Jesse Herrera and Amanda Arizola

Recorded October 21, 2019 Archived October 21, 2019 40:01 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby019303


Jesse Herrera (35) tells his friend and business partner, Amanda Arizola (39), about his early involvement in gang life, his decision to start a human-centered design studio, Urban Theory, and the work that Urban Theory is doing to address college homelessness.

Subject Log / Time Code

JH talks about his mother's upbringing as a latina in rural Texas.
JH describes his family and the context of him entering middle school.
JH explains how became involved in "gang life" in high school.
JH explains the circumstances that led to him leaving gang life.
JH talks about his choice to a degree in architecture.
AA describes her upbringing in Fort Worth.
JH talks about the way his architecture work informed his project, Urban Theory.
JH talks about "human-centered design."
JH and AA talk about Urban Theory's focus on college homelessness.
JH talks about the way that social issues intersect.
JH reflects on working with AA.


  • Jesse Herrera
  • Amanda Arizola

Recording Location

Dallas Public Library: North Oak Cliff Branch


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00:07 Hello, I'm Jesse Roman Herrera. 35. Today's date is Monday October 21st, 2019 recording hear out of Dallas, Texas, but I'm originally from Fort Worth, Texas and the name of my interview partner is Amanda. Arizola. She's a dear friend of mine.

00:31 And current business partner and I'm a man that is so low age 39 today's date is Monday October 21st, 2019. We are located and Dallas, Texas and I am interviewing Jesse a data and he is my business partner and friend of 10 plus years and sometimes I wonder how he even still our friends we come from such diverse backgrounds and even though we both grew up in Fort Worth, we have different life experiences. So why don't you start telling me about your life experience?

01:18 So I can go a little bit into my life experience. I guess I should share a little bit about it a little bit of the history of my family. So my mother grew up in South Texas and a small real town called Beeville. It's roughly about 60 miles north of Corpus. There's really not a lot to do down there. And I mean I very vague memories of people just going down there periodically to go visit family. But any who she grew up in the fifties and Beeville, Texas and if anyone knew kind of the history of Texas during the fifties Real Texas a pretty tough Place particularly for a Latino Latino woman

01:59 Not just because of you know, being a woman in the age of the 50s in a real town where her role was mainly subjugated to, you know, taking care of her future husband in taking care of the household, but also because of her culture in her language, she got a lot of she grew up in a very hostile environment Spanish was not really something you spoken World, Texas unless you were rolling deep before crew or you wanted to you know engagement.

02:34 In

02:38 I can't think of the word.

02:41 Confrontation

02:45 So speaking Spanish came for level 3 if you were at non typically she would get picked on a lot by the non-latino non-hispanic folks and she would also get picked on a lot of school by her teachers who administer punishment to her if she spoke the language.

03:04 So I tell you that to tell you this and she got out of evil. She got married. She started having a family on her own that left a very visible mark on her as she started raising her children. So the thing that came out of that so she taught us all the English first as our primary language primarily just to keep us from going through the same suffers as she went through their hair days in Beeville, Texas and just came with an interesting mark on my life, which we'll get to later the in the interview.

03:40 So my father

03:43 Wasn't really a big presence in my life. He was a war-torn Vietnam veteran and I really don't know how him and my mother came to meeting. Those are some of the things that she tends to keeps herself when she talks about Ruben from what I gathered. The marriage was a was a brutal one field. If a lot of abuse both verbally and to a certain point physically

04:11 And by the time I was five years old marriage was already on the decline and an affair with a mutual friend of my father kind of sealed the deal on the marriage and they split shortly after that.

04:25 It ended up being too bad of a thing because I was able to you know, meet my stepfather Mike. It was also another mutual friend of the family. He was married at that time to my mother is best friend and through a set of circumstances. They ended up getting divorced shortly after my parents divorced and they reconnected shortly after and they were married a great man born and raised in Philadelphia and New York Giants been a little bit of time in Los Angeles cuz his father was a in the military. So you brought a lot of unique charm to the family particularly Eastern charm.

05:08 So how did that affect your life?

05:11 So growing up.

05:15 I tell if a different set of challenges I ended up being sent to Crowley High School through some weird Reed District district, and it was a good school, but it was all so much more affluent School compared to the neighboring for feisty campus. So growing up in the environment I grew up and we weren't necessarily very I forgot we were we were working class. You know, we had the the basic needs. We had a roof over a head. We have food at the table every once in a while. Maybe we take a trip down to South Texas to go catch up with the family, but we didn't really have a lot in terms of you know extra so

06:01 We ended up how does translated to me is that it would have gone to school. I never really had quite as nice close as my peers. I never had quite as nice if a car is my peers and as I started getting older there was a reoccurring thing that kept happening. I found myself getting picked on the live on my own Latino peers have primarily for two things one because I didn't speak Spanish and two because my stepfather was black and because of you know, some of the charm that he left on me and some of the I guess you could say cultural traits. I picked up during my life hanging out with him. Primarily African Americans in the heat on the at that time was that, you know created as my core circle of influence that other details. I forgot to mention is that at this point in time in my life going into Middle School to high school. There was a lot of

06:55 Dysfunction with my family my grandfather that passed away right when I turned about 13.

07:01 And because of that he left a lot of money behind that is at his house and he was very old school that so he didn't really believe in bank. So the money was literally stashed in the walls and the floors in this house and after the passing my aunt who you know was my favorite aunt of the time and whose sons and daughters are my favorite cousins proceeded to raid this house and clarify my aunt rated the house and basically took as much money as she could from the walls the floors the ceilings and left the family high and dry to send for the bills and the taxes and it drove her really huge wedge in our family Circle. We're at basically after that we had very little family connection with South Texas. We never had any family get-togethers after that and I never saw my cousin's after that.

08:01 So going into Highschool my Social Circle is pretty small. I didn't have a family and because I was getting mocked a lot by my fellow let him appears. I didn't have a lot of friends either. So getting into high school, you know, I bumped into another group of guys going through a similar set of issues and long story short that turned into do, you know a three-year journey into a very aggressive getting life, but it's treats every night, you know looking for a fight maybe looking to sell some dope, you know, I mean it then I was always filled with mystery. We never knew we were going to come up with

08:45 And a lot of those nights, I mean, it's really just out of sheer luck that I made it back home alive. I really can't say, you know, there was a Magic Bullet or magic form of that. I found that allowed me to survive. It's just your luck. I mean I was in the right place at the right time and it was just fortunate that the circumstances didn't lead to incarcerated or killed.

09:13 So was it was an interesting transition from what that point had been a pretty innocent life.

09:21 So you say innocent life from that and we know in our friendship and in our business dealings that's kind of led to what we're looking at. We had shared a lot of similarities in life. Lots of things with our families together growing strong mothers and working in the community and seeing different things that happened. So what was your transition pivotal point from ganglyfe to the individual that went to college has a degree now working in the community for systemic change?

10:01 Man, I mean it's a lot of stuff so I mean

10:06 I mean I'll harapan luck. But I mean I had no amazing parents. I mean my mother and father and my stepfather, but I call him my real father had a pivotal role the plane is because they never really gave up on me and they were always there to provide, you know a stable shelter.

10:25 I give it up to my brother. I mean he gave me some really good pep talks to kind of help me get out of this situation, even though unfortunately now we're kind of going through some episodes of our relationship.

10:40 Me I think the biggest thing really honestly when I think when I look back at it was just betrayal. I mean the thing that got me into the gang life was really just as you know, I have a constant.

10:55 Series of betrayals, you know from you no previous friends my family.

11:01 And what sealed the deal with me getting out of the gang life was that same since you know, I feel like I've been betrayed where I was thrown in this situation.

11:13 Where I had to defend myself in front of a detective for something I didn't do something. I didn't want to participate in.

11:22 And that really rock the boat with me cuz I mean up to that point. I mean that was willing to ride or die with these folks because I believe that I had found a family someone that you know care for me. I love for me and go to the end of the Earth to defend me and when that happened the reality came screaming back for a viciously that no, that's not the case. I mean these individuals that uses we're basically using me and I was asked a poop.

11:48 So through a fortunate series of events a lot of my friends in the crew left of the military, you know left the state of Texas. Incarcerated themselves, whatever the case but this all happened simultaneously, so it was a really good opportunity for me to also leave as well and following that interview with the detective. I erase my number I enroll in college at next week and I basically disappeared from society for 4 years as I proceed my education, but what architecture is architecture all the time.

12:39 It was a but it didn't come without its level of conflicts and challenges as well. I mean leaving that life has a reset button on a whole different scale. I mean, I only did I leave my Social Circle, but I left that with a whole Twisted perspective on humanity and I looked at people basically as vessels of distrust eventually you were going to betray me eventually you were going to use me for something. So let's just get to the point and be done with this so I don't have to waste any more time for you and it took me a very long time to get over that and unfortunately this word, you know.

13:16 House for sale, but this is where it leads to S meeting. You met me during one of those during that period of bad time. I mean, I was a very different person when we first met and even though I don't remember how we met even though I don't remember this because I was really on that day, but there was a bottle cap. Yes about a cat being flown your head me almost getting in a fight with your boyfriend and you know that series of apology letters. I had to send out for two weeks after that to apologize to every member either that's spilled alcohol on bumped into the wrong way, you know talk about some messed-up stuff or in your case through bottle caps at so but it was really after that and whatever reason which I thank God for you know, you you gave me a second chance to really, you know rebuild myself and

14:10 And I appreciate that because over the past 10 years that follow that I really got to learn a lot about you and you know that the contributions you made to your community and really, you know, the influence that your mother and your family have in your life, which is a good segue into your story kind of more of the story of us and and building a business and all that comes with that and in the way that we move through. I mean, I grew up very similar here in Fort Worth and all over different opportunity front houses. I think I counted it not too long ago lived in 28 different rental houses and apartments would never had a a space that was our own and so even though we didn't move from Fort Worth itself. It's always just very different so I get antsy when I'm in a place for too long, which which really is a good base.

15:10 This is for the work that I do and for the work that we do for the community. I spent my life giving back and understanding that things are happening. We may fortunately we never had to struggle with food, but they were always mean times. We always made it work and that helps me an hour with my work that I do in the community and being able to be a non-profit manager and learn from you those different aspects, especially from architecture and design we come from two very different worlds, even though we come from what other people would see is the same world. I know there was something you had told me before that that someone had asked you what was it like to live in a low-income community that you lived in? Oh and you lived in the same house all your life. How is that? I mean the house actually, you know, it was acquired through the divorce With My Father by biological

16:10 Mother and I mean it is very interesting. When I do share my story about being a gang banger. That's usually the perception is well, you came from a very hostile very low-income family. I mean, you know, you're a Survivor you you know, what's what's your secret is like a man that it wasn't. I mean, I'm not really in any things are there wasn't really nothing special about my life. It was just a set of circumstances in I got lucky. I mean, I'll keep harping on that. I just got lucky but grown up in the same house. I mean it brought a certain level stability, which I think it helped in getting out of this life because I never really had to worry about where my next meal is coming from or you know where I where I was going to stay for the night. So, I mean there was a certain level of comfort that comes with that and there's a certain level of you know luxury that I had compared to some of my other peers that went through similar things. So, I mean I own that openly, you know, I mean my life was, you know, pretty

17:14 But I think this also is a good segue into why even after or 10 years of friendship so far two and a half years ago. We decided that what we were seeing and the community wasn't enough and wasn't the the right way of thinking about things done is to say the right way but a different way of thinking so do you want to tell him about Urban Theory something Urban Theory? I think really in its core started right after I got out of the college so has Amanda mentioned I graduated from UTSA graduate of an architecture degree in started practicing right afterwards and something became apparent very quickly with architecture and that there was a very big level of separation between me as the designer and the individual that was eventually going to inhabit the space. So at this particular time of my life, I was designing a multi-family in a very specific type of multifamily of senior Assisted Living.

18:14 Independent Living so basically, you know kind of a fancy version of a retirement home.

18:20 And I never met the individuals that would eventually inhabit these faces. So that was a little awkward to me, you know, trying to design a space for someone that I would never meet. What also became very apparent is that what I was designing was essentially a very expensive product. So some of these units would go for three-quarters of a million to 1.2 million for basically in apartment and I feel very disenfranchised about that because for an individual, you know, even if they were at fluent working their entire life to raise enough money, so they could have a comfortable retirement. That was a pretty substantial chunk of you. No one's income for basically an apartment.

19:08 For the other half or the majority of the population. This won't even be a feasible option because the price tag was so high so

19:17 Just lie to you know me asking a question. Is there a way that I could actually design utilize designer utilize architecture to give back to the community and the journey really started looking at how could I create more affordable housing more affordable developments that would help the public.

19:39 Through looking deeper into this question. I realize there was a lot of creative potential that Architects carry that may be necessary didn't have to be applied to buildings. So the question became more. So how can we do the lies designed to facilitate impact and through a series of trips all across the globe one standing out of particular to Jakarta. I had the unique opportunity to hear Muhammad you nice for a Nobel Peace Prize winner most renowned for the Grameen bank and his perspective on social Enterprises in really looking at things to your system lens really resonated with me.

20:23 And when I brought that lesson back it really invigorating reinvigorate this whole question of utilizing designed to facilitate impact and as I started looking deeper into that, I think this is where a lot of our theories come and call us together is I started realizing that we were trying to solve a lot of the same problems.

20:50 With either Antiquated processes or trying to solve them in the same way that we created the problem. Additionally. I was finding out that we weren't really going to be on the symptom. I would serve him a couple nonprofits, you know after you know getting a little bit more seasoned into my career and we could never really get quite past symptom. I mean we would do these great events would help all these, you know clients out but yet the same here afterwards we would see the same clients.

21:25 And we tried to try to facilitate some initiatives to go beyond that, but it was very difficult to get people to really want to get on board to change her to allocate resources to allocate time. So ultimately what we would see would be the same resources the same Solutions and nothing would change.

21:48 So looking deeper into this question. I really want to know how could we go as far into that issue as possible and really Taylor a journey using these cool kids that I acquired pick up being an architect being a contractor being a real estate developer being a teacher.

22:09 You know and apply it to something outside of just then just making buildings. So really this is a Pursuit not just of you know an architect but it's the pursuit of really utilizing a professionals creative Capital to do more and to do work that actually impact Society.

22:30 So we've Urban Theory, I mean, it really started that point but I think the pivotal change was whenever we got together about 2 years ago and we sat around, you know, a nice lofty wood table in the Autumn drinking a couple beers trying to with a you know, with a couple of groups other friends at the table trying to figure out, you know, how could we create change? I think we were all recognizing that the similarities in our journey. We were all recognizing that we weren't really creating.

23:08 You know the types of organizations or initiatives that would lead to change and collectively we said, okay. Well, let's just figure out how we can get this done industries that were bringing an and the ideology so hang out with your design background and understanding with my nonprofit understanding and the way that we look at things very differently.

23:35 That helps us to be able to figure out what are these kind of solutions? I know I get very stubborn and very set and then that's how we talked about it and see what's coming through and so that brings kind of the question of we've both seen through General generational. I talked about this all the time generational wealth and how we have not been able to move and how and real estate and you talk about and assign how bad is moving things forward and we just don't look at it and specific ways. So and you brought in human centered design and I finally realized you were helping me explain and understand human centered design that that's what I was already doing. Do you want to talk about some of the projects that you've been working on? I would agree that we all have

24:35 The practices in our career by we often term. It is different things.

24:42 Anything for me. I mean, I think owning that skill really came at my previous employer at Tarrant County College where I was helping design classrooms. So the framework is really just about connecting with those that you know, you aim to serve those that you know it at the end of this journey you're aiming to help and the two projects that we've been able to acquire since we launched have been quite interesting. One of them is focusing on addressing College homelessness, which we actually discovered by accident. We were hosting our inaugural event, which was called City talk and the idea was just to talk about a very pressing unique topic that maybe most people were fluent with and the topic that we chose was hostile design. So we were really looking at the ways that we intentionally and unintentionally design certain classes of people out of

25:42 Urban spaces so we've seen this in different cities and we even saw her Fort Worth when we conducted our audit but looking at different like little elements on like parking benches or a planter boxes where you have like little bumps that prevent people from being able to sit comfortably you are having arm bars in the middle of venture. So you can't sleep on it on a public bench or even a real subtle detail that we found in the Water Gardens in Fort Worth where there's these little bumps on the handrails that actually prevent skateboarders from being able to grind down the the railing and we brought all this information back and we basically just you know presented pay these are the facts of our city. These are some of the elements that we found that are hostile. What do you think maybe had a very informal discussion about you know, the Hostile design as we started kicking that concept around and we got a little deeper into the topic. We on Earth College homelessness, one of the participants there, you know got up as a conversation started migrating towards homelessness and whether or not we wanted in the

26:42 Angels ever homeless in our communities and she shared of us that she's been seeing an increasing percentage of college students experiencing homelessness in that shut down. The entire conversation has me to take about 15 seconds to digest what we heard following that we took together a series of round tables and additional forms really to help educate folks on the need of the pursuing this challenge to let him know that yes. This is a real thing and here are some of the stories have been out to collect through the students that we've interviewed because unfortunately, I wasn't present during that kind of when you say by accident and and just being in the community and knowing the work that I was too close to it because I already knew that the statistics of college homelessness are so high so drastic people don't know and I've always been surprised by your like reactions to that and also the

27:42 The reactions of the people in the room. I think a lot of us are so separate from that cuz I mean if you're not engaging in social work each and every day, we never see that cuz we get caught up in our day today. So it kind of made sense. I mean even though it's not a good way to justify. I mean, that's what you lead that you know, a live and breathe for 20 years. I live and breathe construction and real estate. So that's what I knew. That's what I focused on and I guess what's even a bigger slap-in-the-face is it when I when we originally Host this event, I was still working for the college. So I didn't even know as an employee of the college. That's just how total focused I was which is a whole nother realization after you know doing this to me like wow, like I really am not seeing the big picture here. So now and it just it just always boggles my mind, especially as a practitioner and then also as an academic and we can shout this from the rooftop we can Market it our selves and we can

28:42 How people about it, but what I've noticed especially with the Roundtable discussions that people are more willing to hear this from somebody other than a social worker from somebody other than somebody who has a direct connection with it. So it becomes this idea of and going back to human centered design and that of how do we share that story in a way that's going to be most appealing that mean really sharing a story not only to be no help eliminate on the challenge but also to help change that perceive narrative cuz I think you know again, I'll take myself honey woman and never thought about this we just think okay. Well you're in college you must have made it you're successful and I even had to take a step back. Even when I start, you know pursuing this project and looking back at my history and have a remembering very vividly that you know, the only saving grace I had getting through college was again my parents. I was in a very awkward situation.

29:42 Listen to ride into the beginning of my senior year where I had to take time off work to go work on a project school. And you know, unfortunately the Woodshop that I needed to build this model and is Project operated very weird hours at the day. So my only opportunity was it wasn't a Sunday that I was scheduled.

30:05 Take off the day to complete my work. I completed my work and then the next day I had a sit-down with the boss and I had to make a decision that day. You're either going to work full time at the at this place or you're going to go to school full-time, but we're not going to let you do both.

30:22 So I had the luxury of being on the walk away from that job, but realizing that now there's a lot of students that don't have that luxury and then they get put in this awkward situation where they may not technically Bahamas, but they're right on the verge. Yeah, I mean at UT then when I graduated from UT my three roommates we were evicted from our apartment. We are only saving grace was that our sorority sisters allowed us to stay in their homes while we gathered up funding to find another place in apartment. So, you know, this project becomes very important for us and becomes very important as the foundation of what's moving forward and how we're looking at different things and how we think about the traditional means of helping that goes and two from not only a community aspect in as a community activist. What do we do but also from your perspective of design, I mean we talked about design all the time.

31:22 I think this is one of the great things that Architects do you bring to the table? That's maybe an unappreciative skill but there's a Architects are very good at building cohorts. I mean, it's were pardoned how we conduct our business. We have to recruit Consultants. We have to coordinate with contractors. We have enough. We have to tether many alignments throughout this project.

31:44 And realizing, you know, some of the complexities that come with this challenge. It's no different then you know and architecture project is just said you're designing it architecture for a social solution. So that being said, I mean this type of this child ever pursuing has a lot of different facets to it and will be realized, you know, collectively as we've pursued Urban theory is all these challenges that we really ain't to fix can't be solved on their own they can be solved in The Silo and there's a large constantly moving network of partners are going to be required to make any tangible change cuz I mean just give him one example of one of the students will be interviewed was previously incarcerated make that in itself is its own unique and complex challenge Heather that with the does individual is also a homeless and pursue in college. I mean, that's a platter of of of issues.

32:42 Oh, yeah, it's interesting as you start driving deeper how interwoven these, these challenges become and I'm even getting into that like you start getting into like food insecurity issues which you know is another project that we're currently working on right now to grow Southeast an initiative that we helped launch, you know, we were at ass with try to help with addressing food insecurities in stop six in Fort Worth and what became abundantly clear as we start diving deeper into that that this isn't just a challenge food. It's also a challenge of income, you know, it's very difficult to afford healthy living and you know kind of the day-to-day things we take for granted if you don't have any income so as we know pursue this challenge we've looking at through that lens of Economic Development and how we can actually Empower these community members that were helping to be the vessels of their own change. So

33:42 In the event that we do the attach and detach that we're no longer needed for intervention.

33:49 I think that through the last couple of years with us ourselves and then also our other partner wineville fundal. We've all come through some interesting conversations and debates on the perfect way or the right way or just any way to move forward and help people understand and learn the things that I want to say is that I'm really proud of the work that you've done and the way that you have moved forward in your life and that everything happens for a specific reason everything that we've worked for everything that comes up for is it is really really kind of the whole whole reason why we're here today and whole reason why we continue to do this work. I know it's tough and we argue all the time about funding cuz funding is a bad word for us.

34:42 F word, but I think that Urban theory is going to strive mostly because you have so much faith in it and also because I believe in you think that'll work through appreciate that so what do you see as a hazard Chief Visionary? What do you see in the next couple of years with the arms of urban Theory?

35:09 I mean the current is were basically creating a market that doesn't really exist yet in DFW it exist in other places in the world. So we're leveraging what knowledge that we can and advises that we can that we've acquired through our Journeys the kind of help us with these preliminary steps, but I really do see Urban Theory being a catalyst to really help Drive Social Innovation and really helping spark, you know that the Innovative Flair and the Innovative touch to addressing Social Challenges in really kind of going back to that pivotal moment when I was in Jakarta and listening to mohammadi nurse, you know, how do we use utilize business in the social Enterprise to really take a much more intentional Step at changing the system?

35:59 And really being that agency that is about intervening in the system changing the system improving the system and really laying the foundation. So others continue the journey, I'm not naive enough to think that I can solve we can solve all the world's problems, but I do believe we can set the foundation and that's really where I see Urban Theory doing in the next, you know, 10-15 years is being that pivotal agent to set the foundation you were for sequestered for 5 days with armed guards and everything else around you while I was out and about and little calves and walking around the streets unprotected as a woman and some of the most horrific traffic we've ever seen as having some amazing dialogue and Converse.

36:58 And and trying to really look and figure out what the complex issues and traffic issues. Could we change and see and it always makes me think about the different ways in which we work and come together. So I appreciate that. I was going to add another detail that about a very uncomfortable massage, but maybe that's better left for another take another day. This is a great trip. We've had some amazing Around the World trips and will continue to bring these issues back to our communities and work through so I'm at proud to be part of urban Theory soon to have a non-profit arm with coact and to walk alongside you with this journey has been a hell of a making and I mean it has always been the easiest tourney, but you know

37:51 We both bring a tenacity in a fierceness to this work that's going to be necessary to carry it through and it's been a pleasure learning about you. It's been a pleasure working alongside you but I think more so it's been a pleasure just have any other call you my friend.

38:20 He's good at that so Urban theory is a human centered Design Studio. We help organizations take strategic approaches to very complex Social Challenges was quite a mouthful. So the best way to really sum it up as if we help organizations take on more ambitious challenges and we have them get past the fuzzy idea state tax to get tangible scalable Solutions on the ground.

38:51 It went left anything else with the same for both of us. This is our life experiences really it primed us to be able to to take these experiences and then to also be open-minded enough to even though it's hard for me because I'm stubborn and he thinks that I am set in my ways. I'm not I can listen. I'm open it's a different traditional mine and that's what I appreciate about our friendship. I think the biggest takeaway from me over there all these years and just reflecting on my own life.

39:35 Is really just a value of y and that question. I don't think we really asked that question enough in today's society. We kind of just take things for granite wrong. That's just the way things are but I think we need to question that more often can really get deeper into understanding, you know, these these topics that you know, we often considered taboo.