Using Community Engagement to Build Better Developments – with Vanessa Delgado

by | Apr 23, 2019 | Podcast | 0 comments

This week John met with Vanessa Delgado, Managing Partner of Azure Development, a real estate company that works closely with locals to ensure that developments reflect the real needs and desires of the communities they’re in. John met Vanessa in her office in Southeast Los Angeles to discuss how she incorporates community intelligence into the earliest stages and at the core of her work. This process of true community engagement continues to produce unexpected benefits and surprising insights that lead to better developments and stronger communities.

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Episode Transcript


John Bwarie:                Hello, this is John Bwarie, and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence, where we explore how leaders engage and build community.

In this episode, you’ll hear from Vanessa Delgado, managing partner of Azure Development, a real estate company that works closely with locals to ensure that developments reflect the real needs and desires of the communities they’re in. I met Vanessa in her office in southeast Los Angeles to discuss how she incorporates community intelligence into the earliest stages and at the core of her work. This process of true community engagement continues to produce unexpected benefits and surprising insights that lead to better developments and stronger community.


Do you have an area where you do most of your work?

Vanessa Delgado:         Right now we’re focused in Boyle Heights east LA. And then we started to do projects in Bellflower area and Bell Gardens, so branching out.

John Bwarie:                So southeast LA, east side of Los Angeles. And why these communities?

Vanessa Delgado:         I always like to put it as these are the kind of communities that I grew up in. And so I’d like to give back to places that gave back to me.

John Bwarie:                So I’m looking across at you and I’m thinking, okay, you’re not much older than I am, your story probably started in the 80s, right?

Vanessa Delgado:         70s. Yeah, 70s, yeah.

John Bwarie:                Okay. So where did you grow up and what was that like? And how did that inform where you are today?

Vanessa Delgado:         It’s really why I’m doing the work that I’m doing. I grew up in Boyle Heights. I went to schools in the area with my family. I have a very large Mexican family. And I got a scholarship when I was little to go to private school, and took the RTD back in the day, to school, two hours each way. I just got a lot of opportunities in life from it.

John Bwarie:                Growing up in that big family, but then sort of removed, because you’re now in the private school and you’re the only one in the family that did this?

Vanessa Delgado:         I was the only one. Yeah, my grandmother really pitched to the teacher. He selected two kids with no methodology really, to really change their life. I never met or interacted with anybody who wasn’t of my race, Mexican, in my life.

John Bwarie:                Until what age?

Vanessa Delgado:         At that time I was 11.

John Bwarie:                Wow.

Vanessa Delgado:         So I was sent to a school called Chandler.

John Bwarie:                In Pasadena.

Vanessa Delgado:         In Pasadena. They paid for tuition and gave me opportunities that I couldn’t have ever imagined.

John Bwarie:                And so from there, what was the trajectory?

Vanessa Delgado:         So I went to high school in Pasadena. I went to Westridge School for Girls. And then after that, I got to go to Stanford and USC, just amazing. But I vowed to always come back to the communities I grew up in, to give back there. And that’s what I’m doing.

John Bwarie:                So you come back, so you graduate Stanford, and then go to USC for your master’s?

Vanessa Delgado:         I did. I got a master’s of Public Administration.

John Bwarie:                At USC, great, at the Price school. Great program. And then you say okay, I made a commitment, so here I am. So what’s the first thing you do?

Vanessa Delgado:         Okay so this is where I think everybody’s life story, no matter how well mapped out I had it at 21, takes a bit of turns, right? So I studied to become a City Manager. And I worked for three cities, looking for the right one.

John Bwarie:                Here in Southern California?

Vanessa Delgado:         Mm-hmm (affirmative). I worked for the cities of Pico Rivera, and Highland, and Downey, and old redevelopment. I did redevelopment, and it wasn’t my calling. My mom was devastated because I vested already in the system, but I decided that it wasn’t for me. And so I was 25 years old, and looking for what thrilled me in life career-wise. I had a five-month-old daughter, I was married, but getting a divorce already. And so it was one of those things-

John Bwarie:                Life’s twists and turns.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah. Like what’s going to fuel my career passion if I’m going to leave my daughter every day to go do this? I quit my job, admire that 25-year-old, I quit my job to become a developer. And I had nothing.

John Bwarie:                And for those who may not know, a developer, you don’t just develop, there’s a process here, right? What are the key components you need to be a developer?

Vanessa Delgado:         Usually some equity. Yeah, money would be good. Yeah, I was 25, getting a divorce and had a five-month-old. And I worked in government. But I had a passion for transforming communities, and a desire to work really hard. That’s all I really have ever known all my life.

I didn’t build anything in those two years, not surprisingly. But I did everything from permit expediting to joining project teams. I was a planning commissioner in my city of Pico Rivera at the time so I got to learn a lot.

John Bwarie:                And that was an appointee by the council?

Vanessa Delgado:         The council, yes. And then I got a job offer from one of my clients to join their firm. And I thought I’d do that for a few years, and then go back to having my own company. But I stayed with that company Primestor, for 11 years. We built 3 million square feet of shopping centers.

John Bwarie:                Around the region?

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah. In California, Nevada, and Arizona. Yeah, so it was great. Amazing opportunity.

John Bwarie:                What did you learn out of that, about the community, because I’m going to come back to the community here with you. You’re now working for another company, someone else is in charge. But you’re doing community change through shopping center development. You know, shopping centers oftentimes is like the face of a community, you drive through, and that’s what you see. Though you may have tremendous economic development in an office building, you don’t really see what’s happening on the inside, but the shopping center’s right there, its look, its feel. What’s that like? What’s the approach that you’re taking at that phase?

Vanessa Delgado:         You know, Primestor really gave me the opportunity to learn from people who were just great at being community builders. And I have a passion for serving the community. I committed to my grandmother when I was little that I would do that. And Primestor allowed me to do that. We did almost all public private partnerships. So we did a project in Pacoima, called Plaza Pacoima where we literally allowed the community to pick what site plan they wanted. I wanted to build this fabulous Target with restaurants on top of it. It was a large property, and there was another site plan that Costco was willing to sign a living wage ordinance with a Lowe’s and a Best Buy. It just didn’t seem as thrilling. But the community wanted the living wage jobs.

And so, although I always thought, God, it would be so much more fun to build this lifestyle center for the community, the right thing for that community was jobs. And so, being a part of something like that, where we really drew, like we just gave back, it made me feel like although it was working and made a good salary, it was worthwhile, because I was helping people get some benefit.

John Bwarie:                And so, you’ve made a commitment. You’re now in this gig. You’re all over three states doing this work. Why did you leave?

Vanessa Delgado:         That’s a really good question. I’ve been in business for myself for three years now. And when I look at making payroll, and the trials and tribulations of a small business, I wonder why I left that very comfortable environment. We finished a shopping center, most of our work became work that we did for CalSTRS, the teacher’s retirement fund, so they were very large projects. We had $100 million project in South Gate called azalea. That was really a passion of mine, like one of my children almost. It took four years, and I broke my teeth from the stress level of that project. But it was so rewarding. And we won national awards for it.

John Bwarie:                What was about it that made it so special? Besides that it was a huge project, and to deliver a huge project is always exciting.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah. I’ve been able to use all the skills that I learned over those 11 years on this last one, to make it everything that community deserves. So it was a [Brown Peal 00:07:50] project, I got to clean it up. We got to work with these women who were leaders in the community, to really make sure the community benefits were what they should be, which was led by the Police Officers Association there.

We had on that project, living walls. In an area like South Gate, I mean I remember people telling me you can’t make it that nice because people here are not going to take care of it. And it’s shocking, that people have that attitude about areas that just deserve this. The problem with that project in some people’s eyes is that this was a recession, 2010, and so no anchor tenant would sign on for that project, but Walmart. And I’d never built a Walmart in Los Angeles, it’s incredibly controversial. I have dedicated my life to doing projects that give back, and some people feel that, that’s not the type of tenant that will give back, but in this particular project, they committed to doing prevailing wages on their project, so using union labor too. And they gave back grants and community benefits.

We then asked the community, we knocked on 4000 homes and asked.

John Bwarie:                As a developer?

Vanessa Delgado:         As a developer. I went myself too. Because I wanted to hear directly. And we knocked on 4000 homes and 86% of that community said we want the Walmart. And so we went back to the city council, this is a public private partnership mind you, and we told them that. And that Walmart helped us secure 40 other tenants in that shopping center. We hired 1500 people on that project. And that project did so well that the city of South Gate, I think last year, got a $5 million check for their public participation on the project, aside from everything else that they get in sales tax. Just a check.

John Bwarie:                As a benefit?

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah.

John Bwarie:                Wow.

Vanessa Delgado:         So it’s an exciting project to model.

John Bwarie:                You glossed over something there in the middle, in the last couple of years, right? So you went from working for someone else, to working for yourself, but what happened in the mix there?

Vanessa Delgado:         Oh gosh, see now, this is a good, yeah this is a good-

John Bwarie:                It’s good context for what you’re doing here now.

Vanessa Delgado:         So it was really my daughter. I had gotten to the point at Primestor where we were doing wonderful projects but we finished my last big one. And I had really wanted my work to benefit my family personally. And to be able to do things that were a little bit more creative, housing. And that wasn’t available where I was. And so, I thought a lot about it. My daughter and I used to tell each other bedtime stories, she was 13, but it was our way of communicating to each other super honestly. And I would always talk to her about facing her fears, and conquering the things that scare her.

Starting a small business after my failure at 25, was the scariest thing I could ever think of doing. And she told me a bedtime story where I was the heroine that was afraid to pursue her dreams, and that was to start her own company. It was heartbreaking for her to so openly show me that … And she said, “She tells her daughter to pursue her dreams, but she won’t do it.”

John Bwarie:                As a parody, you think wow.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah, yeah, how can I be that example for her if I’m not willing to do it? So, we went on a spring break to Jamaica, and I thought a lot about it. And when I got back, I resigned. It’s been the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Every day, I face my fears, but it’s completely rewarding.

We have an all Latina firm now. There’s four of us. I didn’t do that intentionally. But I think that, that speaks to, I’m trying to support non-traditional people in our field. And I think it’s also about the communities that we try to service. So I’d love for it to be more diverse. I’m not opposed to any men being involved in the firm, or anything like that.

John Bwarie:                I felt very welcomed when I walked in.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah, it’s okay, but it is very scary. And I’m proud that we’ve celebrated three years, and that we’re working on the projects that we have.

John Bwarie:                And so right now, and we’ll get into those projects in just a minute. Right now you’ve got I know one very recently high profile project approved. How many projects are in the pipeline and what status are they at?

Vanessa Delgado:         So a little bit like the time I started my business when I was 25. This time, I also don’t come from a family of means or anything like that. So I didn’t have a lot of capital. So that was one of the reasons why I was so fearful. When I first began my company, it was by consulting for others. Something that a lot of small businesses have to do, as we look for our projects. In development, you don’t actually get paid from the projects you own, until you’re in construction, or you sell them, or they’re in operation.

So, we consulted for other developers and then we got a contract with CVS Pharmacy. They wanted to have us help them project manage and do construction management. So we have 14 CVS pharmacies that we’re building throughout LA.

John Bwarie:                Awesome.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah, and it’s been great.

John Bwarie:                So let’s talk about that for a moment. Here’s a national brand who is coming to a huge market like LA, that is diverse. If you’re building 14, those are not in the same neighborhoods everywhere you go. You’re managing construction, but that means you’re in a place. How do you help them connect with the community?

Vanessa Delgado:         That’s a really great question. CVS is so open to it. They have programs where they try to find and groom people from the community to become pharmacists, because they want the pharmacist to be a person of trust. And so, we try to connect them to leaders in the community. And it’s very diverse. I mean, we’re opening up a CVS this weekend actually, in Redondo Beach. So that’s a unique community onto itself. But we’re also doing, we did one on Adams and Central in Los Angeles. We did one on Washington and Hoover. So completely different … You know, LA’s so diverse.

John Bwarie:                Right, from one neighborhood to the next, you’re in a different community, different makeup.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah. And so what we really are is a local voice in trying to help them understand whose on the neighborhood council, and what are their needs. For me, no matter what community we’re working with, it’s about respecting the places that we’re in. And that we are guests there. And so we have to make sure that whatever we’re doing, adds to that community. And so that’s how we approach everything from CVS to as a larger projects we’re working on.

John Bwarie:                Let’s talk about your larger project for a minute, the one in Boyle Heights. I know it’s very personal to you. Tell me what we need to know.

Vanessa Delgado:         So, I told you a little bit about my roots. I started in Boyle Heights. And I was sent away for school, but I always knew that my ultimate vision and dream of life was to somehow give back to those areas, but specifically Boyle Heights. So, this is the fulfillment of my life’s dream. And it is technically our first affordable housing project. So there was an RFP that the city of Los Angeles issued. It’s an old redevelopment property that the city is acquiring. It’s a small property. It’s only about half an acre. And so I knew that other affordable housing developers were not going to bid on it.

My grandmother died when I was 13, but I had committed to her that I would come back and do something in that area. And so, there was something about that property that called to me. I remembered when it was a laundry mat, and she would take us there.

John Bwarie:                Wow, you had a connection to this property already.

Vanessa Delgado:         Already. And I know it had been vacant for so long. I didn’t know why, now I know why. So we bid on it. And we got it. We assembled a great team. And made sure that there was others who had the affordable housing experience on the team. We were able to get it under contract with the city, on ENA, exclusive negotiation agreement. And we began the project. But, it took a bit of a turn in, I believe it was 2017, when we began trying to understand what we were going to build on that project.

There was an article that was headlined by the Los Angeles Times, I believe the headline was, “The rise in homelessness in the Latino community.” And it was profile about a man in Boyle Heights who was living in a park, Hollenbeck Park. And the cover story was about my uncle. It was jarring to see him as the face of homelessness, on the front page of the LA Times. And I felt like it was a call to action and so we turned that project from those moments forward, into a project that would house homeless families. It’s now permanent supportive housing.

John Bwarie:                So not just affordable, it’s permanent supportive housing.

Vanessa Delgado:         Permanent supportive housing for 44 families.

John Bwarie:                Amazing.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah. And I think that personal thing where it was my uncle on the front page, and the fact that my grandmother had asked me to commit to using the opportunities I was given in life to help others, is why I was inspired to name it after her. It’s called La Guadalupe, and I believe … I consider her a community leader. She inspired me to be whatever I wanted to be. And then Mexican families, you don’t always have that kind of encouragement. I wanted to really be anything professionally that I wanted to. And my grandmother who raised 10 kids as her full-time job, thought that I shouldn’t be fearful of anything.

John Bwarie:                As you’ve done this project at work, it inspired, and in context, I mean 44 permanent supportive housing units for families is a huge boon for that region, for that community, because of the issue facing this region and this nation as it relates to homelessness. So, what’s your key to successfully working with community? The secret, the silver bullet?

Vanessa Delgado:         I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think if there was, I would have gotten it right over time.

John Bwarie:                Who says you’ve gotten it wrong though?

Vanessa Delgado:         I made mistakes.

John Bwarie:                We all make mistakes.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah.

John Bwarie:                So what mistake have you made that you wouldn’t do again in relation to the community?

Vanessa Delgado:         This one project that still haunts me to this day. I don’t even remember the time. Gosh, it might have been 2015 or so, or ’16. I was at Primestor. We bid on a project for Mariachi Plaza.

John Bwarie:                Boyle Heights.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah. Incidentally, right across the street from La Guadalupe. At the time, I was still trying to pursue this promise I had made to my grandmother, that I would do something to help the community. And so we were awarded this project from Metro. But at the time, Metro had a process that said that we were not allowed to engage the community about our concept.

John Bwarie:                I want to unpack, what were they thinking?

Vanessa Delgado:         They wanted to make it fair. And I understand that.

John Bwarie:                Make it fair? Oh, you mean that you weren’t, so they said while you’re developing your proposal, you’re not supposed to talk to the community?

Vanessa Delgado:         Exactly.

John Bwarie:                Got it. It wasn’t that once you won the award, you couldn’t talk to the community.

Vanessa Delgado:         No, no, no.

John Bwarie:                Okay.

Vanessa Delgado:         Just during the process.

John Bwarie:                So the idea-

Vanessa Delgado:         So the concept is a good one, the concept. In principle, it’s a good principle.

John Bwarie:                Don’t mislead the community.

Vanessa Delgado:         Right. We all know some developers make promises, it’s pretty pictures, and don’t use that as a tool to engage the community, if you’re not going to get selected. I understand the concept of it. But, because of time and a lot of issues related to redevelopment or whatever was going on, the proposal sat at Metro for I believe a year and a half, I believe. Or it was just a long time. So, by the time our proposal came forward, we had warned, like please don’t, this is just the best use. Ultimately, the right thing, like the plaza equipment example, will come from the community. It has to be done together. Well, it didn’t quite go that way.

During the early hearings, people started coming to express their discontent with the proposal we had. It was an all commercial proposal. There was a lot going on in Boyle Heights at the time.

John Bwarie:                And this was before you actually got the award?

Vanessa Delgado:         Right. But I can understand why our proposal was scary. It had a large parking structure. It had offices. If it wasn’t the right thing, we would have thrown that away, and done something collaborative with the community. But there’s no way for them to know that if we can’t talk to them. And so, through the process of the hearings related just to the exclusive negotiation agreement, more and more people became angry at the proposal.

Now, there’s a silver lining to this. Primestor did not get to move forward with that project. And it’s really not of Metro’s or Primestor’s fault. I think there was the right intentions. But it’s a big lesson. If the community is not involved from day one, it’s not a winning formula. So Metro has completely changed their process. So that’s a silver lining. Metro now has revised their entire process of how they engage the community through RFPs.

John Bwarie:                It seems like whenever you’re involved, something challenging, the result is benefit for the future.

Vanessa Delgado:         I would like to think that.

John Bwarie:                Whether it’s something about an election, or a-

Vanessa Delgado:         That’s the way I like to see life. I didn’t get to work on that project.

John Bwarie:                So when is the beginning then? When do you engage the community? Because the beginning could be, okay, we’re about to break ground, or the beginning could be, I’m thinking about the neighborhood. What do you think?

Vanessa Delgado:         Well, when I was in the city of Montebello, my preferred strategy, because I’ve learned from that example obviously. So having the ability to drive that agenda forward, my philosophy now is, to create framework for development, through an EIR or a specific plan of some sort, with some general parameters. And then do an RFQ, and invite the developers to showcase what they’ve done. Give us a concept, some concepts, but not the pretty pictures because you can’t rely on that, at that early stage. And then award based on somebody’s experience and track record, and ability to deliver a project in that community. And then go through a process of creating a project with the community. I think that’s the best way to do it.

John Bwarie:                What if you were doing a public process? What if it was hey, we see this property, it was, someone gave it to me, or I’ve got a partnership, we just want to develop something, what’s your first step?

Vanessa Delgado:         Now, we’re doing a project like that in Bellflower. So it’s a small shopping center, it’s an acre and a half. And my thoughts in the beginning are always to start with what I call stakeholder meetings. In that community, there’s a townhome community that’s right next door, an HOA, and then we have Chamber of Commerce that’s very active. And then obviously the city. I don’t engage elective officials in that stage. I do actually, having been in that experience, I actually make it a point to make sure that it stays with staff at that level. And so, I’m actually going to the townhome HOA next Tuesday, to present our early ideas. And ask them what they think, they’re going to be next door. And so, before we submit to the city even, we’re going to go to the HOA.

John Bwarie:                You don’t have to do that.

Vanessa Delgado:         No, no.

John Bwarie:                But this is the process you’ve learned. And then how do you incorporate that insight? So let’s say, they say, this is great but. And they give you the answer. They say, hey, it needs more trees. Or the parking should be in the back, not the front. Or, too much parking. Or not enough. They give you some idea. How do you take it and really use it? Because you can’t do everything for everybody because the project may not pencil out.

Vanessa Delgado:         You can.

John Bwarie:                So what’s the way you manage their feedback as a way to incorporate it?

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah. And I, at this point in my career, understand that I’m not going to be able to make everybody perfectly happy with every project. But, usually the feedback that we get are things that I’m not aware of that we’re doing. So for example, I already anticipate things like, more trees, the lighting not coming onto their side, the speakers of the, hopefully, drive-through Starbucks facing out into the street. The types of tenants they want to see. But sometimes there’ll be something that I’m not aware of, some problem, like the speeds on their street are too excessive, or they have parking problems that I can accommodate into the plan. And if I do it now, it doesn’t cost anywhere near as much, is if it’s passed the hearings, or once it’s already opened.

I guess I go in there with the mantra of, if I come early and get your feedback now, I can actually implement what you’re asking me to do. And try to do as much of it as I can.

John Bwarie:                And have you seen that, like if someone says hey, the speeding issue is this, have you seen them like, great, I don’t love the color you chose for the building, but you fixed that, so we’re really happy and supportive. Have you seen that be the case?

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah, I think if you respect and listen to the community and truly from the beginning, and throughout, then it really does translate into a community feel for it. If you hire people from the community, small businesses, I mean it’s the small things that I think really do make the difference.

John Bwarie:                So how does that mean for approvals for you? So, even if it’s not a city property or a public partnership that you’re doing, if it’s just a private owned property, sometimes there’re discretionary actions, or there’s CUPs or some sort of action by a city body, whether it’s a commission or a council. How does getting that community engagement benefit you? Have you seen it manifested in benefit, by starting early versus the required notification for the hearing?

Vanessa Delgado:         I mean usually, yeah, it does translate to people actually supporting you when you’re going before the approval body. For La Guadalupe, we just did that last month. So when I first came to see your group, I was nervous about the hearing, and how it was going to go. But we had worked for years with stakeholders and the community, and we got 11 letters of support for the hearing. And the unanimous approval, the planning commission was very kind about all the benefits that we were providing in the project. So, I think those types of results are possible, because there’s a true respect for approaching community.

John Bwarie:                What do you think stops people from getting, because there’s, for every one of you, there’re dozens who don’t get it. I see them. You see them. You’ve had to help them, those that, they hire you when there’s an issue. What do you think stops people, what makes them fearful for engaging the community?

Vanessa Delgado:         That’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work. And it’s work that most people don’t like to do. We are doing a project in Bell Gardens. We’re building 48 townhomes that I call workforce housing. They’re affordable at $450,000 for a home. And then we’re trying to connect teachers, veterans, and first-time home buyers with down payment assistance. But, it’s also a contaminated piece of property. And that’s scary. We’re right next to a school. And so, we’re cleaning the property up through this process, but I recognize that, that’s scary. And it’s an intrusion onto the neighbors.

So I have gone on Saturdays, door-to-door myself, as the owner, to talk to people. And I talk to people in Spanish or English, whatever makes them comfortable. I believe that it’s those types of things that build trust. But I don’t know a whole lot of developers that have that sense of I am part of your community. There are a lot of non-profits who maybe will take the time to do it. But even then, I understand that it’s unusual approach. But I think it’s the way it should be done.

John Bwarie:                I agree. This is the work we’re doing through this podcast, and through other work, is about understanding that the power of community, that people have a sense of place, and they have knowledge and expertise, and intelligence about their community, that is more valuable than any data set you can buy. I’m not saying don’t buy your demographics to understand your market is there for your business. But there’s something special that you find in a community by talking to people where they are, listening to their input, and being able to synthesize that into the work you’re doing, that makes all the difference.

So you have my vote of confidence. And I think I’m impressed and when I heard you first speak about this, I said, other people need to be hearing what Vanessa’s approach is. So thank you for sharing that with us and your story. So I guess my last question here is, what’s next for the Guadalupe project? So you got all your approvals, this is 44 units for families, for 44 families. Broken ground, or not yet?

Vanessa Delgado:         Not yet, not yet. Hopefully we will this fall. So, the next step is making sure that all of our funding is in place. We’re utilizing HHH, bond money. We did get an award of that, at the last cycle, which is wonderful. So we are using that money. And then we are also applying for what’s called TCAC, tax credit applications by the state. And also seeking Section 8 vouchers for the operations. And then using what’s called new market tax credits, and just private equity in construction loans. So each project, this is a $27 million project, but each of them has this sort of alphabet soup of funding sources.

So we have to put all those things together, which we will for the rest of the year, and then start our construction documents, so we kicked that off. So we’ve hired all of our team, and they’re drawing, and we’ll be submitting.

John Bwarie:                That’s a while between a letter of support, yeah we want this, and even something starts happening that I see. How do you bridge that engagement? Do you have regular meetings with the community? An e-newsletter that keeps them updated? Hey, we got this drawing. What’s your approach there?

Vanessa Delgado:         In Boyle Heights, what we do is, actually just presented to the Chamber of Commerce last week. We use small opportunities to keep people involved. So for example, we have ground floor retail. And I was a former retail developer, so I believe that retail needs to be just as important as the housing. It has to function well. And it should open at the same time that the housing does. So we are designing that at the same time. And going to be seeking the tenants. So we’re actually going to go out to the community later this summer, and let them know, these are our options. It’s a 100% subsidized project. I believe that the community should be allowed to select.

We heard years ago that people wanted to replace the laundry mat, but then we’re hearing now that they would like something like a Blaze Pizza, something like a Yogurtland that’s nowhere there. It’s very different viewpoints. And I would like to understand what’s real on that. How I do that? I think because it’s hard for a lot of working class families to go to community meetings, I think we’re going to go door-to-door. And we’re going to ask, pick the tenants, and let people pick that way. I don’t believe that just having community meetings is actually going to engage the community.

John Bwarie:                And that’s for this community.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yes.

John Bwarie:                The idea that you’ve tailored this to serve this community, whereas your HOA across in Bell Gardens-

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah, Bellflower.

John Bwarie:                Bellflower, it’s a different style of engagement because it’s your HOA, and they’re right next door, they do have meetings, and they’re showing up. So it’s really tailoring for what the needs of that hyper-local community is.

Vanessa Delgado:         Right. Plus my aunt and my cousins all live there. So if I get it wrong-

John Bwarie:                They’re going to tell you.

Vanessa Delgado:         They’re going to tell me.

John Bwarie:                Well, with the family of your size, you probably could just go to the family reunion, get as much info as you need from the neighborhood. This is great. Well, I’m excited to see what’s next. And I hope you’ll keep us updated. I’d like to move to our lightning round. I’ve got a series of questions here, whatever first comes to your mind, just give me a word or a phrase, and we’ll go through it. Are you ready?

Vanessa Delgado:         Okay, I’m ready.

John Bwarie:                Okay. Who was a leader who has influenced you and your work?

Vanessa Delgado:         You know, perhaps my grandmother, was a non-traditional leader. But she is the person who has most influenced my life.

John Bwarie:                Great. What book has changed the way you think about your work in the community? I know you spent a lot of time studying the political science, what book? Or maybe more recently you read something?

Vanessa Delgado:         I’ve actually read a lot of things that have influenced me. One of the first books that influenced me was Bless Me, Ultima, which gave me the spirit of my grandmother after she had passed, and that sense of we’re all community. But I’m a big fan of everything from the Alchemist, about facing fears and trying to be better, to, there’s a lot of, I think it’s called The American Dream, about living in poverty in United States cities, and how prevalent it is.

John Bwarie:                Great. What’s your favorite secret about Boyle Heights, that people who aren’t from there, may not know about that I know we’re sharing, but you want them to know.

Vanessa Delgado:         I think the world of Boyle Heights. But I think the sense of happiness that I feel about things that others may not appreciate. From the meal that you share and laugh about silly stories, to the food that you can find in the most unlikely places, is excellent.

John Bwarie:                Give us an example.

Vanessa Delgado:         There’s a place right at Mariachi Plaza that has the best chile rellenos and just tons of regional food. I think it’s called Santa Cecilia. The food is so good. And it’s not something that maybe is listed on downtown’s best places, but it’s just somewhere you have to go.

John Bwarie:                Awesome. What’s a community activation tactic that you had to learn the hard way, in a nutshell?

Vanessa Delgado:         I think for me was the sense that I have to go door-to-door in certain communities. Because I hosted in Pacoima, community meetings where we gave out free dinner, there was childcare, and I think we had 10 people come. So then that’s when I had to learn to go to their home.

John Bwarie:                What is a development, not including those you’ve worked on, that you think engage the community successfully, if you noticed they’re doing?

Vanessa Delgado:         I think [Elach 00:35:55]. In Boyle Heights, does an amazing job of engaging the community. They have a very similar philosophy. I’ve been to their community meetings and they actually invite us to present the projects that we are doing. They have the same sense of the community has to be empowered, and they’re not afraid of that. So I’m certainly a big fan of their work.

John Bwarie:                I know you started early and we talked about being 25. But what advice would you give 25-year-old you?

Vanessa Delgado:         I’m so proud of that 25-year-old. She didn’t have the same fear that I have today.

John Bwarie:                Isn’t that amazing? We get older and sometimes we get more fearful?

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah, definitely.

John Bwarie:                Even though we have more experience and more ability to do the things that maybe we’re scared of.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah, I think I would just want to tell that 25-year-old that the failures, perceived failures in life, lead to the greatest growth in change. So keep going. It’s going to be a new day tomorrow.

John Bwarie:                What’s the best career decision you ever made?

Vanessa Delgado:         I don’t know that I’ve made it yet.

John Bwarie:                Okay.

Vanessa Delgado:         Yeah, I’m still going.

John Bwarie:                And what so far has been your proudest professional moment?

Vanessa Delgado:         That planning commission for La Guadalupe because one of the planning commissioners asked why it was named La Guadalupe. It obviously wasn’t a personal, they had no idea the personal story I’ve told you today. But I got to tell them that it was named after Guadalupe. And I’m not a highly emotional person, but I wanted to cry because I promised her when I was nine. And to be able to tell the planning commission that it was because of her. She’s not maybe that leader that’s going to go on in any history book, but I feel like she’s the main reason that I even try to do what I try to do.

John Bwarie:                That’s awesome. Well thanks Vanessa for sharing so much with us today.

Vanessa Delgado:         Thank you.

John Bwarie:                I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Vanessa Delgado:         Thank you.

John Bwarie:                Thanks for listening to Community Intelligence. And for more information on this, and other episodes, visit our website at At Stratiscope, we provide community intelligence services to businesses, non-profits and government agencies. Let us know how we can help you.