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Making an Impact

“I can’t begin to tell you the impact this program has had on my life,” says Marieli Colón Padilla, a 33-year-old executive with the giant public relations firm Fleishman Hillard. “I wouldn’t have gotten as far in my career had I not done the program.”

She’s talking about the National Hispana Leadership Institute (NHLI) and its Executive Leadership Program, which brings together 22 professional women for intensive, nine month-long leadership training. The program has been a smashing success since its inception in 1987. Nearly 50 percent of its graduates currently earn over $100,000. A third hold executive-level positions, compared to 15 percent before undergoing the training, and eight out of ten program alumnae credit it with changing their lives forever and “for the better.” An overwhelming majority (80 percent) say the program has made them “more effective leaders and professionals,” and more than half serve on government commissions or special task forces.

Housed in a tiny office in suburban Virginia with a stunning and expansive view of the monuments across the river in Washington, D.C., NHLI has a new president, Cristina López. Prior to her appointment in July, she served as Deputy Executive Director of the Center for Community Change (CCC), a grassroots community organizing group.

Just who is Cristina López? She was born in Colombia to Cuban parents, and raised in Florida, arriving in the Sunshine State at age 7. “Back in 1965, my mother wanted to reunite with her Cuban family in Miami, and sort of convinced my father to come,” she recalls. “It was a time in which it was really easy to do that. My father had gone to school in the U.S., and when he went to the consulate to apply for a visa, they told him, ‘Oh sure! Fill out the paperwork.’ And six months later we were in Miami,” she chuckles. “Totally different than what it is today.”

López grew up between Miami and Cape Canaveral, where her father worked for NASA.“I got to see a lot of farmworkers in Florida. I got to see the disparity early on. I felt like I wanted to work in my community and give back to my community.” After graduating from the University of South Florida, she traveled back to Colombia to teach school. Five years, López returned to the U.S. to attend graduate school and work for the Washington-based National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation’s largest Latino organization.

“My experience growing up with the farmworkers in Florida, and my experience working at NCLR really shaped my view a lot in terms of how I feel about being an advocate for the Hispanic community. That’s very important to me,” López says.

After several years at NCLR, López left to work at MOSAICA. Founded by a former NCLR colleague, Emily Gantz McKay, it provides organizational development assistance to nonprofit groups. “By the time I left four years later, it had grown from her and me … to a staff of 13 or 14. I really got to really experience that next stage of really building an organization from the ground up.”

As López puts it, “advocacy was calling me,” so she went to CCC, an organization founded during the tumultuous 1960s. López says it was an exciting position because not only was their work focused on the national level, but as a Latina she felt she could make a great impact in a non-Hispanic organization. “It was a chance to go mainstream. In the early years, it was lonely as one of only two Hispanics, but the organization was able to bring in more and more Latinos and I hope I contributed a little bit to that.”

And then the NHLI came knocking. López was turning 50 and thinking of what might be next for her in life. “Work for me has always been more than a job. It’s been a cause. I wasn’t looking to leave [CCC], but when I was approached about it, I thought, hmm, this is an opportunity to make my mark in a different way and come back to the community, especially a Latina organization. [NHLI] gave me something I was looking for.”

Alumnae of the program agree with López’s assessment. “It has had a lasting impact in a number of ways,” said María Martin, the founder of NPR’s Latino USA, who went through the program in 1994. “It gave me the motivation to go back to school and it told me ‘I can do this.’ I wanted to have a greater impact and it gave me greater clarity.”

Having a greater impact may sound like a buzzword, but for López and other NHLIstas, it is a mantra they live by. “We want to promote strong, visible and influential Latinas,” López says.

One of the ways it does this is through the extensive networking and mentoring that is part of the organization. “NHLI is one of the strongest networks in the country,” López offers, and Colón Padilla concurs: “We look out for each other. There is a very strong support system.”

There is, of course, a lot more to do. “We’ve come a long way,” López adds, “but when you see Latinas paid less [about 55 cents to every dollar Latinos earn] and you see the majority of Latinas control the purse strings in the household … those are things we still need to work on.”

Then there’s the big elephant in the room unique to the Latino community, machismo. “It’s an additional hurdle and everything we do is a double whammy for us because we are Latinas, and we have to fight to be equally represented and have access to power and influence and economic advancement the same as men.”

But that’s the whole point of the leadership training, say its graduates.“Once I became part of the program, I knew I was going to make it,” says Colón Padilla. “After you do the program, you feel you can take on the world.”

The Executive Leadership Program takes place over a nine-month period, with four week-long sessions in California, Washington, DC, Harvard University, and in Colorado or North Carolina. Seminars cover a variety of topics, from public policy to corporate leadership to community affairs. “These are very strong, assertive women,” says López, “and the program gives them the tools to be able to better assert themselves in the mainstream society as well as in the Latino community. It’s an enhancement of skills. It’s a way to build the skills they have.”

The program is very selective. Hundreds apply, 22 are selected, and it has a ‘pay it forward’ aspect. “As part of the year, the women commit to mentoring at least two other Latinas. There’s a big multiplier effect here,” says López. “And they commit to doing a leadership project which should last for two years and reach at least 25 other Latinas. Our alumnae have mentored over 5,000 Latinas.”

Several years ago, the Institute founded a leadership program called Latinas: Learning to Lead. It brings up-and-coming Hispanic women aged 17-22 to a week-long summer program in Washington, D.C. “We started thinking, we need to get them younger, to start them out younger in leadership training,” López adds. “To get them to start thinking about future career paths and start thinking about giving back to the community at an early age.

NHLI also sponsors leadership empowerment conferences that function as half-day programs in various cities across the country to introduce Latinas to potential role models and mentors. The NHLI is currently looking to expand the program to a full day and beyond its current sessions in five cities.

López is very excited to be a part of it all: “This is probably the most exciting position that I’ve had, because the way I see it, the sky’s the limit. There’s a tremendous horizon out there that we can reach as Latinas. The organization has so much potential to continue to grow and evolve and do bigger and better things. This is a great opportunity to be able to accomplish something for the organization, for my community and for people like me: Latinas.”

Patricia Guadalupe is a Washington, DC-based writer and editor of Hispanic Link.