From an early age, Silvia Gramajo Mazariegos ’23 and her friends learned to be afraid of the police. Growing up in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood, they heeded warnings from family and neighbors who viewed law enforcement with a deeply ingrained sense of fear and mistrust.
“Back then, there just were not many police officers who looked like me – or who looked like the members of my community,” Silvia says of growing up in the primarily Latino community. “Little kids grew up with the idea in our head that we would get into trouble if we talked to the cops and that they would take us away from our families. When I would see the police, I would walk away as fast as I could.”
This mistrust of the police was one of the key concerns highlighted in the 2014 report Building Safe Communities through Strong Partnerships in the Canal, developed by resident advocacy group Voces del Canal, Canal Alliance, and Dominican University of California faculty. The report noted that one-third of residents surveyed who experienced crime did not report the incident because of fear of police misconduct or deportation.
Relations between police and residents have improved, Silvia notes, thanks to a growing emphasis on community policing and developing relationships with community advocates such as Canal Alliance. But, she adds, there’s still a long way to go to establish trust.
Silvia is determined to be a part of the solution - to help develop a stronger and safer Canal neighborhood.
Her approach is two-fold: working with Canal residents to advocate for safer conditions in the neighborhood and, eventually, working with external agencies on behalf of Canal residents. Silvia believes she is making a difference as this month the City of San Rafael committed $100,000 to Canal lighting upgrades.
Through her coursework in Dominican’s Service-Learning program and Social Justice major, Silvia has been working with members of Voces del Canal to address one of the issues raised in the 2014 report - improving community safety by increasing public lighting throughout the neighborhood.
On February 26, Voces del Canal presented a photo exposition that explores the lived experiences of residents who must alter their daily activities according to the rhythm of natural light. Voces del Canal members have engaged with local residents to better understand how the lack of street lighting in the Canal affects the lives and wellbeing of people living in the neighborhood.
Under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Lucko, program director of Dominican’s master’s program in education, Spanish bilingual Dominican students have been working alongside the members of Voces del Canal as they conduct Participatory Action Research (PAR) and advocate for these – and other - Canal priorities.
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Silvia was busy preparing for the exposition – working weekly to develop and distribute flyers and creating posters that contain the images captured by Voces del Canal members. She echoes Voces del Canal’s hopes that the exposition will serve as a starting point for a series of conversations between residents and public employees that will ultimately lead to increased lighting and improved public security in the Canal community.
But, Silvia also wants to make a personal impact, which is why she is planning to pursue a career in law enforcement in order to show future generations of Canal children that they can feel safe in their community.
“I’ve always wanted to do something where I can give back to my community and protect my community. I see police all the time in my neighborhood and I see how scared people are of them,” Silvia says. “I want to help the community trust the police officers, but at the same time have police officers trust the community … Respect and trust have to be reciprocated.”
Silvia recently took the first step. She was hired as a police cadet with the San Rafael Police Department (SRPD). Silvia landed the job after numerous interviews and background checks and an enthusiastic recommendation from her Social Justice major advisor Julia van der Ryn, executive director of Dominican’s Center for Community Engagement.
“I remember meeting Silvia as a first-year student when she came to discuss adding the major. I was so impressed by her motivation and being so clear as an 18-year-old,” van der Ryn says. “Supporting her in realizing her community-centered goals and seeing her growth sustains and inspires my work as an educator.”
Silvia quickly found a welcoming community within SRPD - and admits to being somewhat taken aback.
“I have felt for so long that I had to act a certain way when around law enforcement – just because of where I am from and where my parents are from. That is hard to get over. But now that I'm getting to know people in the department, I see that there are so many officers who are nice, and who care, and who really want to help the community.”
Silvia sent invitations to officers in SRPD to attend the February 26 photo exposition – and she received an enthusiastic reception.
“One of the reasons I have invited SRPD is that I want the community to see that they are here to support us and that they want the same thing that we want – a safe community.”
Lieutenant Dan Fink of the San Rafael Police Department noted that Silvia embodies everything the department is looking for in a future police officer.
“Her commitment to the community and her desire to make change in the world is impressive," Lt. Fink says. “Silvia and I have discussed her growing up in the Canal neighborhood and in listening to her stories, it is a constant reminder how fragile community trust can be. I am proud of how hard everyone here at the City of San Rafael works daily to serve the community and continue those important relationships with our community partners.”
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Community is at the heart of why Silvia enrolled at Dominican. She had always wanted to attend a smaller school – knowing it’s easier to make connections with professors in a smaller learning environment.
“When I came for a visit I really liked the environment at Dominican – there’s something about it that feels just right. Everyone was welcoming and even now, my teachers still reach out if you miss a class to make sure everything is ok.”
Staying close to family also was a priority, and Silvia remains a role model for her younger sister.
“We are very close – my culture is very family oriented – so I wanted to be around for my sister when my sister went to high school and then started to go through applying for college and filling out forms for scholarships.”
A scholarship funded by both college access programs 10,000 Degrees and Dominican made Dominican a possibility for Silvia. She originally planned to major in psychology but added a second major in Social Justice – and a minor in Spanish - in order to gain tools to advocate for change.
Her first hands-on Service-Learning project was a result of the COVID pandemic. During the lockdown, in fall semester 2020, Silvia was one of 25 bilingual Dominican students working on a family support digital literacy project with Canal neighborhood families, teaching parents how to navigate their child’s online classroom learning.
“I would show parents how to log into zoom or Google classroom – how to navigate the computer so they could help their child log in to submit homework or check email. There are so many little things that people who are used to computers don’t think of, but for others it can be mind-blowing.”
Silvia says she started thinking about a career in law enforcement while in high school. Eventually, she hopes to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation – specifically a unit that focuses on crimes against children.
Her own experience as a child could well have influenced her desire to work with the young.
“There was a shooting on our street, and the police were knocking on all the apartments asking for statements. My parents answered the door and I was standing there next to them. I still remember all the flashing lights in the background – the red and blue of the cars- and it being really bloody because of the shooting.”
Seeing an officer at the door was frightening, but Silvia will never forget how the officer’s presence brought comfort to a tense situation.
Before the officer could finish his first sentence, Silvia moved forward and asked a question she had long feared asking: “Are you going to take me away from my parents?”
The officer, she recalls, paused and then, softly, knelt to reassure the 10-year-old Silvia that no – he was there to protect her and to keep her safe.
“He made me believe that they – the police – were not all that bad. I will always remember that night – how I felt comforted and felt I could trust him. It has helped me with my decision to enter law enforcement.”
Photo above features Silvia Gramajo Mazariegos (middle) flanked by Isabel Recendiz (left) and Cristina Rosales.