How two young Latina women embraced public service and became Sonoma County leaders

Ariana Diaz De Leon and Stephanie Manieri chose to apply their passions and their skills close to home.|

Community leadership is often provided by those seasoned by age and experience. But in Sonoma County many younger Latinos are stepping up to embrace public service, both professionally and as volunteers. Here are two young Sonoma County women with graduate degrees who chose to apply their passions and their skills close to home.


Advocate for success

She was raised in St. Helena, the heart of the Napa Valley, the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. But when she enrolled in a master’s program in public administration at Sonoma State, Ariana Diaz De Leon went all in for Sonoma County.

Now the 31-year-old works for the Community Foundation Sonoma County as a senior program officer helping to ensure nonprofits get the funding they need and grant money reaches the people who need it the most.

“I just fell in love with Sonoma County,” De Leon said, “and I have been here ever since.”

One of the main reasons she loves Sonoma is its “generosity,” particularly when it comes to volunteering.

“People just love coming together, especially if it is a for a good purpose,” she said.

While at SSU, De Leon began looking for ways to serve her community. She applied to Supervisor Lynda Hopkins for an appointment to the Commission on the Status of Women representing the 5th District.

“I try to give a voice to women and girls in Sonoma County and bring that to the Board of Supervisors so that with anything they do, they do it with awareness that there is some inequity when it comes to gender.”?

One of her efforts has been to work on the Junior Commission Project, which brings together a group of high school girls on a monthly basis to work on a project.

“It’s about women’s empowerment and having a healthy body and being aware of human trafficking and domestic violence,” she said. “These young girls want to grow their leadership and become powerful women.”

During her time at Sonoma State she worked as a data analyst, an experience “close to me heart,” she said, because it allowed her to look for patterns and disparities between Latino and nonLatino students and to see how success is frequently tied to the resources available. Her work contributed to the effort to win for SSU status as a Hispanic Serving Institution, making it eligible for federal grants to increase the number of Hispanic students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math and to improve advising, student internships, mentoring, tutoring, facilities, professional development, research and other programs geared toward helping students succeed.

As the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents, De Leon understands the challenges that second-generation students and youth are facing. Her father was a vineyard worker. Her mother worked in factories in Los Angeles before moving north, marrying and working for many years in a St. Helena school cafeteria.

The Helena High School graduate decided to study social work at Long Beach State, a campus far enough away that she wouldn’t be tempted to run home if things got tough.

She joined the Community Foundation in June 2018. Technically she is a senior program officer but she prefers “Community Impact Officer.” Among other tasks, she works to arrange grants for nonprofits. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March she and colleagues were working on their annual Julia L. Grant Basic Human Needs program, which gives funds to agencies that provide emergency assistance to clients - money for a car repair or energy bill, for example - that might prevent them from spiraling downward financially. Aware that the impact of the pandemic would be devastating, the foundation quickly pivoted to strategically send money to organizations that had a good track record of stepping up during previous disasters like the Tubbs and Kincade fires and the West County floods.

“When a disaster hits, it’s not going to hit everyone the same. Those who had less to begin with are going to have a harder time recovering. And in Sonoma County there is a huge inequity when it comes to opportunity, jobs and education,” she said.

De Leon said one particular concern of the Community Foundation is mental health, particularly the undocumented community which, even before the pandemic struck, lived in fear of raids.

“They might be afraid to even ask for assistance,” she said. “To even ask for food or for financial aid, they don’t want it to come back to them and affect their ability to get residency if they ever get that opportunity.”

One of the organizations targeted for support was the nonprofit Humanidad, that provides bicultural and bilingual therapists on a sliding scale.

“During the pandemic they have been doing it for free for people engaged in all kinds of issues. People don’t have to explain themselves to someone maybe from a different culture who can’t understand or empathize.”

After the devastating wildfires, De Leon volunteered with the Undocufund, which provides relief for particularly vulnerable undocumented immigrants.

“I would do interviews with families and get their information and listen to their stories, which are incredibly heartbreaking, and pass that along and hope there was funding for them to at least get something. More than 4,000 applications came in. They haven’t received enough funds to even cover that and it’s a scary time,” she said of the fund, which his now stretching to help with relief during the pandemic.

“There is a lot of generosity and a lot of giving but there is an immense need and that is very daunting.”


In service to youth

When Stephanie Manieri heard no one had stepped forward to run for the Santa Rosa school board seat representing southwest Santa Rosa, her first thought was, “Why not me?”

She was only 23 and just five years out of public schools herself. Though she didn’t yet know what the position entailed, she figured she could bring something unique to the board. As a young Latina she could be a valuable bridge between two sometimes overlapping constituencies whose needs can too often remain in the shadows - youth and Latinos.

“I went to a meeting where the communications coordinator for the district was saying there are these vacancies and no one is stepping up to the plate to run,” she said.

Manieri sought advice from her aunt, Isabel Lopez, who runs the nonprofit Raizes Collective that seeks to educate and empower young people of color through art and environmental justice.

“She said, ‘Absolutely we can do this. I will support you. Your family will support you.”

That backing gave her the courage to jump in. And because she ran unopposed, Manieri didn’t have to spend time and resources campaigning.

“Instead, I used the time to build relationships,” she said, “and learn what a school board member does.”

Manieri is a quick study. She has a bachelor’s degree in public health and biology from Dominican University and a master’s in Health Policy and Law from UC San Francisco. She also was raised in the neighborhood and attended the schools she represents on the board, including Cook Middle School and Elsie Allen High.

Professionally employed by Latino Service Providers to oversee an internship program for 50 ?students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, Manieri, now 24, has come to recognize gaps in our system that make it hard for Latinos and other minority groups to access services and resources.

“It’s really hard for communities that haven’t been included as part of the larger community to feel like they have any reason to be engaged civically,” she said. “That is something that has to be talked about and addressed.”

There are a multitude of barriers to engagement, from language and culture to economic disparity. For so long Roseland, the heart of the district, was not incorporated, leaving many of its residents feeling disconnected from the city and disenfranchised, she said.

Manieri, who was born in Santa Rosa, feels a passionate connection with this richly diverse corner of the city where she has spent her entire life. Both of her parents are immigrants. Her father, Victor Manieri, a self-employed construction worker with Italian heritage, came from Venezuela. Her mother, Maria Catalan, came from Mexico when she was young.

Stephanie Manieri came to community service at 19, when she got a job coordinating a 24-hour crisis line for Verity, a local rape crisis center. Later, she became a victim’s advocate through The Family Justice Center, a hub of different service agencies, a job she held through college and graduate school.

Through that she came to know many agencies, resources and professionals in the nonprofit scene similarly motivated to help others.

“That is what kept me here,” she said. “I knew my community and who I was working with and who I was serving. I fell in love with it. And I knew there was an opportunity to make a difference in a place where I have relationships and where I can have the most influence.”

One of her hardest decisions so far as a board member was to proceed with the closure of Cook Middle School. Wracked with concerns over how it would affect Elsie Allen High to lose its main feeder school and whether the poorer families would be served by the Cesar Chavez Language Academy charter school that would move onto Cook’s campus, she broke out in tears at a board meeting. But ultimately she supported the move, respecting the commitment that had been made earlier to the dual-immersion Spanish language school.

“I voted my values. The history of Cesar Chavez is really one that is quite incredible and it happened because Doyle Park (school) was closed a long time ago. This was totally a moment. It felt like justice. A lot of people worked hard to make sure Cesar Chavez happened,” she said.

She’s deeply concerned about the impact of the closure of schools because of the coronavirus outbreak. She worries about the students who are trying to learn remotely, perhaps with less technical support, whose families are struggling financially. They also may be the only ones in their family working. And serious budget cuts are ahead.

“It really looks bad, like it’s worse than the 2008 recession. But I know we’ll be OK. My perspective is, I’m going to make sure that whatever cuts we have to make or whatever decisions we have to make, that they won’t disproportionately affect Latino students and immigrant students and our families who have already lost so much.”

Manieri in November married Jorge Inocensio, a 27-year-old engineer at Keysight Technologies who is running for the Santa Rosa City Council and is a fellow Elsie Allen alum.

During the Kincade fire last fall, Manieri took it upon herself to translate official information from local government sources and elected officials into Spanish, something that was sorely needed, and share it through her social media. Often, officials would find and repost her translations.

Currently she is program manager for the Latino Service Providers’ Youth Promotores internship program that trains students to bring awareness about mental health and other health issues to their communities.

“ A lot of the students in the program come to us with lived experiences and maybe they had a parent and have seen their struggle through mental health challenges but refuse to access services,” she said. “A lot of students have awareness about how difficult it is to promote mental health within their culture and community and there is a lot of passion within them to change that.”

Manieri hopes her efforts will serve as a model for other youth.

“My hope is that young people who have felt like they don’t have any power will want to step into these kinds of positions,” she said. “That is how I felt when I was younger. When I was at Cook or Elsie I felt no one is listening to me. I felt nobody cares. Whenever we have a conversation on the board I’m always looking at it from the perspective of how a young person in high school might be affected by this. I want young people to see they do have a voice and they should use it.”

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