For Jose Mendoza, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the kind of change that’s helped them figure out how to help people who are underserved in their community. With more than a decade of experience working as a legal services advocate in the LGBTQ community in Long Beach, advocating for consumers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and as a certified state domestic violence counselor and sexual assault advocate, they’ve taken that intersectional work into this next chapter of service and advocacy.
“There was a moment in the middle of the pandemic where I began to really think about how I spend my time and how I would like to spend my time moving forward. I made a list of the skills I believe I’ve mastered (music, teaching, working in the nonprofit field, etc.) and then I slowly built a business plan around that,” said Mendoza, whose pronouns are they/them. “I kept asking myself: How can I best serve my community? I believe we are all here in service of something bigger than ourselves, and (the California Community Education Center) is my way of making a positive impact.”
The California Community Education Center is a nonprofit organization working to provide and increase access to education and the arts for students from traditionally underserved communities. It sees itself as a sort of virtual recreation center, with programming like tutoring, baking, music and art all available exclusively online for children in kindergarten through 12th grade, and for adults in college.
Mendoza, 30, is president and CEO of the center, and lives in Chula Vista’s Eastlake neighborhood with their cat, Midnight. They took some time to talk about the organization and its work, creating safe and affirming spaces for students, and the joys of amusement parks and food trucks on the weekends.
Q: Tell us about the California Community Education Center.
A: We are your local recreation center, but our programs are entirely online. We offer piano and guitar lessons, a baking class, and tutoring for K-12 and college students. My team and I came together to address emerging needs in our communities. We noticed our youth and college students were in need of opportunities to socially engage with their peers in safe and affirming spaces. We decided to address this by offering online recreation programs, so we founded CalCEC in May 2021.
Q: Did the pandemic have anything to do with what prompted starting your organization?
A: The organization was founded in response to the emerging needs we were seeing as a result of the pandemic. Because of the shelter-in-place orders, our youth no longer had opportunities to socially interact with their peers. Our youth were asked to suddenly transition to a learning model that only a percentage of college students are familiar with (distance learning), let alone comfortable with. As a result, many of our youth are still in need of academic support. We address these needs by providing safe and affirming programming that is tailored to the individual needs of our students.
Q: In what ways is the instruction that your organization provides, affirming and supportive?
A: We create safe spaces for our students so they can be who they are, free from judgment. We value kindness and compassion, and we encourage open minds and hearts. We train our staff and volunteers so they can work with our beautifully diverse communities. We provide cultural humility trainings so we can effectively work with students who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), LGBTQIA, who identify as having a disability, and those who come to us from places where there may be family and/or intimate partner violence. It is important for us to have the tools we need to meet our students where they are and to then connect them with the appropriate resources. Our goal is to utilize a holistic approach when building working relationships with our students.
What I love about Eastlake …
It’s a quiet neighborhood, made up mostly of family units. There are parks and hiking trails, restaurants and malls. I also love that it’s in the middle of everything, from the beach to downtown San Diego to Tijuana.
Q: Walk us through the process for children and families who want to participate in your programs.
A: We serve students of all ages, and we have group and one-on-one lessons available for adults and youth. Additionally, we are committed to making our programs accessible to all, so anyone who wishes to sign up for a class can do so by visiting our website at CalCEC.org, by calling or texting us at (619) 657-9167, or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. People can let us know of any accommodation needs they may have, and once they reach out, we’ll fit them into the program that’s right for them and get them started. Simple as that.
Q: What’s the process for accessing your programs, for children who either don’t have Internet access, or their access is limited?
A: The same process applies. The only difference is, in these cases, we work with the student/family to create a unique plan that addresses things like not having access to a keyboard or piano, a guitar, a computer, Internet, etc., either by securing funding or by connecting students and families with resources that are available in the community. We won’t stop working with the student just because certain resources aren’t in place yet.
Q: How has your previous work with the LGBTQ community, as a domestic violence counselor, and working with people with disabilities, informed your work with your organization?
A: The work I have had the privilege of engaging with has prepared me for my role with this organization in countless ways. The first project we launched right after incorporating was our Queer and Trans Youth Project (QTYP). This program allows us to focus resources on connecting with our queer and trans youth. In fact, our first grant from San Diego Pride provides funding for our baking program to serve LGBTQIA students. My disability rights expertise and survivor advocacy experience help, in that we have the tools and knowledge needed to build programs that are safe, accessible, affirming and informed.
Q: What kind of role have the pandemic and the protests for racial justice and other kinds of advocacy work for marginalized communities over the past two years played in how your organization approaches its work in the community?
A: I think we are entering a time when we no longer fear having uncomfortable conversations. We must be empowered to communicate our truth, and we must help others do the same. We work every day to ensure our students have the tools they need to defend and advocate for themselves and to defend and advocate on behalf of others. We also understand representation matters, which is why we strive to help our board of directors and staff be a reflection of the communities we serve.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Have courage and be kind. I know, cheesy! But seriously, I have worked my hardest to live by these words, and any success I may have a right to claim is a direct result of those in my life who have encouraged me to be brave and push on.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I am super into languages. I am fluent in Spanish (simultaneous and consecutive interpreting), I have a working knowledge of American Sign Language, and I can carry conversations in Brazilian Portuguese and French. I hope to one day incorporate this passion into a language program at our organization.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Oh, that’s easy: food trucks and ice cream at Balboa Park on a sunny day or spending the day on the rides at Belmont Park.