Tuesday, Nov. 5 was a night of firsts for Gilberto Perez Jr. and the city of Goshen.Perez, the vice president for Student Life at Goshen College, was elected to a four-year term on the Goshen City Council, becoming the first Goshen College employee and the first Latino to hold that office in the city.
“...this is going to end up being the most diverse City Council that Goshen has ever seen,” Mayor Jeremy Stutsman said. “And this is a board that I can’t diversify.
It has to be the public, so I think
it’s a good step to see that happening.”
Alongside Perez, Democrats Megan W. Eichorn (District 4) and Julia King (At-large) were elected to the council. But Republicans won in Districts 1 and 2, electing Jim McKee and Douglas Nisley respectively; Republican Brett F. Weddell took the second At-large seat. As for District 3, Republican Matt P. Schrock was one vote ahead of Democrat Jennifer Shell after Tuesday's election. Provisional ballots will be counted to confirm the District 3 winner. Former District 5 councilman Adam C. Scharf now assumes the role of Goshen City Clerk-Treasurer.
With “Gilberto for an Engaged Goshen” as his slogan, Perez emphasized relationships — connecting with constituents of District 5 — as he went door to door during the 2019 campaign season.
“I don’t know exactly how to run a campaign, how to be a City Council member or how to work alongside other elected officials,” Perez said. “But I want to get up everyday and say I have something new to learn.”
For Perez, the learning takes place by listening, a skill that his son, Felix Perez Diener, a first-year student at Harvard University, says is the “most important attribute for a City Council member.” Perez Diener served as a youth adviser to the council during his senior year at Goshen High School.
Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, who first encouraged Perez to run, agrees.
“I believe that when you’re elected, you are elected to make decisions, but you need to inform every decision by listening to the voices around you,” said Stutsman, who ran unopposed and was reelected to a four-year term as mayor.
As council representative for District 5, Perez will serve an area bounded by the southernmost border of Goshen and E. Plymouth Avenue to the north.
Goshen College is situated in the district.
During the campaign season, Perez participated in several candidate forums, radioa station appearances, made hundreds of phone calls and knocked on hundreds of doors. And as he connected with the people of District 5, Perez noted the issues that filled conversations: better traffic flow, the installation of sidewalks along College Avenue, better signage for pedestrians crossing streets, transportation for workers in the industrial park, a stronger tree canopy and steps to address homelessness.
Perez’s passion for community engagement, for “meeting people on their turf,”
has always been a part of his story.
“I spent my formative years sleeping on the floor and listening to stories of desert walks of people in transition,” he told Crossroads, a publication of Eastern Mennonite University, which presented him with a Distinguished Service Award in 2018. “My parents were pastors but they also served as social workers, without formal degrees, accompanying immigrants to community services or to find work.”
Perez grew up in south Texas where his parents often opened their doors to those fleeing their Central American homes. He later went on to major in social work at Eastern Mennonite University and created a nationally-recognized mental health promotion curriculum, Bienvenidos, for Latino immigrants while working at Northeastern Center in Indiana.
“The motivation for my work has always been — there are things that people in the community have access to, but sometimes they don’t know it’s there for them,” Perez said. “And so my work has been to connect people...to support people while accessing the resources that are available to them that they deserve.”
As the first Latino on the Goshen City Council, Perez emphasizes his biculturalism.
“I’m not only bilingual, but bicultural,” Perez said. “I hope that when I come to City Council I can help bridge the Latinx community with city systems and make for a stronger community.”
Mayor Jeremy Stutsman recognizes the growing Latinx community in Goshen.
“Our community is 33-34% Latino, Goshen schools are over 50% [Latino], so [Perez] being the first Latino to sit on City Council will be huge,” Stutsman said. “I think that’s a big step in working to diversify the boards.”
In his job as vice president for Student Life and dean of students at Goshen College, Perez has worked at growing intercultural competency as the college moves towards becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution.
Supporting the civic engagement of both students and employees at GC, President Rebecca Stoltzfus sees Perez’s new role as “a visible example of the commitment of our employees to the well being of our city.”
Goshen College has assisted the City Council by having its employees serve on various commissions and boards. Richard Aguirre, coordinator of community impact, serves on the Board of Zoning Appeals. Rocio Diaz, director of community engagement, serves on the Mayor’s Latino Advisory Committee.
Perez, an EMU graduate (‘94), will be the first non-GC alum to hold the District 5 seat since 1995. Everett Thomas (‘72) served as representative from 1995 to 2015, until Adam Scharf (‘01) was elected and served until Tuesday’s election.
Perez is mindful of the potential conflict of interest between his two roles, but is prepared to remove himself when needed, prioritizing a fair process for all involved.
“It’s an opportunity to serve,” he said. “We are an institution where our core value this year is servant leadership, and in talking with president Rebecca Stoltzfus and the cabinet, it’s an opportunity to give to our community in some respect.”
The close connection between the college and City Council will be a first, but Stutsman sees the relationship as being positive.
“His [Perez] connection with the college and being on City Council will help bring those two entities a little closer together,” he said.
And Perez believes the students at GC should care too.
“Goshen College students should pay attention to local politics because they can learn how a mid-sized city makes decisions about what type of buildings it builds, what type
of support it will offer residents, and where traffic flows and moves,” Perez said. “If Goshen College students would engage in local politics, what other innovative things might we have in Goshen?”
About 60 GC students registered to vote this year, while as many as 80% of students were already registered to vote.
“In the city of Goshen, only 22% of registered voters cast ballots,” said Richard Aguirre, community impact coordinator. “So GC students may have played a critical role in deciding some of the city races.”
In his new role, Perez will continue to engage with the community, including those at GC.
“City council representatives will have to continue believing wholeheartedly that when relationships improve, things get better, and that when leaders work to be relationship builders with diverse people and groups those people become the city’s greatest asset,” Perez said. “These residents become engaged and become co-creators of change.”
*In the print version of this article, it was stated that the District 3 winner was Republican Matt Schrock, giving the Republicans a 4-3 advantage on City Council. However, the District 3 race between Schrock and Democrat Jennifer Shell has yet to be confirmed until all provisional ballots are counted. The results are to be confirmed by Nov. 15.