Above: Alex Carrillo may be a recent transplant to Merced but he’s already leaving his mark on the city–making the most vulnerable communities feel seen and heard. (Photo provided by Alex Carrillo)
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — At a smooth 25 years old, community organizer and businessman Alex Carrillo is already looking to establish a legacy in Merced County–the kind that will empower residents and create a pipeline of future community leaders.
A transplant from the small town of Oakdale in neighboring Stanislaus County, the fresh-faced Carrillo has spent the last two years organizing a variety of civic engagement projects for Communities for a New California Education Fund’s Merced office. His time spent working at the grassroots-level of community change sparked a deep desire to help create long-lasting results, and so this April he opened his own business: Romo Consulting.
The small firm seeks to combine old-school organizing methods–think Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers’ trench work–with new era technology and millennial ideals. In practice this means the firm’s sole employee, Carrillo, meets face-to-face with residents in the community as often as possible, while targeting larger organizations and potential partners through savvy social media marketing.
It’s an approach he hopes will be a winning combo for Merced residents, who he says face an uphill battle when it comes to community resources.
“I moved here and was like, ‘Oh, so this is what it looks like to not have any real resources’,” he said. “Not just for LGBT but for other communities as well.”
Despite his hometown being significantly smaller and more rural than Merced, Carrillo said he was shocked at how few opportunities exist for the city’s low-income and minority residents.
“It goes beyond even the needs for LGBT people here,” he said. “I want to see more opportunity for communities of color, undocumented all kinds of people.”
That idea of empowering disenfranchised communities is at the heart of Romo Consulting.
So far his firm has hit the ground running, taking on grant-work for the Merced Community Foundation to provide additional advocacy training for local alumni of the Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI). The work was previously overseen by Sol Rivas, before her transition to the hub manager position at Building Healthy Communities (BHC), Merced.
“This type of training support really started because (PLTI) found that after people took this really rigorous training, people wanted to do more, but they didn’t exactly know what,” Carrillo said.
Romo Consulting is currently working with about 15 PLTI alumni to provide monthly trainings and equip parents with the skills necessary to take on community work amongst themselves.
“So that if there’s an issue in the community they’re able to come together and they are able to organize and work around that issue for whatever change they wish to see,” Carrillo said.
This type of direct involvement from the community ensures that change is sustainable, as any policy work stemming from such campaigns is led by the residents for the residents, he said.
“Parents and residents live in the community so they’re the ones riding the bus and going around town on their business. They’re the ones who are really able to see what’s going on in the community compared to others who may just work there,” Carrillo continued.
Beyond the work with PLTI alums, Romo Consulting is also looking to help with political campaigns throughout the Valley.
“So I’m working on that now but I’m also trying to focus on the 2018 election and see how we can create a real impact and get people of color elected as well as women, LGBTQ and other minorities. But beyond that [my goal is] to make sure we have progressives elected to office,” he said.
Carrillo is among many eyeing 2018 as a litmus test for Merced’s commitment to change. The city switched to district representation for its city council in 2014 after facing legal pressure from several civil rights groups and next year’s election will be the first time several districts are open at the polls.
Districts 1, 3 and 5 were voted on last fall, bringing one Latino and one woman to the council after years of majority white males. Advocates say the pattern is likely to continue next year as Districts 2 (which encompasses much of the city’s poor south side), 4 and 6 have their own inaugural elections.
Having diverse perspectives and populations represented in civic government is an important step, but Carrillo said it’s also important for communities to hold those representatives accountable after election day.
“Prior to [district adoption] a lot of city officials hadn’t ever been to South Merced,” he said. “So they didn’t know what was going on. They couldn’t know because they didn’t see it.”
Residents who feel seen and heard are crucial to community change, and it’s exactly why Carrillo has also spent the last few years working to empower Merced’s LGBTQ community.
The city’s only LGBT resource center survived several temporary closures over the years before closing its doors permanently in January. Carrillo served as a board member for much of that time and said financing and manpower were constant concerns for the organization.
Despite the setback board members and others from the center have continued to host meetings for youth and adults elsewhere in the community, including a senior program.
“That was important to us because there’s nothing for LGBTQ seniors or, you know, older people in the community,” Carrillo said. “Like we focus a lot of the conversation on youth, and youth empowerment but seniors are a large part of our community as well.”
By offering peer counseling and a support network for seniors Carrillo said the community is believed to have averted several suicides.
“That’s why, I feel and a lot of the board feels, we need a space for people coming together that provides a safe alternative to going out to clubs and bars,” he said.
Identifying those opportunities for change is key to both his business and personal goals for Merced, Carrillo said.
“When I first moved here I heard a lot of people talk about how there’s really not much to do here,” he said. “But I view that as a good thing,”
“It means you need to have that entrepreneurial mindset that you can make whatever you want happen. The Valley is this canvas or landscape where you’re able to create your own [organization or service] and it can be just how you and the community need it to be,” he continued.