Thesis project becomes thriving community center

Estella Sanchez ’04 (Social Science), M.A. ’08 (Education Leadership & Policy Studies) credits her parents and grandparents, who immigrated to the Sacramento region from Mexico to work first in agriculture and later in the construction industry, for instilling in her the importance of serving her community.

“They came with that idea of, ‘We’re staying, this is our home, and we want to give back,’” she says. “Even though they had low-paying jobs in agriculture, like many who immigrated to the region, they helped to build one of the largest economies in the world. Because of their sacrifices for me to have a better life, I’ve always felt that need to give back.”

So as a master’s student at Sacramento State, well aware of the systemic inequities in education and surrounded by classmates who shared her desire to address them, she came up with a unique thesis idea: an after-school program for underrepresented children that drew upon the community to provide resources and support.

That idea became Sol Collective, a center dedicated to arts, culture, and activism that today is based out of a 3,200-square-foot warehouse in Sacramento’s Curtis Park neighborhood. Sanchez founded the organization in 2005 and continues to serve as its executive director, overseeing a thriving community hub that offers educational programming, arts exhibits, community workshops, and other events focused on social justice and youth empowerment.

“When we opened up Sol Collective, we put out a call to the community that we have the space if you have something you want to offer,” Sanchez says. “We had people who wanted to teach cultural history to students. We had people who wanted to teach traditional health, silk screening, music production. All of these different people in the community came out, and we started to develop programming around it.”

That programming is varied and plentiful. Monday features free community yoga, while Tuesdays include Native American drumming classes. On Wednesdays, the organization offers political analysis of current events and training for activists through its “Sac Activist School.” Thursdays feature Aztec dancing and indigenous music classes. Art exhibit openings, film screenings, or music performances often take place on Fridays and Saturdays.

The name Sol Collective itself is a play on words. Sol, the Spanish word for “sun,” is a nod to Sanchez’s Mexican heritage. But it also, she says, evokes the phrase “everyone under the sun,” indicating that the collective is a space for all people to come together and get to know one another.

“When we live in the same community, we don’t always know why someone dresses the way they do or why they speak the way they speak, or why they have certain traditions,” she says. “A space like this allows everyone in the community to begin to learn about each other.”

It has been a busy few months. Sol Collective recently purchased the building it occupies, as well as hired its first full-time employees. Sanchez and her staff also have been fielding inquiries from organizations across the country looking to replicate their model.

As part of its youth outreach, the organization offers internships to high school students. One of their former interns is Salvin Chahal ’17 (Sociology), a Sacramento State alumnus who first came to Sol Collective in high school as part of the spoken word group Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, which practiced and performed there. He now works for the organization part time, helping with social media and event production.

When Chahal wanted to start producing spoken word and slam poetry shows himself, he knew exactly where to go.

“Sol Collective and Estella were always trying to provide a platform for young people of color, so I would produce shows here with my friends,” he says. “Whatever project you have, they’ll guide you. I’m just one example out of a multitude of people who have been able to launch a career and work specifically off their creative endeavors.”

Sanchez transferred to Sacramento State from Sacramento City College, while at the same time working as the youth program director for a drug and alcohol center in Oak Park. That experience exposed her to the ways in which both the juvenile justice and education systems were failing many young people of color – and inspired her to return to Sac State for graduate school.

“We expect all students to achieve the same way, yet some students are coming with a variety of complexities,” she says. “Having been in the community for a couple of years and being able to witness firsthand students coming out of juvenile justice and learning their stories, and having my own background, I got really interested in pursuing a master’s in education and seeing what I could do to support other students.”

At Sacramento State, Sanchez had the opportunity to take courses, including in ethnic studies, that helped her better understand her heritage and the importance of social justice, paving the way for her to create something like Sol Collective. She credits the late Professor Ricardo Favela for allowing her to take an independent studies course in which she began experimenting with community program development.

“I wouldn’t be doing any of this work if I hadn’t been at Sac State and specifically at Sac State, because I had access to these incredible professors who really shaped me as a person,” Sanchez says.