Return: the act of going back to an earlier state, of giving or putting something back.
It is this definition that drives Brenda Aguilera, Best Start Metro LA director, to pave the way in partnership between Para Los Niños and First 5 LA: she’s changing the very community she grew up in.
“I grew up in Pico Union, a few blocks away from Magnolia Place, in the 80’s and 90’s,” Aguilera recalled. “Many families immigrated to our community to escape the civil wars in Central America. We were one of the last Mexican families here. It was a huge cultural shift.
“There was a lot of rivalry between communities. I saw so much painful trauma among the children and families. There were drug dealers and drive-by shootings. Many of our peers died through the violence. I became very resilient early on and learned to navigate that world,” she added.
Navigate new worlds is what she did, as she went on to study at UCLA to earn degrees in Labor and Workplace Studies and World Arts in Cultures. She soon found an opportunity in Best Start.
“I wanted to come back to the community I grew up in and do meaningful work,” Aguilera said.
"I wonder, ‘What if my mom and all those families had had these partnerships and organizations here?’ I imagine the opportunities. They could have had a healthy place to live. I now know that it’s possible.” - Brenda Aguilera
In 2010, First 5 LA introduced Best Start, focusing on building empowering partnerships throughout 14 communities in Los Angeles where children and families can thrive. Local leaders and non-profit organizations have worked with community residents to build a vision and develop a strategy for each place.
First 5 LA partnered with Para Los Niños to launch their initial Best Start Community in Metro LA. Para Los Niños is the lead convener, and their mission for Best Start Metro LA is to help the community stakeholders steer the direction, strategies, and outcomes.
In the last four years, Para Los Niños designed a community leadership guide within Best Start Metro LA. They were successful in aligning with First 5 LA’s “Learning by Doing” (LBD) process, which identifies results-focused strategies and activities to be implemented in each community.
“Our community identified families being exposed to violence inside and outside of the home as the most important issue. There are a lot of stressors: fear, unemployment, domestic violence, and violence in the schools,” Aguilera said. “As an immigrant community, there were many traditions that had been lost migrating to a new community. A disconnection existed between parents and their children. They want to create a positive cultural change and be able to foster activities and conversations that promote a culture of respect among community members.”
Starting with only three members, the Best Start Metro LA partnership now boasts 879 active members.
“We have six community Neighborhood Leadership Groups made up of residents and parents. We implemented a large set of project based activities focused on the Best Start goals and accomplished them by having the parents facilitate the process,” Aguilera explained. “They develop the plans and have reflective conversations after their meetings and community events. They discuss what their concerns, strengths, and next steps are. They’re here because they want to be actively involved and lead with ownership of the process. We’ve kept the momentum going by engaging residents and building this capacity around leadership development.”
Deisy Gutierrez began as a member of Best Start Metro LA and later became employed as a promotora – a community liaison for Best Start Metro LA serving a designated sector of the community. During this time, Gutierrez has witnessed Aguilera’s impact on the partnership.
“In the beginning when I first met Brenda, she identified a lot with us in the community. Her simplicity makes it easier to identify with her,” Gutierrez recalled. “Since that very first day I met her, she thanked me for being a part of Best Start Metro LA. And that makes any parent want to continue coming to the groups and committees. Also, she always asks about how we are doing and about our family. She knows about the time that we invest in these meetings and the effort that we make to participate.”
In addition to these qualities, Aguilera impresses partnership members with her dedication and the responsibility that she feels with her work on behalf of the community, Gutierrez said.
On a personal note, Gutierrez said Aguilera gave her the confidence to move from being a volunteer mom in the partnership to working as a promotora.
“At first I was very afraid because it is my first job and I told her I wouldn’t take it,” Gutierrez recalled. “She looked at me straight in the eye and told me, ‘I believe in you. I know that you can do this.’ And I accepted this position because I know what she feels is the truth and the way we connected, it gave me confidence.”
Helping to empower partnership members like Gutierrez fills Aguilera with exuberance as she reflects on the community leadership that has been established.“We’ve created an important space for families,” Aguilera said. “Creating policies and programs is useful, but you begin to understand through a different lens by digging in and having those conversations with residents. The key is this support for parents. I wonder, ‘What if my mom and all those families had had these partnerships and organizations here?’ I imagine the opportunities. They could have had a healthy place to live. I now know that it’s possible.”