By Trina Villanueva

I found out about the Greenlining Leadership Academy during the spring semester of my first year in graduate school at the University of Michigan, where I was working on my master’s degree in public policy. Everyone was finding summer internships, and I really wanted to get back to the Bay Area. A friend of mine saw a brochure for the Leadership Academy and said, “You need to apply for this.”

The Academy brought together different elements that I didn’t think anybody else had: policy and advocacy on issues that were important to low-income communities and communities of color, and the brochure made it very clear that this was a multiethnic program. It just spoke to me. I just felt like that was the whole reason I’d entered public policy school: to be a voice, to be a person that looked for solutions to the issues our communities were facing. So when I read that brochure, I thought,

“This is exactly what I want.”

I contacted Helen Lee, the first Academy director, and ended up being part of the first official cohort of five Summer Associates in the summer of 1995. Back then Greenlining had just a handful of staff, sharing an office with the Latino Issues Forum.

Photo courtesy of The Greenlining Institute Blog. Trina Villanueva in the bottom middle.

One by one I got to know Greenlining co-founders John Gamboa and Bob Gnaizda and the founders of the Greenlining Coalition. On my first day of get-acquainted meetings I must have been nervous, because I spilled coffee all over myself. And of course I was wearing a cream-colored suit — my only suit.

That summer, I felt like I was tossed into the deep end of the pool. I kept hearing words and phrases that were new to me, like CRA, the Community Reinvestment Act, and all sorts of things I’d never heard of before — especially redlining. I learned so many things that helped me better understand the root causes of poverty in our communities.

My main project that summer involved energy deregulation, which was getting a lot of attention in California. I had to write a report about it — a complicated subject I knew nothing about, with so much language I didn’t understand. I had to write about it in a way that the community would understand, which really tested me. I definitely felt at times like I was in over my head.

That first summer there was really no curriculum yet — Helen was still developing the program, and they were still learning how to do it. Now, of course, the Leadership Academy has built a thorough, detailed curriculum, including training workshops focusing on specific skills like lobbying, negotiation, and speaking to the media. Academy Director Patrick Brown puts a lot of emphasis on inner development, what he calls “change from within.” We mostly had to sink or swim.

After that summer, I went back to grad school and a year later, I returned to Greenlining for a Fellowship. Two other women joined not long after, and I’m pretty sure we were the first three official Fellows at Greenlining.

We needed to educate communities about brownfields — properties that are contaminated and need to be cleaned up before they can be re-used — and what policies could make it better for people who either live near brownfields or who want to develop properties in their community.

I put together “Brownfields 101”-type events. I had to introduce people in front of an audience. Things like that terrified me, and John knew it — it was skills-building and confidence-building in all kinds of ways. I learned the nuts and bolts of how to put meetings together and learning to be ready when called on at a meeting. John had a way of starting something and then turning to me and saying, “Right, Trina?” — meaning I had to go on from there.

The Leadership Academy set me on the path that I’m still on today. I had a graduate degree but no real work experience in the policy world, and the Fellowship allowed me to make mistakes and not get fired. John pushed a lot. It seems silly now, but I learned how to travel — how to rent a car and use a corporate credit card to make all those arrangements — all the basics of being a professional that I’d never been exposed to. I put events and panels together and learned who all the people were, and even got to write a piece in a Federal Reserve publication.

I learned that coalition-building really mattered in this work. Community members, builders, lenders, and environmental justice advocates all had different angles and concerns. John asked me to put together an advisory committee and we spent about a year putting together principles on what brownfields redevelopment should look like and how it should incorporate community input.

My Fellowship ran from 1996 to 1998 — two years, twice as long as Fellowships now. After two years, John basically said, “Y’all need to get out of here,” and part of our development was looking for our next job. But after a staff member left, I got asked to stay on as a program manager, working on our partnership with Merrill Lynch, so I stayed one more year as a staff member.

The work that I did on brownfields redevelopment and the Merrill Lynch partnership led me to my next job at PolicyLink that dealt with getting private equity dollars invested in the Bay Area’s lowest-income communities. After PolicyLink, I went to the Mayor’s Office of Community Development in San Francisco for five years, using federal funds to improve lives in low-income communities, and then I spent two years at the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

All of these pieces of my past make me better suited for the work I do today as a Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at Union Bank, and my history with Greenlining was especially important. Without the Leadership Academy I wouldn’t be where I am today.


This month Kubo is exploring the theme of Pilipin@ representation. No matter what industry you’re in, we’re here to share the stories of Pilipin@ millennials because our voices matter.

Trina Villanueva is a Director and Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at MUFG Union Bank and co-founded the Greenlining Academy Alumni Association.

This article first appeared on The Greenlining Institute Blog.

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