Ernesto Olivares of Santa Rosa City Council wins Latino Business Leadership Award

Ernesto Olivares, member of the Santa Rosa City Council


Ernesto Olivares of Santa Rosa City Council has won one of this year’s North Bay Business Journal’s Latino Business Leadership Awards.

Tell us your story and that of your organization:

I was born in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. My parents Jose C. Olivares and Maria Luz Olivares brought their family to the United States when I was 3 years old. I am the middle of 7 siblings. I like to say that while we lived dirt poor in Mexico (our house actually had dirt floors), my parents provided us a better life of poverty in Colusa, CA where we worked as migrant farm workers. My father first came to California as a young boy and had the opportunity to go to school in Fresno where he learned to speak English. He later returned to California as an adult to work under to Bracero Program.

As a young boy, I believed I was destined to work in the fields all my adult life. The only difference is that I wanted to be the person operating the heavy equipment, not the one handpicking the crops under the hot sun.

The summer before my senior year I was working with my father in the orchards preparing for the harvest. It was that hot summer that my father told me that he wanted me to go to school; that I didn’t have to be farmworker like him. He was the first person who told me that I could be anything I wanted to be.

I chose a law enforcement profession and have been a public safety professional since 1976 and a public servant for more than 40 years. It was my father’s commitment to civic engagement that keeps me committed to public service.

Is there a major accomplishment in the past year or so that you would like to share?:

After years of discussion and negotiations we, the annexation of Rosalind will be come a reality by the end of this year. I am proud to have served on the City/County Roseland Committee for the past 9 years. Key to the success of this annexation has been to well organized community outreach efforts by City staff to help the Roseland businesses and residents understand the benefits and impacts of this historic action.

What is the achievement you are most proud of?:

My most proud achievement was when I was elected by my peers on the City Council to be the Mayor of Santa Rosa in 2010. What was significant about this achievement was that my mother was able to experience it. The honor of holding the Office of Mayor as my parents’ son was a greater sense of achievement than being the first Latino Mayor in our City. It was the look of pride in my mother’s eyes when I told I was the Mayor that I will not forget. She never tired of telling her friends that her “Mijo,” her son, was the Mayor of Santa Rosa.

What is your biggest challenge today?:

Homelessness. Santa Rosa and many communities across the country continue to struggle to find long term solutions to homelessness. In Santa Rosa, we have made a strong statement that homelessness is a community-wide issue that requires the entire community to support our goal of ending homelessness. The key to doing this is to get our homeless residents into permanent homes though a Housing First model supported by a strong system of coordinated entry. This is a big shift from traditional approaches, but one that evidence shows can be successful. The challenge has been educating service providers and the community about the benefits of this model. In short, it moves us from an approach that merely enables homelessness to one that ends homelessness.

Words that best describe you: Integrity, compassion, and inclusive come to mind. These are traits I attribute to my parents

As a successful professional, what were the biggest obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?:

My biggest obstacle has been to reclaim and be proud of who I am. At an early age, teachers had difficulty pronouncing my name, Ernesto. It as shorten by my second grade teacher to, Ernest. By Junior High School I was know as, Ernie. I never complained, and in fact I liked it. I had developed two identities, one at home as Ernesto, as part of my Mexican life; and one at school where I was “fitting in” with other kids who lived differently, or better than I did. Growing up poor was not something I shared with others, even after coming to Santa Rosa in 1979 to be Police Officer Ernie Olivares. Even at work I wanted to fit in. It wasn’t until I was promoted to Lieutenant in 2004 that took my name back and began sharing my story in our local schools. It was liberating and I felt a sense of pride in who I was. That little Mexican kid who lived in a home with dirt floors would later become the Mayor of Santa Rosa.

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?:

The pending annexation of Roseland the City’s move to district election has the potential for major change in Santa Rosa. The greatest benefit of this transition will be the growing civic engagement of our Latino community. As it relates to my public safety profession, we can expect much higher engagement from our communities and neighborhoods as it relates to building safe and healthy communities. Santa Rosa has already be seeing a higher level of engagement through the continued evolution of the Santa Rosa Violence Prevention Partnership and many cities in California are seeing the benefits of comprehensive strategies to reducing violence.

Who was your most important mentor?:

My father. My father was a humble and proud man who put family first. While we lived in poverty, he knew we had much greater opportunities here than in our native Mexico. He taught me to work hard and to give to others so that they may be comfortable too. With only an 8th grade education, as an adult he went to night school so that he could apply to be a United States Citizen. He eventually took the required test and was able afford to get citizenship for himself and my three older siblings. Several years later he was able to afford to apply for citizenship for me and my younger sisters, the last two born in Mexico.

My father always kept himself informed on local, national and global issues. The primary reason for obtaining citizenship was so that he could vote; he wanted to have voice and he encouraged us all to vote when we were old enough. I can recall how my father would take the day off from work on election day and volunteered and his Polling Place; he told us it was his civic duty. It was this simple thing that has continued to inspire me to serve the public in any way I can.

Tell us about your community involvement:

It was my father’s civic engagement that drives me to be involved in my community. As a young police officer I realized that there were other ways in which I could serve my community while helping to build relationships with the community I served and lived in.

I currently serve on the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts Board of Directors; the Elsie Allen High School Foundation; the Boys and Girls Club of Central Sonoma County Advisory Council; Lifeworks of Sonoma County Advisory Board; and the Advisory Board of the Goals Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping local youth create, develop and focus on positive life goals that include sports, health and fitness, education, family and careers.

Over the years I have served on a number of community organizations including the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County; Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees; United Way of the Wine Country; the Redwood Empire Council of the Boy Scouts of America; Sonoma County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy; Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights; Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Santa Rosa Steering Committee; and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of the Greater Bay Area.

What advice would you give to a young person today?:

I would say this: Develop a sense of purpose and always make helping others a lifelong commitment. There are many people in our own community will little to eat or with no place to live. Some of us may have been in similar circumstances. Always be ready to help those in need.

Develop a sense of social competence. What I mean is, be aware of the world around you and be sensitive to the needs of others. Enjoy the richness of our diverse community and be proud of the contributions you make through your own culture and background.

Be in control of your life and believe in yourself. Remember that you can control the things that happen to you. The world around you has a strong influence on your life, but only you can control its impact on you.

Sonoma County is your home and I hope you make it your home forever because it truly is a great place to live. But, the entire world is your playground and I hope you spend your lifetime enjoying it. I want you to explore it and share it with others.

Remember, this great world is precious to all of us and there is no other place like it in the universe. I know some of us before you have not done a good job of taking care of it for you; we made some mistakes and for that I apologize. But I know you are smarter about the environment and you will take better care of it so that your children and their children’s children can enjoy it too.

Most admired businessperson outside your organization: There are two people I will always admired; they are the late Mary and Jose Tamayo. When I first moved to Santa Rosa in 1979, I meet Mary and Jose at their business on Dutton Ave. where they made tortillas and ran a small lunch restaurant. I happened into their restaurant by chance and it was as if I had walked into my mother’s kitchen. I would stop by the restaurant as young police officer and Mary would make me burritos for lunch. Mary and Jose reminded me so much of my parents. They made me feel welcomed and treated my like an adopted son.

Current reading: “No Second Chance” by Harlan Coben

Most want to meet: I would want to “meet” my father again. He passed away in 1988 and I never had the opportunity to ask him questions like I did of my mother in her later years. There is so much I want to know about him. How did he happen to come to the Unites States as a young boy? How did he meet my mother? What made him decide to move us all to the United States.

Stress-relievers: I am fortunate to live at the bottom of Taylor Mountain. From the steps of my house I can map out 7 mile hike that takes me to the top of the mountain and back. I enjoy taking youth groups on hikes to expose them to the beauty of the hike and to encourage them to challenge themselves. Every one of the kids I have taken on this hike develop an new perspective of the mountain; they feel a sense of power and pride after completing the challenging hike.

Favorite hobbies: I consider myself an amateur photographer. I use this hobby as another form of stress relief where I can go out and use my imagination to create art and stories through pictures