Jakob Lopez ’21 (CLAS) has become a leader in his hometown of Manchester even before he earns his undergraduate degree from UConn.
An urban and community studies major, Lopez serves as the Diversity and Equity Inclusions Coordinator for the town’s Recreation and Parks Department. It is a part-time position that was created in early 2020, and focuses on building relationships with grassroots organizations in town to make sure they are fully able to take advantage of Manchester’s offerings in programs and initiatives. His role pertains to everything from race equity to equitable access to technology across different socioeconomic backgrounds. He works with groups that range from different racial backgrounds, to people with disabilities, to the LGBTQIA+ community.
“Whatever a group stands for, my job is to make sure they feel heard, and that they have a space to collaborate and work on their agenda,” says Lopez.
Lopez learned about the job opportunity when he attended a town meeting about the repurposing an old elementary school in town for new uses.
“I asked a few questions, and was very interested in the job,” says Lopez. “I applied for it in February and got hired in March. However, due to COVID-19, my hiring got pushed back to June. That was quite an interesting time to start, with all the protests and social justice movements happening across the country. So, on my second or third day of working in Manchester, I was already attending these mass movements in the town, trying to assists with any programs or organizations that wanted to vocalize their thoughts or opinions.”
Lopez has been using Better Manchester, the town magazine, as a way to reach out to the community. He wrote a story about Hispanic Heritage Month in the fall, and a piece describing his experience as a Latino man.
“Whenever we have an article come out, I will try to add a diversity and equity approach to it,” says Lopez.
Lopez attended Manchester public schools, and ran cross country and track and field at Manchester High School, where he was an all-state and all-conference performer and a team captain. Lopez also played the saxophone during elementary school.
“I lived within walking distance of all my schools, so my house became the central place for friends to come over, have dinner, and come and go as they please,” says Lopez. “In high school, I started to develop a sense of community and leadership skills.”
Those skills have been evident in his new role, town officials say.
“Jakob has intangible skills for this line of work, and we are asking him to get involved with some very important issues,” says James Przbylski, the recreation supervisor for Manchester. “He is having difficult conversations about racial inequities in access to services and programs. You have to have someone who has a certain temperament and certain genuineness to be able to do that.”
Lopez has been bringing attention to the town’s actions to make sure residents know what tangible things are being done to address their concerns and questions.
“We are putting feet on the ground and getting practical things done,” says Przbylski. “Jakob has a natural ability to engage members of this community, and an inherent ability to engage the members of the youth community. Access to that youth voice has always been important, but it’s becoming more important as we move on in this mission of diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the community.”
Following high school, Lopez enrolled at UConn, spending time at the old West Hartford regional campus, then taking classes at UConn Hartford’s new downtown location, before coming to UConn Storrs.
His UConn ties run deep: his mother, Judy Lopez ‘20 (BGS), works at the Women’s Center and is currently enrolled in the Master of Public Administration Program. His older brother Justis ’14 (ED) ’15 MA, and sister Jaylene ’18 (CLAS), are also Huskies.
“I really didn’t dive into my culture as much as I should have until I got to UConn,” says Lopez. “I started to have more conversations about it, and got involved at the Puerto Rican/ Latin American Cultural Center. I met other students who identify as Latinx, which allowed me to open up to a sense of cultural awakening.”
He became part of the METAS (Mentoring, Educating, and Transforming to Achieve Success) group, and had a mentee. He also joined BAILE (Bringing Awareness into Latino Ethnicities), which teaches understanding through dance and music.
Lopez became involved in Homecoming week and served as emcee for the annual Lip Sync competition, a campus-wide tradition.
His UConn experiences have prepared him well for his new role in Manchester, and whatever else his future may hold in store for him.
“Jakob has a bright future as a community organizer in whatever capacity he might see that being,” says Przbylski. “He definitely has the ability to command a room, and as he continues to find his style and develop as a professional, he gains his own confidence. He is somebody to watch out for locally, and maybe even on a larger scale.”
“I think it’s important for every person to be part of their community, because home is where you make it,” says Lopez. “If you realize there are things we can all relate to, that really makes a relationship build across cultures and platforms. Manchester is a diverse town with people of multiples walks of life. It has the opportunity for room and growth, and I believe that every person here is worthy of the opportunities we provide.”