thinking and co-creation. I also enjoy the data piece, because when you look at the data about the immigrant population in San José: why wouldn’t we do this? Inaction would be totally negligent; inaction would be detrimental to the economic health of Silicon Valley.  

This is a 24/7 job, but I love it. It’s rewarding and it’s a privilege to serve the public in this capacity. Lately I’ve been examining my own family’s story of immigration. I never felt like I had to tell my story until I started working in this area. I wonder why I got so lucky, and think about my extended family’s immigration status. That is something I cannot separate from work. I was recently in Mexico visiting my mom – what a privilege! I have cousins who haven’t seen their parents in twenty years, but Zulma gets to go back and forth. It’s so unfair.

What is your story?

My parents crossed the border when my mom was five months pregnant with me, to give us a better life. That’s a sacrifice they made: they would not have left their home if it wasn’t out of true financial necessity. My parents came here in the 1970s, when there was opportunity to “get in line,” to demonstrate that you worked hard, that you wanted the best for your family, that you were willing to contribute to this country. And then they became legal permanent residents, and we were fine.

My mom has been an amazing role model. She worked her ass off in hot greenhouses for twenty years, then retired, sold her little house, and used that money to build a house in Mexico. And now she’s back home, she’s politically involved, actively involved in her church, volunteers every day. She lived the full American dream, but moved back home, which is what so many people aspire to do. Many people want to go home! My mom always felt like a second-class citizen here, because of the language barrier and being ridiculed for it, relying on me to interpret for her. She couldn’t maximize her potential in the US the way she can in Mexico now.

So what you’re doing in the Office of Immigrant Affairs is creating a San José where your mom wouldn’t want to move back home to Mexico.

I want a San José where people like my mom could maximize their potential, regardless of race, gender, English-proficiency, or immigration status. Wouldn’t we all be better off if the playing field were more welcoming and equitable?

What do you want for the future of San José?

I want immigrants and refugees to feel welcomed, engaged, respected, and that they have opportunities to reach their potential.

How can we engage the long-term residents of San José  – Latino, Chinese, Filipino, white, etc – to be more thoughtful about making this a welcoming community? It’s not government who can drive that. It’s people. What can people do to make newcomers feel more welcomed?  The City can lead by example – and we still have more work to do – but I want a city that is a welcoming place for all.