Many years ago, I was briefly involved with HISPA (Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement), an organization established in 1984 as the Hispanic Association of AT&T Employees, which provided community outreach programs for Hispanic/Latino communities throughout the United States.
In 2007, the HISPA Governing Council unanimously voted to recast it as a new independent advocacy organization. This year, the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey asked me to represent them at the HISPA Gala.
Not only I met with old friends, such as Dr. Ivonne Diaz-Claisse, President and CEO of HISPA, but I was also lucky enough to be introduced to Dr Debra Joy Perez, keynote speaker at the event. In 2013, Perez became vice president of research, evaluation and learning at The Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, MA. Prior to joining Casey, she was interim vice president-research and evaluation for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Her personality and the energy she transmitted in her words, the passion with which she spoke about her work with vulnerable populations were captivating. She then told her story. One of nine children born from immigrant Puerto Rican parents, Debra Joy Perez grew up in Trenton, NJ. Thinking college was not an option for her, Dr. Perez has been for life grateful to her school guidance counselor Maria Garces, who “grabbed her purse and wrote a check for my $25 college fee so I could apply to Douglas College,” she recalled.
That small act of kindness triggered the possibilities of an educational path that not only brought her to the doors of Harvard University, but also directed her into a philanthropic career that has helped thousands of low-income and minority children and their families to access quality education.
Never forgetting the difference a small contribution made in her life, Dr. Perez’s proudest venture is the “$25 Fund,” an advocacy effort through the Princeton Area Community Foundation that helps youth of color to successfully access higher education.
Here’s an interview she gracefully agreed upon for our LIBizus.
LIBizus: What experiences in life made you choose philanthropy and education as your life’s passion?
Dr. Perez: I like to tell people that I didn’t chose philanthropy, philanthropy chose me. After completion of my Masters in Public Administration, I fell accidentally into philanthropy. Following graduation, I did what I advise all my mentees to do when they are looking for work, I networked. I called everyone I knew in New Jersey and made a connection with someone who knew of someone else who was looking for a Deputy Director at a national program office of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Prior to this contact, I had honestly never heard of RWJF. Even though I was born and raised in Jersey, I was more familiar with community based organizations and non-profits and had worked in grass-roots organizations serving vulnerable populations. I always had a bent for social justice so discovering places like RWJF and their mission was like a dream. The non-profits I worked for were always struggling for money. There were always tough choices to make and the program staff could rarely do what they dreamed they could do. At RWJF, I realized that I could be in the unique position that I could fund other people’s dreams. That was almost 20 years ago.
LIBizus: What is strategic philanthropy and how is it supporting social change in low-income and excluded populations?
Dr. Perez: Strategic philanthropy is about partnership and shared vision for the work. It is NOT charity or “donating” money. A lot of folks think that giving money away is easy. And it is, especially if you don’t ask for accountability, impact or difference made. Strategic Philanthropy is about being smart with investments. It means thinking about impact and sustainability from the very beginning and asking tough questions like what are we doing?, why are we doing it?, and what difference are we making? It is not as simple as asking how much and then writing a check. Strategic Philanthropy helps low-income and excluded populations by asking who is better off, and ensures that the targeted communities are engaged and have a say in whatever program is being designed or implemented. It ensures that the community is authentically involved and has a voice.
LIBizus: You have special interest in minority children and how a helping hand can change a life -just like it happened to you. What can Latinas in business -our readers- do in order to create more opportunities for these children?
Dr. Perez: You would be surprised what a simple and relatively small gesture of kindness can do for a young person who doesn’t see his or her own potential. Telling a young inspiring Latina or Latino that their unique contribution matters can be very powerful. Some young people are in terrible situations or don’t feel like they are smart enough or good enough to succeed. They don’t see themselves reflected in successful executive careers or in powerful leadership roles. That is why HISPA, an organization that inspires Latino students to achieve better academic performance, is so important. It shows middle-school kids that they can be and achieve anything they can conceive. I think Latinas in business can sponsor speed mentoring events or participate in speaker bureaus and just share their stories about success AND FAILURE. I think what matters to young people the most is to know that every one of the people they admire has had disappointments in their life. They have tried things and failed. We have also failed. What distinguishes successful Latinas is that even after failure they try again. Too many people give up or quit right before they might have succeeded. Some worry too much about knowing the outcome in advance. We would all be better off if we focused on the many blessings we have today instead of wanting to know the future. I love the notion that Martin Luther King stated in speaking to his followers. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just the next step”
Watch Dr. Debra Joy Perez at TEDxYouth San Juan