Debra Joy Perez, The Casey Foundation

Dr Debra Perez the impact of giving in minority children (video)

Casey Foundation_debra_joy_perez-2013

Dr. Debra Joy Perez


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.

Debra Perez as a child in Trenton NJ

Debra Perez as a child in Trenton NJ

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.

Debra Joy Perez graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy in Health Policy, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Debra Joy Perez graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy in Health Policy, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

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.

vice president of research, evaluation and learning at The Annie E. Casey Foundation

Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Learning at The Annie E. Casey Foundation

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


Ortiz-McGhee facing challenges in minority education

carmen ortiz- macghee

Carmen Ortiz-McGhee

Interviewing Carmen Ortiz-McGhee, Senior Vice President and Resident Sales Director for The Capital office of Aon Risk Solutions (ARS), is a journey into excellence. Reading her bio, you can’t help but be impressed with the number and caliber of her professional achievements as well as her passion to advocate for the growth and success of women and minorities in business.

Advocating for diversity, she has presented at many conferences across the country including Aon’s Women’s International Network, the Women of Color Foundation, Owens & Minor’s Healthcare Supplier Diversity Symposium, American Greetings professional development meetings, the New America Alliance Wall Street Summit and the Carolinas-Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council, among others.

However, Carmen spoke with about her other interest, the challenges in bringing high quality education across the board with inclusion in mind. She is a board member of the NEA Foundation, an organization that supports student success by building strong systems of shared responsibility between public school educators and key community partners.

LIBizus: How did you become involved with the NEA Foundation?

Carmen: I am a proud member of the NEA Foundation’s board because the Foundation’s vision and mission reflect my own: to ensure that teachers can teach effectively, especially to children of color, and provide the support these children need to thrive academically and as future adult citizens.

The main concern today in education revolves around ensuring that teachers can deliver high quality instruction to an increasingly diverse and poor student population. Teacher’s preparation is the most important factor in determining how students do academically. What type of training content should they receive before obtaining their teaching certification? How do we support them in their professional growth, especially in the early-year placement in schools, and over subsequent years? These are among the biggest challenges public education is facing today.

LIBizus: How do you see the future of minority students?Cute Brothers and Sister Talking, Wearing Backpacks Ready for School.

Carmen: In the academic year 2014-2015, enrollment of white students is expected to be only 49.7 percent, which makes them the minority of enrollees for the first time in American history. Hispanics account for about 25 percent of children of color registered in public schools.

In this landscape, questions arise: can teachers and school systems provide effective instruction and support to these students? What kind of services such as health, legal, academic, social and emotional support do they need to thrive? How can their teachers—85 percent of the national teaching force is largely white and English-monolingual—tap the strengths and assets that these diverse children and their families bring? It’s a complex set of issues that must be addressed, and we must start addressing them now if we are to ensure the future will be bright for these students.

LIBizus: What is the NEA Foundation‘s approach on these topics?

Carmen: The NEA Foundation organizes its work around a core dynamic collaboration, to ensure high quality learning among students.  In this model, teachers’ unions, districts and communities come together to tackle big problems such as quality and access to out-of-school learning opportunities for kids, disciplinary policies, teacher evaluation and retention. Teachers collaborate in new ways with parents in the same ways other professionals such as business people do routinely so that they can learn from each other.  A great example is the parent-teacher home visit program.

LIBizus: How are these concerns addressed in an environment of poor cooperation between political parties such as the present one?

Carmen: With regards to the political divides you ask about, the NEA Foundation model could and should be the standard because it brings varied ideologies, perspectives and stances to the same table around that which matters the most: student achievement.  Our legislatures, districts, unions, businesses, and community groups must begin to transcend their political differences and focus on the common goal—support all kids, not just some, to become successful members of our society.

LIBizus: How can Latinos make a difference?

Carmen: It is critical that our parents become more visible and engaged whenever possible in schools. Families and parents can make a difference by being more active in their children’s schools—attending parent-teacher meetings, school activities, and volunteering as often as they can. They can also encourage their children to develop relationships with their teachers and administrators so that they are known by those in positions of authority and influence. Moreover, knowing the students at a personal level allows authorities to become better informed about the ways they can help individual students achieve their educational goals.

Families can also make sure that their children have support at home such as an adequate time and a conducive environment to do their school work.

Lastly, we need to convey high expectations for our children, and keep them on track to achieve graduation and college goals, or other professional or vocational education opportunities.

Carmen was recently selected as one of Business Insurance magazine’s 2014 Top 25 Women to Watch. She graduated from University of Virginia where she received her BA in Psychology. She holds licenses in Life & Health and Property & Casualty brokerage. An Advisor to the Hispanic IT Executive Council, the former Chair of the Economic Inclusion Committee for the venture catalyst JumpStart, Inc., and a former board member of Discourse Analytics dba, she also is a past member of the University of Virginia Alumni Diversity Advisory Committee. Carmen lives in Virginia with her husband and their three children.