‘Meet everyone halfway’: Santa Rosa marks uneven progress on calls for change after summer protests
Magali Telles admits that if you asked her to name the mayor of Santa Rosa five years ago, she probably couldn't have told you.
"That's how disengaged I was from this whole political process," Telles said in a interview this fall. Santa Rosa’s city government can have a “very specific structure,” and trying to participate in a meeting can seem “so intimidating,” she said.
But Telles, 38, went on to become the executive director at Los Cien, the prominent Sonoma County Latino leadership organization she joined after about 13 years of student outreach work at Sonoma State University .
Those jobs, especially with Los Cien, she said, helped her build crucial networks that informed her understanding of the community and the local political establishment. And at SSU, she founded the Latino Family Summit, an effort based on first-generation Latino college students that opened her eyes to gaps in opportunity based on socioeconomic factors, race and ethnicity.
That demonstrated focus on social disparities helped distinguish Telles last summer, when Santa Rosa brought her on as its newest community engagement director — a chief liaison between Santa Rosa government and a restive public pushing for reforms and more attention from City Hall since the protests of last summer.
Until July, the city had not had a permanent hire in the role since January 2019. That changed after the after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd on Memorial Day last May, sparking days of local demonstrations and renewed pressure on Santa Rosa leaders to address a host of civil rights issues.
The movement took shape shape in rallying cries echoed by hundreds of people, many of them teenagers and young adults, who flooded the city streets amid a nationwide call for police reform, restorative justice and other systemic changes to end racism and remedy socioeconomic inequities.
And while the demand to defund law enforcement never got traction at City Hall, activists have had some success on another front of late: urging the city to change how authorities handle calls for service involving homeless residents and mental health crises.
Activists have also requested that the city find ways to invest in communities of color and to make people of color, especially youth, feel safer in Santa Rosa. They’ve asked for improved diversity in hiring at the police department and training that gives officers greater fluency in navigating issues of race.
Behind their disparate demands, activists say, is a simple request: Listen to us like you have not before and acknowledge our experience.
New face at City Hall
That is now one of Telles’ main roles — to gather input where perhaps it has not been sought by the city and to communicate with residents who have felt left on the margins.
She brings a wealth of personal and professional experience to the role. She immigrated from Mexico with her parents as a young child and grew up in Fresno, where she was the only person of color in some of her advanced high school courses and wasn’t as well off as many of her classmates. But her focus on achieving academic success kept her grounded, if not shielded, how she might have been regarded by others for the color of her skin or her country of origin.
“I didn’t really internalize feelings of racism or feeling ’other’,” she said, “even though I was.”
She started at SSU in 2000, earning first a bachelor’s degree in sociology and then a master’s in education. Even before she graduated, she had started what would end up being more than a decade of outreach and engagement work at SSU, which led to her taking the top job at Los Cien in 2018.
In her new role with Santa Rosa, she says she’s aiming to bring her “immigrant energy and magic,” into City Hall. But early talks with community members have shown that the work is weighed down by the burdens of history and clashing realities, starting with her own: a woman of color originally from Los Reyes in the Mexican state of Michoacán, now empowered to foster change in the city she’s called home for two decades.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: