CommUniverCity Helps Downtown Thrive

For decades, institutions of higher learning have been at the forefront of social change. San Jose State University’s CommUniverCity San Jose program is an excellent partnership between residents, the campus community and government partners like the city of San Jose and Santa Clara County. The program strives for social change among its student participants and the residents that students work with, hence its name Comm-Univer-City. SJSU is in the heart and soul of downtown San Jose, and the most recent revival of the downtown San Jose area can be credited to the SJSU’s thriving urban campus.

The primary focus of CommUniverCity, according to long time Professor Terry Christensen, is “residents of the neighborhoods set priorities and the city and university work with them to achieve their goals by relating the projects to service learning in SJSU classes—always with residents participating with students.”  The area they focus on in particular is the Five Wounds/Brookwood Terrace area, approximately one mile east of San Jose State. It compromises the Olinder, Roosevelt, McKinley/Bonita, Anne Darling and Little Portugal North neighborhood associations, as well as the East Santa Clara Street Business Association. These neighborhoods and businesses are primarily Latino, Spanish-speaking and immigrant—81 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home.

A large area of 30-plus acres of light industrial land located along the former Union Pacific Rail Road alignment is planned for major urban renewal when a future BART station is built in the neighborhood. Current residents speak out about feeling “in limbo” while property owners wait for word on when BART might come to this part of town. And residents openly worry about the possibility of gentrification once that land sees large-scale renewal occur.

CommUniverCity has unique but successful community organizing methods, which help these struggling neighborhoods move forward. Students who want to create change, or simply give back to their community, strengthen and maintain these neighborhoods with the passionate residents who seek positive change as well. Throughout its history, CommUniverCity has had many successes, like creating a Garden to Table Community Garden, organizing several SJSU Days of Service that involve thousands of students, faculty and community members, annual Safe and Green Halloween festivals, a literacy program for elementary children, organizing monthly clean ups, and mentoring local at-risk youth. I believe its most successful story is the McKinley/Bonita Neighborhood Association. Years ago the area was overrun by gangsters and drug dealers. They had such an iron fist stronghold in the neighborhood that city and county services were literally chased out of the neighborhood. Chased out! Illegal dumping, graffiti, drugs, and other blight issues—such as dilapidated apartments—ruined the neighborhood and made it completely unsafe for the young families.

Residents, with the help of CommUniverCity along with support from the city of San Jose’s now defunct, Strong Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI), leveraged resources and services to help McKinley come back from the brink of collapse. Fed up residents, passionate and motivated SJSU students, and proactive city employees aggressively revived the neighborhood association and the surrounding Five Wounds area. Illegal dumping was immediately cleaned up. When graffiti popped up it was quickly painted over. When a tragedy happened in the area, the residents began to mobilize.

Paul Pereira, with downtown Councilmember Sam Liccardo’s office, is a former CommUniverCity San Jose Steering Committee member and helped start CommUniverCity as a Neighborhood Team Manager with the SNI program. He recently said: “CommUniverCity San Jose is unique in how democratic it is. It’s designed to equally allow the opportunity for residents, students, faculty, and local government to bring their strengths to different projects that positively move a community forward. It’s this sense that everyone who comes to work on this effort is an equal, with talent to share and a willingness to learn from each other. It’s what makes CommUniverCity special and fosters an atmosphere of camaraderie and trust between SJSU, the community, and local government. There really isn’t another program like it around the country.”

CommUniverCity continues to be a community collaboration that has been recognized nationwide. Especially since the revival of the area continued to thrive amidst massive budget cuts at the city and county levels. Students and residents continue to do great work in this age of budget shortfalls. CommUniverCity and SJSU continue to be at the forefront of social activism. Thank you, SJSU, for being a wonderful asset in the downtown San Jose area, and for creating wonderful leaders whom have moved into the nonprofit or public sector to create more positive change for our communities

Below are just some year-in-review facts from CommUniverCity:

• Engaged more than 724 SJSU students to tutor in reading and math, and teach engineering principles to over 1,521 elementary and high-school students.
• Collected over 12,000 pounds of surplus fruits and vegetables ($24,000 value) and distributed them to the Second Harvest Food Bank and the 150 families that participate in the Olinder neighborhood food program.
• Built three apartment gardens for 10 families and four at-risk youth.
• Engaged more than 73 Justice Studies students to clear the legal records of 52 clients.
• Received $390,450 in donations, grants and contracts.
• Collaborated with 59 SJSU faculty and staff members, 34 San Jose State University departments and institutes, 11 City of San Jose departments, 21 non-profit community partners, and 19 community and faith-based groups

Since it started in August, 2005, CommUniverCity has engaged more than:
• 42,700 residents
• 10,600 SJSU service learners
• 197 local government agency staff members
• 1,463 corporate volunteers … who have invested nearly 168,000 hours of volunteer work valued at over $3.37 M.

Omar Torres lives 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.


  1. > The program strives for social change ….

    I despise vague and misleading euphemisms like “social change”.

    There is a certain class of people—um, can we say “college students”—who nod their little lemming heads like bobblehead dolls when some “community organizer” proselytizes to them about social change, but have no idea what Mr. Organizer really means.  Naturally, the bobbleheads don’t want to ask.  That would suggest that there might be something they don’t know.

    Besides, all the cute girls are nodding their heads when Mr. O talks about “social change”, so it must be something that is a defining trait of chick magnets.

    If some REALLY, REALLY smart progressive can explain what “social change” really means, I will lend an ear, or maybe, half an ear.

    I’m only interested in hearing from REALLY, REALLY SMART progressives, though.  No mediocrities, please.

    • I agree that social change is not specific enough, however the stats at the end of the blog are impressive. 

      They’re feeding hungry families, helping clear legal records (presumably so people can be cleared to work and be productive in society), they’re cleaning up neighborhoods, helping students succeed by tutoring (which will make them more productive in school and potentially as tax payers one day), they’re engaging college students to be connected to community directly.  It may not be the change we all prioritize but it is still pretty impressive.  (Plus I think the corporate connection with getting volunteers to “donate” hours to work in the community is a good thing too)

    • We appreciate your vague comments but perhaps you should refine your community organizing abilities. If I recall correctly, you were a Community Activity Worker for the City of San José‘s now defunct Strong Neighborhoods Initiative program (SNI) in the King-Ocala, West Evergreen and Five/Wounds Brookwood Terrance area’s. The goals were to build strong neighborhoods by developing community leadership & working collaboratively with residents to achieve the delivery of City Services & Neighborhood Priorities. When SNI was phased out, why couldn’t you just step up as a true leader and start your own program in this area and take some risk. That’s what true community organizers really do. Instead, what seems to be happening is every 5 years or so these so called social change ideas never garner true leaders who are willing to take them to the next level. CommUniverCity is just another example of a jobs program for a lot more people and if we decide to dig into the data, CommUniverCity will change its name too. Finish your task at hand, stay put for at least 5 years, turn your current part-time E.D. gig into full-time, add at least 5 staff rather than the existing 2.5, expand the agency, manage some people, and do something worth writing about.

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