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Name: Desiree Flores

Hometown: Tulare, CA

CHCI Program(s)/Year: CHCI Fellow/ 1999-2000

CHCI Program Placement(s): National Endowment for the Arts; National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund

Current Position/Organization: U.S. Social Justice Director, Arcus Foundation, New York, NY

1. Many CHCI alumni and current program participants have battled and continue to battle common challenges as they strive to become Latino leaders in their communities: living and working in low-income communities, some in single-parent households, as recent immigrants, DREAMERS, or first-generation American citizens. What challenges did you have to face to get to where you are today?

I was socially and geographically born into a world where nothing came easily as a Mexican-American in the central valley of California. I watched my grandmother, a farm worker, succumb to lung cancer caused by pesticide exposure. My grandfather, also a campesino, had a fatal heart attack on an oppressively hot July day in the fields with no rapid way to alert for medical help. I saw the struggles other young girls experienced trying to chart out a life of opportunity while living in areas with high levels of poverty and teen pregnancy.

I was very lucky to have supportive parents. My mom was the first in our family to attend a local state university and did everything in her power to help me do well in school and further my education. Still, even with stellar grades and extracurricular participation, I experienced the suspicion so many other Latino youth face from society as they get accepted to school or receive accolades. I recall visiting my dentist in high school. He asked if I was attending our local community college and, after hearing my enthusiasm at being accepted to UCLA, stared at me with an unforgettable expression of disbelief and verbally asked me, “How on earth did you get in there?” Not knowing anything but my name and face, he assumed my life’s track and, further, believed Affirmative Action to be the only reason a major university would accept me.

In my early 20s, I faced another life’s hurdle as I came out as a lesbian. It was a long, oftentimes painful journey with my family but am grateful for the eventual acceptance and even celebration now as a late 30-something. This process can be difficult in Latino families but I know that a majority eventually come around as familia is certainly familia and nothing is more important.

Although these are the types of challenges Latino youth regularly face, I believe it can and does motivate us to work even harder! This determination led me to UCLA and gave me the confidence to apply for the CHCI Fellowship in Washington, D.C. It then led me to New York, where I began my career in the philanthropic sector focused on equality for women, youth, people of color and the LGBT community.

2. What motivated you to apply to the CHCI program(s), and why do you think they are important for Latino youth?

Although I was a Dance major in college, my other passion was politics and policy processes that serve my community. I learned about CHCI the summer before my senior year of college and it immediately looked like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build long-lasting relationships with other Latino leaders my age and have a priceless “bridge” into the field and networks of politics, nonprofits and government. I knew it would be an amazing start to my still-TBD life’s career and provide me friends, connections and experiences I would never get on my own.

Many Latino youth begin their life’s path a few steps behind their, perhaps, more privileged peers with powerful connections or institutional family legacies. Programs like CHCI provide amazing opportunities for young Latino leaders to see all the possibilities that lie ahead and receive personal support in gaining access to them.

3. What have you been doing since you finished the CHCI program(s)?

From 2001 – 2010, I worked at the Ms. Foundation for Women, a national public charity founded by Gloria Steinem over 40 years ago. Ms. supports historically under-resourced groups to grow diverse constituencies and advocate for policy change. My work focused on reproductive justice, school-based sexuality education and women and AIDS. At the core of that work was the belief that those who experience a problem have the perspective to solve it.

My commitment to the public interest never wavered during those years. I had a fulfilling career but wanted to understand better who I was and what small part I could truly have in making the world a better place. I believed Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government program was tailor-made to help me fulfill my dream of being the highest performing public servant I could be and was beyond honored to attend after ending my time at Ms.

After graduate school, I worked at the national office of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and consulted for a wide variety of reproductive health and HIV/AIDS related institutions. In 2013, I started working at the Arcus Foundation as its U.S. Social Justice Director. Arcus is a private grant making institution that supports LGBT culture and policy change with a focus on youth and communities of color.

4. What impact did your CHCI experience have on your career and development as a leader?

It is not an understatement to say I wouldn’t be where I am today without the CHCI Fellowship. Starting a career path as a young 20-something with a network of support and the CHCI brand on my resume was absolutely invaluable in securing my first job at the Ms. Foundation. That turned into a decade-long exceptional experience that forever shaped my interests, expertise and professional colleague universe. Additionally, being exposed to so many various Latino leaders across many sectors during my time as a Fellow broadened my personal definition of a “leader” and all the various possibilities in front of me. Even now, 15 years after the fact, certain speakers and specific messages stand out in my memory and continue providing me with exceptional counsel.

5. How do you continue to give back to the community?

I make myself available to younger Latinas/os seeking information, advice or support. I’m a big believer in the power of connections and will do whatever I can to introduce or help young leaders build relationships with colleagues in my field if that is something they would find helpful.

I also intentionally and strategically prioritize Latino communities and young advocates in my grant making. I realize how rare it is to have a Latina lesbian in a position of managing and allocating money to the advocacy field. I sharply and unapologetically do anything I can to increase the amount of resources to Latino-led social justice work. The public perception that marriage equality is the only priority of the LGBT movement is not accurate. One only has to look at the incredible leadership of younger, queer, undocumented Latino advocates. They are integrating immigrant rights into the LGBT movement and LGBT equality into the immigration field contributing to the strategic broadening of a larger social justice movement. Additionally, there are tremendous Latina transgender women at the forefront of that community’s “movement moment,” ensuring the lived experience of trans people, specifically trans women of color, are visible, understood and integrated into culture and policy change.

6. Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years, and what do you still want to achieve?

My goals have always centered on supporting the lived experiences of communities of color, specifically Latinas/os, to concretely impact local, state and national U.S. public policy on the issues that affect them most. There were several paths I could take in continuing this aim including: 1) continuing to work at a highly resourced philanthropic institution supporting advocacy work, 2) working at a national organization supporting the leadership and civic participation of Latinas/os and, 3) running for public office. I may or may not explore these in the coming years and feel incredibly grateful to be at a current position that feels equal parts comfortable and challenging!

7. What advice would you give current and future CHCI participants?

Prioritize time with people. Go out with your fellow cohort colleagues and have fun, form deep relationships, miss home, contemplate life, give each other advice, laugh and make up inside jokes you’ll carry with you forever. Note the leaders you come in contact with either at your placements or as invited guests and make yourself known to the ones who intrigue or impress you. Ask them out for coffee or meet them at their office for 10 minutes if that’s all they have and pick their brains for all it’s worth. Above all, practice the tremendously helpful art of listening for it is this art that separates good leaders from great ones.