LEE member Alejandro Gutierrez Chavez is the co-founder, president, and executive director of Lifting Our Stories, a nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire male youth of color in San Bernardino County, California to lead, serve, and enact societal change through an experiential project-based and outdoor leadership curriculum. Alejandro is a first-generation Chicano, a product of Title I schools in San Bernardino County, California and former educator in Jacksonville, Florida.
He was named 30 Most Influential Leaders Under 30 by CA Assemblywomen Eloise Reyes for his transformational leadership in San Bernardino County. He currently is also a Research and Education Analyst for First 5 San Bernardino.
Alejandro sat down with LEE Director of Policy & Community Impact, Danielle Guillen, to discuss his leadership path to establishing Lifting Our Stories.
Thank you for sitting down with me today! I would love to start with your journey to founding Lifting Our Stories (LOS). What inspired you to start your own organization?
I reflect a lot over how I got to this point. I think my journey to founding LOS started after graduating high school. See, I am a product of the Title I schools in San Bernardino County and I was the only one out of my circle of friends that had an opportunity to go to a four-year university after graduating, which includes my neighbors, my girlfriend, and my cousins who went to school with me. I was not a great student. I had over 100 in-class absences every year of my high school career, but I had the opportunity to go to a university which changed my life and my family’s life.
Lifting Our Stories started with the aspiration to close the achievement gap and ensure all students in San Bernardino County have an opportunity to go to a four-year university upon graduating high school. In the Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside Counties in California), we have the second lowest baccalaureate attainment in the nation for a metropolitan area of a million or more. Lifting Our Stories aims to empower male youth of color through a research and action curriculum coupled with outdoor experiences of our natural lands. Ultimately, it is my personal lived experiences that inspired me to start this organization.
Being a founder for an organization takes vision. Can you take us through some of the key experiences you had that influenced your vision for your community and for LOS?
The vision of LOS is really a reflection of my own experiences as a man of color living in San Bernardino County. I was not engaged in high school. I thought it was a joke. I never applied myself to education until I was in college. College was something that impacted my life. What really encouraged me to apply myself was the outdoors. I started exploring the outdoors in San Bernardino County. My relationships to the land and the community changed in my mind when I started to embrace the hikes and natural lands, and I started taking ownership of my journey and my community.
One of the experiences I had to reconcile with a lot was attending college because I was one of the only people I knew that went to college. The tension I have had to reconcile with between my own transformation I had just because I went to college and seeing my loved ones not have that experience just because they did not attend college has created urgency for me to make sure that other students have clear pathways to this transformative experience. A huge transformative experience I had in college was as a community service chairman, which was my first leadership experience outside of sports. Being community service chairman showed me who was a part of the power structure in San Bernardino County, the ways in which I could make a difference in the county, and more specifically, what it would take to create a movement of young leaders to be a part of that change.
My personal and college experience really dictated the vision for LOS. We are trying to give students the tools to make a change. I believe that if students are given a space to reflect on what is going on in their communities—and have mentorship and action planning throughout—then that reflection of our kids will be the change we wish to see. We are trying to form that at LOS through cross-generational mentorship.
How have you pivoted the way in which you fulfill the vision of LOS during the pandemic?
Trying to create a start-up is hard and it is even harder now because we are doing it in a virtual space. The work still needs to get done so we are doing our best to pivot and have all our programming online. Understandably, the outdoor piece of our program is currently being redesigned.
We tested our curriculum with students and the first part of the curriculum we tested was to see if the youth wanted to connect with young professionals who are from the area and share their identity. That went really well. We got really good feedback. However, I noticed that students were intrigued about how young professionals’ college path got them to their job. The students’ natural curiosity about college made me realize that high school students wanted to connect with current college students.
We are now redesigning the curriculum to have our students connect with both college students and young professionals already in their careers.We are launching our first Youth Engaged in Leadership and Learning (YELL) fellows for LOS sometime in October. It will be a three-month program where students will be getting stipends to participate in the fellowship and getting a stipend for their project. We are excited for that and are in the planning stages for it.
What are the hardest challenges of being a new founder of an organization during the pandemic?
Fundraising in the Inland Empire is a challenge. I feel like non-profits in the Inland Empire do not receive much funding. Inland Empire (IE) nonprofits receive a fraction of the donor money given to nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Orange counties. Nonprofits in the IE receive about $25.55 per person, as compared to the state average of $262.99.
What I noticed in the area is that nonprofits have a life cycle of 2-3 years, yet 80% of the population in San Bernardino County depend on these nonprofits’ direct services. This tells me that there is a lack of funding for local nonprofits even though the need is here in San Bernardino County. There is a lack of awareness of and attention to San Bernardino County. So it is a real challenge to run an organization here and enact change in my community.
What has been the best career advice you’ve received from a mentor?
The best advice I got from a mentor was not advice but a question: “Who do you serve?” This question shifted the way I go about my work. It really centered my identity as a first-generation Chicano in the area and really brought my focus to addressing some of the systemic issues in my community. Now, I always ground myself in who I am serving and why am I here at this table.
What would you like LEE members to know about your journey to establishing your own organization?
I want LEE members to know that there are leaders in San Bernardino County, California that have grown up here and are ready to create change and also collaborate with others outside of the county. San Bernardino County is the center of Southern California and the area is going to play a huge role in ensuring educational equity in Southern California. Until we focus on the issues happening to youth in San Bernardino County—not just Los Angeles and Orange County—we will not achieve educational equity for children in Southern California.
*The above interview has been transcribed and is in subjects' own words, with edits for clarity or brevity.
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