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Alumni in Action: Arabella Martinez (MSW '66)

Arabella Martinez (MSW '66) on organizing communities and teaching how to lead

Arabella Martinez is perhaps best known as the woman who made the Fruitvale Village possible.  But her service to the community stretched over forty years, and resulted in far more than a pedestrian plaza.

“When we first started to work in Fruitvale, people were afraid to be on the street alone,” says Martinez of the low-income, Latino neighborhood in Oakland she and her team at the Unity Council revitalized.  “The parks were in total disrepair, and there was no investment in the area by the city or anyone else.  It was physically dilapidated, with vacant store fronts and no jobs.”

To invigorate the Fruitvale district, the Spanish Speaking Unity Council (now known as the Unity Council) adopted an integrated approach that included everything from building affordable housing and helping start small businesses, to constructing recreational facilities and picking up trash.  Social programs like Head Start and English as a Second Language were also part of the plan.  Now seen as a pioneer in the field, the Unity Council is often referred to as one of the most successful nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs) in the country and is looked at as model in place-based development.

“I may have been the leader at the Unity Council, but we brought in people with real talent, enthusiasm, and experience,” says Martinez.  “I knew how to pick good people, and I was never afraid of them being smarter than me. I allowed them to be creative, and they were all very dedicated and hard working.” 

In the mid-1960s, after spending several years working in county welfare offices, Martinez enrolled in UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare to study Community Organization and Administration.  Two years later she left the School with a rich multi-disciplinary background in psychology, criminology, political science and sociology, and an understanding of management theory.

“It was the best kind of education you could get – an overview of ‘what you are going to need to know to be an organizational leader,’” says Martinez.  “We also learned about institutions.  And that is what I did later as a social worker – build institutions.”

After obtaining her MSW degree, Martinez began her career first as Executive Director of the Valley Communities Economic Opportunity Organization - an anti-poverty group. She then came to the Unity Council as the Executive Director in 1969, at a time when there virtually no Latino nonprofit agencies in the U.S..  “Many of the organizations that exist today came out of those original “war on poverty” organizations,” says Martinez.

In 1977 Martinez was nominated by President Jimmy Carter as Assistant Secretary for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare – and became the first Latina appointed to a sub-cabinet level position in the history of the nation. 

In 1989 Martinez returned to the Unity Council as it teetered on the verge of collapse after numerous bad business decisions.

Two years later the organization had a positive fund balance, and began again to expand its services.  Today the Unity Council employs 150 people, most of whom have worked their way up the organizational ladder.  It has developed into a model community institution, managing integrated programs in a three-prong approach to economic, social and neighborhood development. Recently the Mack Center for Nonprofit Management profiled the Unity Council as one of twelve pioneering nonprofit human service organizations in the Bay Area.

“I have seen a revolution in my lifetime,” says Martinez of the changes she has witnessed in her forty years in the field of community organizing. “Today our President is African-American and there are many Latino elected officials at all levels of government in California and throughout the nation.  Latino organizations are responsible for building the institutional and leadership base in the community and improving the socio-economic status of Latino families.  But there is still a lot of work to do before we can declare victory.”

Arabella Martinez was named Alumni of the Year by the Social Welfare Alumni Association in 2010.