When she was small, Brianna Sas-Perez wanted to be an architect. She’d make detailed sketches of houses and living spaces and wondered, “What if everyone could design their own room?”
Her childhood interest stuck with her during the college search process, and Calvin College was not on the radar of the young woman from Elkhorn, Wisconsin. But the college persisted in contacting her, and the pre-college Entrada program was intriguing.
Sas-Perez enrolled in Entrada and soon after the would-be building designer found herself at a Christian liberal arts college in Michigan that did not have an architecture major. What should she study?
“I was very fortunate to get good advice from professor Cal Jen,” she said. “He is a business teacher but also an architect, and he recommended that I look into an interdisciplinary degree.”
She took classes in engineering, art, Spanish and international development.
“I come from a bicultural family,” she said, “so I am always processing culture. At Calvin, I was learning about community development, both internationally and locally.”
Study in Spain, a service-learning spring break trip to a Chicago development organization and a summer in Costa Rica were significant building blocks on her vocational journey.
She became connected to the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) through various experiences at Calvin (including her Grand Rapids church), and those experiences linked her to others in the field, culminating in a semester internship at a Chicago CCDA agency.
“Through all of this God was changing my direction, calling me to local community development work,” said Brianna. “I started thinking about the spaces in between buildings and the people living in these buildings. The importance of listening to and knowing one’s neighbors became central.”
After graduation, Sas-Perez interviewed with a number of AmeriCorps programs and accepted one at Agape Community Center in the city of Milwaukee. She did neighborhood audits, cataloged community strengths and implemented improvement projects based on neighbor input.
She also joined Transformation City Church, a ministry committed to investment in the local community, and eventually moved into a house with other church members as part of “Inhabit,” a venture of the ministry.
Sas-Perez also met her future husband, Kevin, at the church where he was serving as a youth pastor. After they were married, she moved into another “Inhabit” house where he had been living.
About the same time, she took a new position at Layton Boulevard West Neighbors, another community development nonprofit. She began as an outreach manager and now serves as a neighborhood plan director.
“We start with the strengths of a community,” she said. “The plan for our community must build on the personal strengths of neighbors and residents. It must be their vision, and we match future plans with what the community wants.”
Sas-Perez said that three words she learned at Calvin have continued to fuel her thinking and working: calling, vocation and discernment.
“Vocation is about trying to follow God’s lead in what you’re called to be doing. That might be quite different from what you’ve been planning, outside of your initial thinking,” she said.
She likes the Frederick Buechner definition of vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
It turns out Sas-Perez is building things, after all—but rather than constructing the physical structures of her Milwaukee neighborhoods, she is bringing the strengths of her neighbors together to enrich community.
“I plan to stay in the city and contribute to the neighborhoods of Milwaukee,” she said. “My tendency was to plan, but now I am much more content to be present in what God is doing around me.”