Remembrance: Richard Alvarado, big shoes to fill

Submitted by Don Arispe on January 30, 2013 - 11:35pm

Richard was a dear friend, mentor and one of my first supervisors in the social service field. I met him in 1985 when I was a Trinity U. Urban Studies graduate student and an intern at the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County.

Richard ran the United Way department I was assigned to. He was the first boss I had in social service that treated me with genuine respect and dignity. After leaving the United Way in 1985 to pursue social ministry and social work, I would occasionally run into him or hear of his progress through friends.

He became somewhat of a hero and role model for me as he was able to successfully maneuver through the politically challenging world of the United Way and the Nonprofit Resource Center without ever selling out his values or integrity. He gave me hope that I could do the same.

It became apparent over the years that if I had any question about the nonprofit world, Richard was the man to go to. So when I was appointed the Director of Community Leadership Development at St. Mary’s University’s 21st Century Leadership Center in 2003, Richard was one of the first people I called upon to assist me in forming a “learning community.”

It was a group of veteran community leaders who were willing to come together regularly to help provide me guidance, essentially an advisory board. In exchange for their guidance I would coordinate/facilitate lunch forums for/with them.

They would come together to exchange ideas on a wide variety of community leadership development issues, each taking turns in sharing on an agreed upon topic or bringing in a guest to expound on a topic or lead a discussion. Richard was key in identifying up-and-coming young leaders and bringing them to our center’s attention.

He was an expert in the area of strategic planning, but from an authentic, grassroots perspective. Richard also knew more than anyone in the city about the nuts and bolts of starting a nonprofit. He made boring subjects like bylaws, Roberts Rules of Order and neighborhood association officer roles come to life. Richard’s love for this community and developing leaders with integrity were contagious.

I spent 2008-2011 serving on a very active board with him for The Edgewood Family Network. During that period I got to see up close just how genuinely dedicated he was to motivating, inspiring and mentoring grassroot leaders that others had written off long ago.

When our ex-director was unable to continue leading the organization, Richard threw his hat in the ring and did all he could do to save the organization despite his failing health. He did it without ever asking for a dime.

After all his years in nonprofit work he had come to a conclusion (one that I share): that the people most impacted by a social issue are the people most willing and able to do something to change that issue. That people closest to these issues are also the experts regarding these issues, and we should be learning from them instead of only bringing in outside experts who had never lived their reality.

That is not to say that Richard did not believe in outside experts. He did, he was one of the best.

But he only shared his expertise when he was asked to, and when he did, he did so with great humility and cultural sensitivity. This is highly ironic because if anyone has earned the right and had the knowledge to come in and say to a group, “this is how it should be, and this is how it will work best,” it was Richard.

But he also knew that he could serve best by helping those around him develop the skills to come to their own conclusions instead of passively depending on him.

Leaders across this country could learn volumes from his approach.

Some men wake up every morning and ask themselves, how can I become more powerful today? Or think to themselves, I’m going to be the president one day. Or they scheme to figure out, how can I make my first million by 30? Richard got up every day with one question on his mind:

How can I best serve my community today?

Our community has lost one of our greatest advocates of what is known in the social service world as “authentic demand.” Politicians are always talking about what the people want, or what the people need, but very few of them actually listen to the people before these pronouncements.

Richard authentically listened to the people, and I mean ALL people, not just the folks with the loudest voices or those who happened to agree with him.

We have some very big shoes to fill. Thankfully Richard taught many of us how to fill them.