Erik Estrada: Teacher, Advocate, Funder

    • October 15, 2013

Erik Estrada had one ambition—to teach in the Pittsburg, Calif., public school that he had attended a decade earlier. Gratitude to the adults who had encouraged him as a boy, the urge to prove wrong those who had set low expectations for him, and the childhood friend he lost to a bullet were all powerful motivators.

A change in direction occurred when the deputy director of his organization—a person high above his position—took notice of this new employee and identified his potential, He grabbed Estrada by the collar and told him he needed to apply for a National Urban Fellows Master of Public Administration (MPA) Fellowship. (Read the Progress Report to learn more about the program.) Estrada’s journey—earning the MPA, completing a nine-month mentorship assignment, and then applying what he learned in a variety of policy-making roles—proved that he could “give back” to Pittsburg by moving far beyond it.

Planning for a life in Pittsburg, Calif. At the first assembly he attended as a freshman at Pittsburg Senior High, Estrada heard his principal say, “Look to your left, look to your right. Only one of you is going to be here in four years.” The comment made him angry then, and it makes him angry now. “When I heard that I was mad, I was offended,” recalls Estrada. “How are you going to tell us only one out of the three of us will be here? What kind of goals are you setting?”

But as it turned out, the principal actually overestimated the success rate, at least in the circles where Estrada was traveling. “Out of my 15 closest friends, at the end maybe two of us were there to graduate.” At least one of them lost any chance to get back on track—he was shot to death at the age of 16.

Those high school years, which Estrada says “were some of the happiest times of my life,” were not his first lesson in the power of low expectations. Ever since he was a young boy, Estrada used to say, “I want to go to UC [University of California] Berkeley and I want to be a lawyer. Often times I shared that with people and they said, ‘Yeah, it is not going to happen.’”

But Estrada defied the odds and the assumptions, entering the University of California at Berkeley in September 2001. The campus was 30 miles from his hometown east of Oakland, but it was a world away. At first, he struggled with feelings of inadequacy. “I felt unprepared to be there, I didn’t feel like I could compete with other students in school, I didn’t feel like I was smart enough,” he remembers.

One afternoon as he was leaving campus headed for the train ride home, his geography of California professor spotted him from across the street and yelled out, “Erik, I just want to let you know I really appreciated your comments in class.”

Estrada was stunned that in a 300-person class taught in an amphitheater, she had remembered him and learned his name. It was a moment of awakening. “It made me think, ‘Wow, I do deserve to be here. I do have something to contribute. I also realized that others like me had something to contribute, but were never given the opportunity to do so. That’s what gave me the desire to teach.’”

Not long afterwards, Estrada interviewed his parents as part of an assignment to write a paper about California immigrants. Only then did he learn the details of his father’s odyssey north from Peru, alone and with $200 in his pocket. During their long and personal conversation, his father talked candidly about the below-minimum-wage jobs he had held, and what it took to find his place in a strange new land. Toughened but not bitter, he told his son, “I believe if you can, you are obligated to help others.”

A couple of months later, his father passed away, but that message still rings in Estrada’s ears. He wanted to give back, and teaching the diverse, low-income students of Pittsburg seemed like the right way to do it. A year after graduating UC Berkeley in 2005, he stood at the front of one of the same classrooms he had once attended as a student—Mr. Estrada, the social studies teacher.

“All I really ever wanted to do was be a teacher at my old high school. That was my goal. That was what I set out to do.”

A change in course. A shift in his thinking began with a trip to New York, where he happened to visit a college friend, who was working for City Year. The AmeriCorps program provides extra support to students in the third to ninth grade, based on research findings that students who progress to 10th grade with their peers are four times more likely to graduate than those who fall behind.

Through conversations with various staff, Estrada was offered an opportunity to work at City Year developing and piloting a program for high school students. He turned it down, feeling that he already had his dream job.

Back home, he kept encouraging his pupils to recognize that the world is larger than Pittsburg—until they challenged him on that. “They said, ‘What do you mean the world is bigger than Pittsburg? You never went anywhere. You commuted to college.’”

It was another eye-opening moment, and Estrada decided to reconsider New York. City Year still wanted him on board, and he reluctantly resigned his teaching job and headed across the continent, fully expecting to be back after picking up some new skills. Meanwhile, he took advantage of every available opportunity, and was attending a conference when he met a National Urban Fellows representative who encouraged him to apply to the program. Once again, Estrada demurred, explaining that he would soon be returning to a California classroom.

Shortly afterwards, at a going-away party for one of his coworkers, he mentioned his decision not to apply for the fellowship. What had been an evening of casual conversation and laughs suddenly became serious. Although they did not work closely together, Estrada had developed a friendship with one of the City Year deputy directors. Overhearing that he didn’t plan on applying for the fellowship, the man took hold of him physically. “Those kids don’t need another teacher telling them what to do; they need somebody who has gone out there and done something different, and can come back and be an example and actually show what can be done.”

Again bowing to the wisdom of others, Estrada applied to the program and was invited in. By then, he had a few years of experience under his belt, and the benefit of leadership training from City Year, giving him a lot more confidence. When he met his 2010 cohort of National Urban Fellows, Estrada said, “I knew I had earned my spot there.”

New Jersey Health Initiatives. For his internship experience that is part of the National Urban Fellows program, Estrada was assigned to the New Jersey Health Initiatives, a statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that promotes health across the state. Calvin Bland, MS, then the program’s director and research professor at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and Gretchen Hartling, the program’s co-director, gave him all the guidance he could have hoped for.

“They truly understood what it means to be a mentor,” says Estrada. “They took a sincere interest in my development, my background, and my goals. If they felt they couldn’t help me with something, they never hesitated to introduce me to someone who could…. They were never afraid to give me too much responsibility, but were always there to help me through whatever task they had given me.”

Early in his mentorship, Estrada was asked to think about how New Jersey Health Initiatives could reach the elusive goal of helping build capacity among minority-led community agencies. Estrada scanned the landscape and interviewed numerous stakeholders, asking questions like, “How exactly do you define a minority-led organization?” and “Are the needs any different from those of majority-led organizations?”

Having made the case in his report that minority-led organizations had different needs, a funding initiative began to be developed. And after completing the National Urban Fellows program, Estrada was hired full-time at New Jersey Health Initiatives to implement that project, known as Community Agency Capacity Enhancement. His portfolio of responsibilities soon expanded to include the Young Men at Risk, initiative, which funds community-based organizations to address the health, employment, and education needs of young men. Estrada helps select and guide grantees for both programs and shares results with policy-makers and practitioners in the state.

At times, his role at the funder’s decision-making table still astounds him. When a New Jersey Health Initiatives team was discussing how large the grants should be, Estrada suggested $150,000 per project, rather than the proposed $100,000 apiece. “They said, ‘okay,’” Estrada recalls, “and I thought, ‘Seriously? Just because I said it? How did I get to have this opportunity? How did I get myself into this position?’”

At the same time, Estrada is sensitive to the inevitable imbalances and potential loss of trust in a grantmaker/grantee relationship. “To be in a position where you have the resources, the money and the power, that is just a dynamic that folks need to be mindful of. Grantees definitely are.”

Estrada’s own background and his grassroots experiences have been important tools for building trust with community groups. Once, after a group of project directors spoke about working with school principals to implement a teen dating violence-prevention project, Estrada shared stories of similar struggles, both as a teacher, and someone trying to implement a program in a public school. “The whole dynamic of the group changed…they felt, ‘Oh, you are one of us.’ They knew I had been there, and they felt much more comfortable talking about their challenges.”

At the same time, Estrada remains steadfast in his commitment to the community that nurtured him, and to the Pittsburgs across the nation—where strivers often face harsh and discouraging realities. “I have fought to get into these positions because I want to make sure a voice is being heard, that usually doesn’t get the chance to be heard,” he says. “I need to be an advocate for nonprofits—not the funders, not the academics.”

Next Steps. While Estrada does not seem likely to head back to Pittsburg any time soon, he is not sure about his next professional steps. “I don’t know where I will be in 10 years, or where this career will take me,” he says. The world of philanthropy remains a revelation. “I still tell people I didn’t know this was a job—that you could do this for a living.”

But he does know the value of listening to others, and he listens still. That’s why he is pursuing a doctoral degree in Public Affairs/Community Development at Rutgers, while continuing to work full time. New Jersey Health Initiatives is based on the campus in Camden, and he is entitled to tuition reimbursement. Not wanting him to pass up an opportunity, his boss Gretchen Hartling gave him a motherly nudge to enroll. “She wasn’t really asking me,” Estrada explained. “It was more, ‘You have been done with National Urban Fellows for a year, so go back to school.’ I knew it was the right thing to do, but didn’t really want to do it—except for her urging.”

Following good advice has led Estrada far from Pittsburg, but that community, with its many assets, challenges, and connections, remains his touchstone; it is what will lead him even further.

RWJF perspective. RWJF began serving as a National Urban Fellows mentorship site in 2005, and has supported between two and four fellows every year since, mostly at RWJF but some at other health-related organizations. In 2010, RWJF began funding the Health Policy Advocacy and Education Initiative at National Urban Fellows to weave a public health component into the 14-month program for all MPA program participants.

“The issue of diversity is really important to the Foundation; we see it as a core value in the work that we do,” said Debra Pérez, PhD, MA, MPA, former assistant vice president for Research and Evaluation at RWJF.

A National Urban Fellow alumnus herself, Pérez considers the initiative a natural opportunity to introduce more diversity into RWJF. “We believe that having folks at the table who represent folks in the communities in which we work is a critical part of the equation. It enhances the work that we do.” The investment also reflects RWJF’s commitment to draw more people of color into philanthropy and create a pipeline for diverse leaders, especially in the public and nonprofit sectors.

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Spotlight on Erik Estrada, MPA, National Urban Fellow alumnus: Advocating for disadvantaged communities