On the morning of Wednesday, May 20, 2015, I entered the Paramount Theater in Oakland to take my Naturalization Oath and become a citizen of the United States. As I was sitting there, listening to the government representatives speak about the importance of this ceremony, of the many people with different backgrounds coming together for a common objective, encouraging us to register to vote and to participate in our Democracy, explaining why civic engagement is important for a fully functioning society, I thought: “I’ve heard this before.”
The official continued his speech, now with a warning about the difficult challenges our society faces and how everyone—those of us becoming citizens and our friends and family present in that room—will have the responsibility of making hard choices that will decide where the country heads in the future. He followed by saying we all need to come together to figure out the best solutions that will benefit our society. And then it hit me. These were all messages I’d been hearing from CORO for the last nine months.
One of the main reasons I was first attracted to CORO was the name. Not the CORO part, I had no idea what that meant; it was the “Civic Leadership” part that I found to be appealing and thought provoking. After learning more about the fellowship, I decided that I must apply because I wanted to learn how to develop my civic leadership skills.
By the time I was accepted into the program, I found out the Civic Leadership part of the name had been removed. But I figured the name had changed, not the organization’s mission, so I still went in with a lot of hopes and fears, and most importantly, with faith that I would learn and grow.
After a whirlwind Logic Study Week, I received my very first placement: I was placed to work in a political campaign in Berkeley! I was so excited to be part of this. I, Ezekiel Gorrocino, would be actual campaign staff, not just a volunteer. Now, don’t get me wrong, volunteers are essential to political campaigns. Without volunteers you don’t have a campaign, even in small cities like Berkeley. I was excited because I would finally get to see the work that goes behind the scenes. I saw the late night, kitchen table meetings discussing what to include in the next mailer, what endorsement meetings to attend, how to best deliver the candidate’s message, and the feeling you get when you’re buried in walk sheets and call sheets for the weekend.
Unfortunately, my candidate did not get elected, but I learned about the importance of engaging and educating the community. I saw first hand how every person cared, in their own way, about which direction their city was headed, and I saw how passionate the community was in trying to make sure they had a say in the future of Berkeley.
After the campaign my next placement was in San Francisco, where I worked with the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA). One of OCEIA’s biggest projects is a Public-Private Partnership between the City of San Francisco, several nonprofits, foundations, and other community organizations. This project helps the San Francisco immigrant community become informed about their rights, their immigration options, and finding ways to promote civic participation among citizenship eligible immigrants.
CORO also helped expand my political horizons, challenging me to think in more than just liberal and conservative ways. I remember clearly during our week in Sacramento each fellow had the opportunity to shadow a state legislator; we wouldn’t know who it would be until the night before. As I sat there, waiting for the list of names to be revealed, many things went through my head. Would it be my California Senator Loni Hancock? Would it be my newly elected assembly member Tony Thurmond? Perhaps, as the only LGBT Fellow, I would be paired with Mark Leno!
Oh boy, was I wrong.
I was paired with a freshmen assembly member from Southern California who is against the Affordable Care Act – which I support – and against immigration reform—which I fully and wholeheartedly support and think is necessary. CORO wanted me to learn how to actually listen and talk to people with opposing viewpoints. To break out of my Bay Area liberal bubble that had taken over all of my political beliefs, I had to learn how to find common ground and how to listen to the reasons others see things differently than me. At the end of my day with the assembly member I came to realize that we both held similar values. We bonded over our desire for the government to embrace technology to better deliver services and to allow for greater public participation.
Other placements and Focus Weeks followed soon after. I learned to not be afraid of failure, but to embrace it, reflect on it, and try again. I learned how to interview city and private business leaders about their decision-making process and the ways in which they create partnerships. I realized the importance of the labor movement in California history and how nonprofits bring much needed services to our community. And I saw how, in each and every one of those experiences, the lessons about collaboration and reaching out to all stakeholders became more and more apparent. As this took place, the image of a complex fabric—with all the sectors and players linked and intertwined to make our society function—solidified in front of me.
Now I understand that no issue has a simple solution (as I had previously thought). The complexity of the problems our society faces requires collaboration across sectors that will bring new and better ideas for consideration. Drawing from the expertise and experience each stakeholder brings allows for a sharing of information that benefits society at a greater and deeper level. The balanced solutions that arise from cross-sector collaboration have better community support and a longer-lasting impact in our communities.
As I walked out of the Paramount Theater and towards my final CORO placement, I smiled thinking about my fellowship experiences in the last year. It took the United States Government many years to grant me citizenship, while CORO gave me the tools, vision and knowledge to make me my best citizen-self in only a few short months.