The Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs (OCA) is a new office providing a way for the City of Fresno to serve its diverse communities most in need of assistance.
Areas of assistance include helping first-time homebuyers with down payments, emergency rentals, youth training and workforce opportunities, transportation resources, immigration support, public health and safety support, volunteer opportunities and more.
The OCA has liaisons specializing in four areas.
Serving the Asian Pacific Islander community is Sandra Lee. She has an extensive background in nonprofit organizations and refugee resettlement programs in Fresno.
Harjinder “JR” Saini works with the Asian Indian community. Saini is a business expert who has recently partnered with the parks department in the city.
Pastor B.T. Lewis is working with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
Alma Martinez is the immigrant affairs liaison. She works with residents who are Latinx or foreign born.
“Basically, how we see this department is threefold,” says Martinez.
“First and foremost, we do direct constituent services. If anybody needs anything in the city, any department, we are there to make those connections.”
Second, each liaison is conducting a survey of their respective communities to determine what the needs are and the best possible solutions. The OCA plans to use the survey results as a blueprint for future city decisions.
The third component of the OCA goals is collaborative tables. This focuses on specific needs rather than general issues.
“Sandra and JR are part of the Afghan resettlement committee,” says Martinez. “We are welcoming over 100 Afghan neighbors into Fresno, and our team is part of those conversations.”
Pastor Lewis is involved with diverse clergy offices, whereas Martinez is working with the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative (CVIIC) and the Immigrant Fraud Task Force.
Fresno is the fifth California city to open an OCA after San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose.
Martinez says that the city is aware of residents’ needs. Although there are available resources, they are not always easy to access. Not everyone understands how to access the resources, who to speak to or even how to take the first step to engage with the City.
Many in the immigrant community find it difficult to ask for help when they need it.
“I myself am an immigrant, I was born in Jalisco and came to this country at the age of three, undocumented,” says Martinez.
“I remember coming to Fresno, to Fulton Street, and going to, back then, what was the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] office and applying for residency. And I actually became a citizen at the Veterans Hall.”
Martinez says that having someone who speaks their language or understands where they come from can make all the difference in connecting with immigrants. Achieving a deeper connection on a personal level can establish the level of comfort needed for individuals to come forward and accept a helping hand.
A constituent tracker is used to determine how many people have been helped, but such data are not ready to be released. However, the OCA says that specific issues have been addressed since the office opened.
For instance, the OCA observed that communities were being hit hard by housing difficulties. Whether that be a dangerous neighborhood, issues with a landlord or renters, the OCA has been there to help.
There have also been numerous individuals seeking business help, especially immigrants. Many want to own a business but are not always able to given that undocumented people cannot legally obtain a Social Security number. The City’s Economic Development Division has been working diligently in sharing information on state-level funding to help establish immigrant businesses using grant funding. They have been partnering with the CVIIC to get this information out.
The OCA encourages people to apply for various sources of funding, especially the SEED [Social Entrepreneurs for Economic Development] initiative, which helps both new and established businesses. New businesses can receive up to $5,000, and established businesses can receive up to $10,000.
The liaisons want to make this process as easy as possible and ensure the community is aware of all of the available financial assistance. Bringing hope to the community is what their job is all about.
“I am super happy that I’m here, and I would love to see the department grow,” says Martinez. “I think the need is there, and I would love to continue to be a part of it. I’m honored and humbled to be here.”