My name is Omar Torres, and I am honored to join San Jose Inside as a columnist. I am currently the executive director of a nonprofit called Santa Maria Urban Ministry (SMUM)—located in San Jose’s Washington Community, just south of downtown—and a long-time political and community organizer.
I was born and raised in the Washington community of San Jose. I fell in love with community organizing because of these roots. My first community involvement came at young age, volunteering at the neighborhood community center, local elementary school and the local library. My mother and father raised a family of five on the corner of Vine and Virginia streets. I remember not being able to wear my San Francisco 49ers apparel as a child, because it signified rival gang colors. It was also too dangerous to play outside past sunset.
Gang members and drug dealers took over our neighborhood in the 1990s, and the quality of life in our community deteriorated every single day. Because of this, I started helping lead our neighbors, from all walks of life, to take back control. We organized, block by block, to start making the necessary changes.
It is a significant blessing that I am able to continue serving my community through SMUM. Founded in 1983 as an outreach ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real, SMUM provides a wide range of life-changing services. From food and clothing services to our transformative preschool and after-school programs, SMUM is a place that serves the needs of our clients while promoting self-sufficiency and love for our community. I am passionate about this work and the lives we continue to enhance every single day.
SMUM has revitalized the once thriving, yet recently inactive, Guadalupe Washington Neighborhood Association. I was president for almost four years, before I resigned to become an organizer with the now-defunct Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, focusing on the King Ocala, West Evergreen, and Santee areas. While we have accomplished much, our neighborhood association has been at the forefront of taking back our community from the prostitutes, gangs, and drug dealers who have become more prevalent in recent years with the Great Recession.
Besides being community-oriented, I am also active in local, state and national politics. I was just recently elected by the voters of State Assembly District 27 as an executive board representative to the Democratic State Central Committee. I have volunteered for more campaigns and candidates than I care to count, but I love to say President Obama won Ohio and Colorado this past year because of me.
I remember my first phone bank like it was yesterday. The year was 1996 and President Clinton was fighting for his re-election. He had a thriving office on The Alameda. (California was still considered a “swing state” back then.) The Merc ran a story about my involvement in that presidential race, because I was the youngest campaign volunteer at the age of 14.
It is no secret that I am also established in the political scene; however, I am in politics because I know that government can and must work to strengthen the lives of families in our communities. I have seen how government can be instrumental in improving the quality of life of our most disfranchised citizens. I have also seen how government can lose focus.
There are many times when the “game” of politics leaves a sour taste with people in our community. They focus on the gridlock and political bickering. The main reason why many of us are active in our community, and in civic affairs, is to facilitate progress every single day. Quite frankly, the mudslinging, backstabbing and gridlock from the political establishment in San Jose and Santa Clara County bothers me.
Neighborhoods like Washington, Santee, or Poco Way suffer the brunt of that pettiness. None of us want the quality of life in San Jose to keep getting worse, simply because we are focused on the political drama of the day instead of long-term community goals. The time is now for us to do more work together, and the power of community is immense. It cannot be ignored and it cannot become the victim of politics.
Omar Torres continues to reside in the Washington community in the greater downtown San Jose area. He has served on the Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee since 2007 and was recently re-elected to a fourth term in 2012. He also serves on the executive board of the California Democratic Party, elected by voters of the 27th State Assembly District. Upon graduating from San Jose State University, he was hired to be the executive director of the Santa Maria Urban Ministry. He continues to be involved with the Guadalupe Washington Neighborhood Association.