Leadership San Antonio Class 45 met on Wednesday, June 2 to celebrate “Be United Day” with a series of panel discussions and guest speakers focused on addressing equitable access to education, affordable housing, and economic prosperity in order to break historic and systemic cycles of poverty.

The day began with breakfast an introduction from District 3 City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran. Councilwoman Viagran, who served four full terms in office for the southern-most City Council District, gave an overview of the disparities of education, health, and infrastructure in her district.

“Those who live south of Hildebrand Avenue have a 20-year shorter life expectancy than those who live north of the street,” said Councilwoman Viagran, referring to the north-central throughway that divides historically underfunded areas of town from wealthier districts.

Councilwoman Viagran charged Class 45 with making affordable housing sustainability and access the main issue to tackle as leaders in San Antonio moving forward.

The class transitioned inside The Espee on San Antonio’s near-east side and the game of “San Antonio LIFE” was introduced. Throughout the day, the groups worked together to meet their assigned family’s daily budget while navigating real-life challenges such as surprise emergency room visits, utility cuts, minimum-wage jobs, and layoffs.

Next, a panel of education experts took the stage to discuss equitable access to education. Harlandale Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Jerry Soto and Essence Preparatory Public School Founder Akeem Brown discussed historic inequities for students and their families, including the challenges of systemic racism, access to food, and post-high school education.

Dr. Soto became superintendent of HISD in 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the district saw a dramatic loss of student enrollment due to a variety of reasons.

“If I can survive COVID, I’ll be OK,” he said.

Harlandale offers several certification programs in highly desired areas like manufacturing. Dr. Soto shared the story of one student who graduated with six certifications who was hired by Toyota at a $70,000 salary right out of high school.

Brown, who founded Essence Prep on San Antonio’s East Side last year, said his vision for the school is to train students of color so that their skill sets are matched with the confidence needed to achieve their future goals—whether that means running for City Council or applying to a leadership program.

“How many Black faces do you see in this room?” Brown asked the class.

“Three,” someone answered from the audience.

“My plan is to change the number of Black men and women in any room, including Leadership San Antonio,” Brown replied.

Brown said the first step of addressing and dismantling the legacy of racism is looking inward as educators and ensuring students are exposed to professionals who look like them.

Essence Prep is slated to open for enrollment in grades K-2 in August 2022, with additional grades added annually through 8th grade.

Leilah Powell, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC San Antonio), a nonprofit that provides financing and support for community development around the country, gave an overview of the state of affordable housing in San Antonio. The biggest challenge?

“Wages in San Antonio are not increasing at the same rate as our housing prices,” Powell said. “San Antonio is an outlier in the state of Texas, and our wages are growing at one-third the rate of those in Dallas and Austin.”

After lunch, the class heard from the day’s surprise guest. Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who was recently elected to a third term, joined the class to provide an update on his priorities and vision for San Antonio.

Among the highlights were the passage of Proposition A, which expands municipal bond funding to be utilized for affordable housing projects, and SA Ready to Work, a four-year workforce development program that was approved by 77 percent of voters. The mayor also said it is critical to continue looking at the budget and bond processes to address and undo the historic underfunding of districts on the City’s West, East and South sides.

Next, Adrian Lopez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Alamo, Romanita Matta-Barrera, Executive Director of SA Works and Executive Vice President of Workforce at San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, and Carlos J. Contreras, III, CEO of Goodwill San Antonio took part in a panel on job training programs that lead to higher wages and economic prosperity. The panelists explained how their organizations are helping close the gap on generational poverty in San Antonio by offering education, training and job placement opportunities for workers.

The closing session was a presentation by the Council for Inclusive Capitalism’s CEO, Meredith Sumpter.

Sumpter introduced the class to the growing movement for a more inclusive approach to capitalism and creating long-term value for all stakeholders – businesses, investors, employees, customers, government, and communities.

The day concluded with a walking tour and overview of the master planning efforts for St. Paul Square from AREA Real Estate CEO David Adelman as the class walked to their happy hour destination, Commonwealth Coffeehouse at Hemisfair. Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar joined to give an update on Hemisfair’s redevelopment and master plan, which includes a goal of bringing residents back to the district through an affordable housing policy.

The Be United Class Day would not be possible without the support of the following sponsors: Chasnoff Mungia Valkenaar Pepping & Stribling LLP, AREA Real Estate, VIA Transit, San Antonio Chamber, San Antonio Water System, The Espee, Hemisfair, Taco Cabana, On Par Golf, Bombay Bicycle Club, Paleteria San Antonio, Worthwrite Goods, Sam’s Burger Joint, Able City, Alamo Music Center, Alamo City Golf Trail, and Rocky G Grill.

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