If someone had told a teenage Jasmin Santana that she would one day be the first Latina elected to Cleveland City Council, she probably wouldn’t have believed it.
“When you grow up with trauma, you don’t believe in yourself—especially as a Latina,” explains Santana. “All my mom expected out of me was to get a 9-to-5 job and pay the bills. To dream big and feel like you’ll be a leader one day, that’s something like winning the lotto. That doesn't happen for people like us, especially when we grow up with neighborhoods that have so many limits.”
Master planning stakeholders meetingAs the councilwoman for Ward 14, Santana has her sights squarely set on eliminating those limits for the residents of Clark-Fulton, the Stockyards, and parts of Tremont. Since she was elected in November 2017, Santana has gone full-steam ahead on everything from neighborhood beautification to women’s programs to crime prevention initiatives.
Santana is also working to create a $200,000 master plan for Clark-Fulton in tandem with MetroWest Development Corporation, MetroHealth, Cleveland Foundation, and the City of Cleveland. “Coming in, there was no vision for our neighborhood,” says Santana. “Now we’re working on a comprehensive master plan for Clark-Fulton, and we want to ensure residents have a voice at the table.”
And Santana is more than ready to amplify it.
A leader is born
Now 40 years old, Santana was born at MetroHealth and raised on the border of the Detroit Shoreway and Ohio City neighborhoods. “Back then, those areas were very similar to Ward 14 right now,” says Santana. “Lots of crime, very blighted, a lot of vacant houses, and highly concentrated in Latino families.”
Jasmin SantanaSantana says the area started gentrifying when she was about 14 years old, and her family moved to the Stockyards neighborhood because her mom couldn't afford to purchase the house they rented. “My mom never had the opportunity to go to school,” shares Santana. “She lived her life cleaning houses, sewing, and selling food. That’s how we paid the bills.”
Yet it was Santana’s mom who indirectly led Santana to her first job in community outreach. When her mom’s friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, Santana took on a role with MetroHealth, developing its BREAST/Amigas program aimed at aiding underinsured and uninsured minorities. Santana’s work entailed bringing mammograms and free health fairs into the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, but some of the most impactful work happened in her own office.
“Our goal was to educate women about breast health and early detection, but it literally became something else,” says Santana, who worked at MetroHealth for nine years. “My office became a place for women to share what they were going through, and for me to listen. I wanted to help women like my mom and give back.”
As Santana became emotionally attached to the women in the BREAST/Amigas program, she says it became harder to see their struggles firsthand. “MetroHealth is this huge institution, and it was so disconnected from the neighborhood right across the street,” she says. “People were struggling with issues around daycare, housing, health, transportation. The resources weren’t getting to the residents.”
Santana decided to go back to school for nonprofit management with the goal of opening a safe house for women. She’d witnessed domestic violence as a child between her stepfather and mom, and she wanted to help women in similar situations.
While enrolled at Cleveland State University, Santana started selling Mary Kay Cosmetics to defray her education costs, but again, her role morphed into more of a women’s empowerment coach. Her sales presentations had themes like “You’re a Wonder Woman” and “Believe In Yourself,” and she passed out pamphlets on human trafficking, healthcare, and domestic violence alongside cosmetics samples.
“At the end of the day, I didn’t really sell much—it was a platform for me to reach out to women and enter their homes,” says Santana. “Women ended up talking about their struggles and wanting to do more in life, but feeling trapped.”
Santana recalls when a Mary Kay executive visited from Chicago and told her, “If you ever want to make money, you have to leave here,” recalls Santana. “It still makes me emotional to this day. I remember thinking, ‘I am not going to listen to that.’ My business model was about rebuilding our neighborhood, one facial at a time.”
Stepping into leadership
In 2016, Santana took on another community engagement role—this time with Hispanic Alliance—tackling issues such as lead abatement and infant mortality. She also worked on creating a Latina Women of Impact program to increase female civic engagement in the neighborhood.
“I realized that my gift is identifying a problem, identifying a solution, and creating programs that engage residents around that issue,” says Santana.
In 2017, Santana decided to go all-in and run for City Council, with the goal of unseating Brian Cummins, who had been in office for Ward 14 since 2006. It wasn’t easy—Scene called it “Cleveland’s ugliest City Council race,” and Santana felt that even some of the neighborhood’s Latino population didn’t support her even though “we needed that representation at City Hall,” she says. “There’s a poem that goes, ‘Sometimes when you put on your cape to save someone, the people you want to save and help are the ones stepping on your cape.’ That’s exactly how it was. By the time I won, I was exhausted.”
Ward 14 community meeting
It didn’t take Santana long to get energized—Hurricane Maria had happened in Puerto Rico just a few months earlier, and Cleveland was experiencing an influx of Hispanic families. Plus, Santana was more than ready to act on what she saw as a lack of resources and attention for her ward.
“All these neighborhoods around us were developing, but we didn’t have anything here,” says Santana. “I talked to so many people who felt hopeless and that nothing [positive] would happen. It was so important for me to show them and my kids that we have to be the change we want to see in our neighborhood.”
Painting a better picture
Less than two years into her term, Santana has gained a lot of traction toward progress for her ward. One of the projects closest to her heart has been “Painting a Better Picture for Ward 14,” which works to prevent illegal dumping and beautify the area. Dumpsters visit neighborhoods every two weeks so that residents can properly dispose of unwanted items, and Santana spearheads neighborhood cleanups in various areas.
There’s also a public art piece to the effort. “Last year, we painted the garbage bins and all the fire hydrants,” shares Santana. “This year, we found 400 tires in alleys, made planters out of them, and put them in vacant lots to prevent dumping.”
Santana continues to focus on empowerment initiatives as well, pointing to a quote that she keeps on her wall: “I don’t develop communities. I develop people who develop communities.”
To that end, Santana has started SEEDS (Support, Empower, Engage, Develop, Sustain) alongside Freshly Rooted’s Alysha Ellis. The women’s group meets once a week at the Cleveland Public Library for nine months, following a curriculum Santana and Ellis developed around personal, professional, and social development, as well as holistic health.
Her hope is to empower others to start businesses, own their own homes, and find fulfilling job opportunities. “That’s one of the challenges with La Villa Hispana—it’s hard to get people to open their own businesses,” she says, pointing to importance of the El Mercado project in lifting up local entrepreneurs. “We have to invest in people and give them the tools.”
Santana is thrilled to see the neighborhood rallying around its cultural identity as La Villa Hispana takes shape. “Right now, the only time my son feels a sense of pride for his culture is when the Puerto Rican Parade happens—we need to change that,” says Santana. “We’re creating that sense of place. Imagine driving into the neighborhood, looking at flags, businesses, art, and culturally relevant neighborhood landmarks [that reflect the Hispanic and Latino cultures].”
And for those constituents who still feel skeptical or hopeless, Santana urges them to stay the course. “I know you’ve been waiting so long, but we’re on the cusp of something huge,” says Santana. “Be patient, it’s coming.”