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Fruitvale organization becomes national model for community development


The Unity Council has deep roots in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Founded in 1964, the center has expanded into a national model for community development, spearheading the creation of the Fruitvale Transit Village and growing to work with about 12,000 low- to moderate-income clients per year.

KALW’s Holly Kernan asked Gilda Gonzalez, CEO of the Unity Council, to talk about the organization’s history.

GILDA GONZALEZ: We now have services as far reaching as Solano County. We actually are continuing to expand beyond but Fruitvale will remain always as our headquarters and base.

We are proud that we kept our heart. We are here because of service and continue to be inspired by that. The issues we face are evolving. We advocate for more parity – the inequity within services, the cutbacks, and the local, state, and federal level.

We have a 50 percent drop out rate – that feels like an inequity. What is the condition of our schools? What are the factors that are impacting that? A family needs that young man or woman to help pay the bills. Our young people don’t have an equal chance as others to finish their basic education.

Fruitvale sits in Area Two, in terms of dedicated resources to this police area. We fight against that disparity. The crime stats reflect more violence in Area One. But we know our area is underreporting because of citizenship issues. We don’t accept the statistics because we know our experiences.

We have been successful in leveraging every dollar we get. We have been successful with our record of results. People have a level of confidence that we know what we are doing. That is critical. It isn’t enough to want to do good, but have good practices. I’m proud of what we have built here.

I was handed the keys in January of 2005. The Fruitvale Transit Village was finished in 2009. It is an amazing story. We were the underdog and we had big dreams and commitment. This was our home and we weren’t going to fail. I caution people who say, “We want one!” I always tell them they have to have everything in it because there are going to be the dark years. That commitment and love will help you through those. We are a testament to that.

We run extensive head start programs. We are serving 640 children – that is significant. Along with that are families. Part of our services are training leadership to parents so they can be even better citizens in their communities. We have a workforce development center to serve clients. This year we’ll be serving 2,500 clients. We have financial fitness, first-time homebuyer programs, and foreclosure counseling. Even for people who are low-income – how they can become debt free and to prepare themselves if home ownership becomes an option in a sane and methodical manner.

There are a lot of predatory lenders who are targeting Spanish-speaking people. People didn’t know what they were signing. Our mantra is that if it is too good to be true, then it is too good to be true. Sometimes the truth is difficult and we are committed to it. We are the first ones to tell them they can’t afford it.

What gives me optimism is that the Unity Council continues to stand. Regardless of what we are thrown, tensions in the street, we are here for our community, we are a safety net. As long as we are here it will never get that bad.

This interview originally aired on May 21, 2012. 

Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.