The new CEO of a Silicon Valley nonprofit that helps homeless teens faced bullying and intimidation as a gay youth. He hopes to channel that experience into bringing change to the lives of young adults struggling with their own identities.
Josh Selo took the reins at the Bill Wilson Center last month, replacing former CEO Sparky Harlan who retired after 40 years.
“There’s a personal stake for me as a member of the LGBTQ community, (and) as a parent of Black children,” Selo told San José Spotlight. “We still have so much further to go if we want to truly live in a community where people can live their lives as their full selves… and I want to be part of making that possible for the next generation.”
Selo spent his first month absorbing all he could about his team and the communities they serve. The nonprofit has been a local powerhouse for 50 years, advocating for affordable housing for foster and LGBTQ youth.
Selo, 47, said his new job is closely tied to who he is as a person. Raised in Los Angeles, the middle child of three children said his family was supportive of his gender identity. But at school he had a rough time and there was little to no LGBTQ representation in media and elsewhere. He said his work at the Bill Wilson Center enables him to help LGBTQ teens and young adults while also tackling the disparate access to resources that LGBTQ people of color face.
“There weren’t a lot of mentors or folks to support people like me who were just beginning to discover our identities and what it means,” Selo told San José Spotlight. “How do we continue to… make sure that our community is inclusive, open, welcoming to everyone?”
Selo said he struggled to find books on LGBTQ experiences growing up, but still nurtured a love for literature and theater. He was inspired by high school classes that taught him to find the meaning behind words. He brought that in-depth perspective to his time at UC Santa Barbara, where he majored in theater and religious studies.
“My ability to connect to people, my ability to tell a story… Those are some of the skills that have helped me overall in my career,” Selo said.
Selo made a cross-country move after graduating in 1997, eventually landing a job at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, where he spent the next 11 years. He started advocating for teens, running a program called Operation: Chicken Soup that gathered biweekly to foster community discussions while a huge pot of broth bubbled in the background.
“You had to skim the fat, chop the vegetables. While the soup was simmering, I would bring in articles about food insecurity, housing insecurity, and we would talk with the teens. ‘What do you think about this? What does this mean to you?’” Selo told San José Spotlight.
Selo and his husband adopted their two daughters in 2009 and 2012. They moved to Silicon Valley to be closer to family in 2013, where his husband is a software engineer. Selo became the executive director of West Valley Community Services in 2016, a nonprofit that provides housing assistance and basic needs such as food and hygiene kits.
Kohinoor Chakravarty, West Valley Community Services chief development and communications director, said it took just one phone call for her to want to work at the nonprofit. She said Selo’s leadership approach aligned with her values.
“We hit it off right away,” Chakravarty told San José Spotlight. “He’s one of the big reasons why I started at West Valley Community Services.”
Children and the learning curve
Selo said the adoption of his daughters brought another layer of understanding to his advocacy work. Inequity became deeply personal as a parent trying to address issues of systemic racism. Selo said he’s had conversations with his daughters about police and that he too has a learning curve as a white parent of Black children. This learning process now extends into his work at the Bill Wilson Center, he added.
“After adopting the children, our family shifted and changed, and my awareness of the world shifted along with my family,” Selo said.
West Valley Community Services Interim Executive Director Sujatha Venkatraman said Selo brought empathy to every project during the seven years they worked together. Their mobile food pantry initiative, known as Park-It Market, worked to eliminate the stigma around food insecurity and poverty, giving residents the chance to shop for items in the pantry instead of simply handing out pre-filled grocery bags.
“He’s a very compassionate leader,” Venkatraman told San José Spotlight. “He is leaving the organization at a really good place. Of course, I will totally miss working with him.”
Chakravarty said Selo is the perfect fit for the Bill Wilson Center.
“Josh’s life dream was to work with the LGBTQ community,” Chakravarty said. “He is getting to do that… and he’s going to be just amazing in leading in his new role.”
Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.
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