Leticia Peguero, MPA: Health Educator, Foundation Executive, and Dancer

    • October 15, 2013

If Leticia Peguero had a grand plan, it would surely have led right to her current job as executive director of the New York-based Andrus Family Fund. “When I accepted the offer [at Andrus], it seemed as if everything was leading me to this place,” she said. “I would love to say that I planned it, but that would be a lie.”

But if it wasn’t quite so deliberate, Peguero was certainly guided by thoughtful conversations with mentors, a lot of self-assessment, and a bit of serendipity. Together, they led her to a place where she can wield the tools of philanthropy to empower marginalized populations. The Andrus Family Fund’s stated mission is “to foster just and sustainable change in the United States,” with a specific focus on strengthening communities and improving outcomes for youth leaving the foster care system.

“I use the social justice framework to look at grantmaking,” says Peguero. The work “is about looking at issues of race and equity and structural racism, and how do we use the resources to help alleviate unjust situations and to empower communities?”

Building skills and broadening horizons. After graduating with a bachelor of arts in Sociology from New York’s Fordham University in 1996, Peguero held a series of jobs in the nonprofit sector that built her skills and framed her world view.

As a senior health educator at the Door Adolescent Health Center, she focused on sexuality and implemented a youth HIV-prevention project. Working with a dedicated team, including adolescent peer educators, “really shaped my vision of what a holistic approach to youth development is about,” she says. For the first time, “I understood what it meant to look at a community from a strength-based perspective.”

Peguero learned from some challenges at the Door as well because they helped her recognize how essential good management is to an organization. “It is hard to be a good manager. [I saw] how important it is to have people feel appreciated and empowered.”

In 2004, Peguero moved to Planned Parenthood of New York City as associate director of adult education. There, she honed her training and presentation skills, becoming more comfortable running workshops and synthesizing large amounts of information for a broad audience. She also spent a year as manager of community relations at the YWCA of the City of New York, where she developed community outreach programs targeted at low-income women and immigrant families.

As Peguero built her credentials, she also wondered where her career should take her next. “I kept battling this internal dialogue around ‘Do I want to do direct service work, be the social worker, engage the day-to-day groundwork? Or do I see myself as a macro-level person?’ I kept coming back to that macro level.”

In pursuit of senior leadership. Setting that goal was a good step, but Peguero still had to figure out how to get there. “I had reached this point where senior leadership was a little elusive for me,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what I needed to get to be the boss, or the executive director. Do I get an MSW, an MBA, an MPA?”

Peguero was adamant that any training she pursued had to build on knowledge and experience she had already accumulated. She was also looking for something with the power to be transformative. “I wanted to make sure whatever program I went into took my life experience into account and would be something that was a game changer for me,” she said.

She reached out to senior leaders at organizations with whom she had partnered on various initiatives for their insights. “I kept coming up with this common running theme that part of it is a network, mentoring,” she recalls.

The National Urban Fellows Master of Public Administration (MPA) Fellowship seemed to offer the right package of opportunities for a budding leader—a combination of training leading to a graduate degree and a nine-month mentorship assignment. (Read the Progress Report to learn more about the program.)

Fellowship at RWJF. Accepted into the program in 2007, Peguero was assigned an internship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) with a mentorship under Debra Pérez, PhD, MA, MPA, former assistant vice president for Research and Evaluation. At the time, the Foundation’s Vulnerable Populations team was looking for grantmaking opportunities to support young men of color. That interest was a good fit with Peguero’s experience, and she was asked to help research potential entry points into that population.

A second focus of her mentorship was helping build the capacity of small, community-based organizations to evaluate their projects. Again, she was able to draw on her professional track record.

What her background did not provide was much knowledge of philanthropy and in her early days at RWJF, Peguero found the grantmaking world rather daunting. “I remember feeling really intimidated when I first got to RWJF,” she recalls. She wondered, “What in the world did I walk into?”

Pérez helped reframe her thinking, Peguero recalls. “She said to me, ‘Many of the folks around this table have not worked in communities for a really long time. You are sitting on a team that is all about people working in communities, and you understand how many of these programs work. . You might not know grantmaking yet, but you know how programs get implemented, you know about communities.’”

That vote of confidence helped Peguero recognize her own value. “It really was this amazing opportunity to see myself in a different light and understand the importance of being at the decision-making table,” she says.

RWJF began seeing Peguero in a different light, too, and when her fellowship ended, she was invited to join the staff as deputy director of its long-running Robert Wood Johnson Local Funding Partnerships Program, which builds links between RWJF and local funders for projects to help vulnerable populations. “I got to work with really experienced grantmakers, got to focus on issues of racial and economic and social justice, got to meet local funders across the country,” she says. “I got to become a thought leader for this group on program development.”

The power of community. An outsider meeting Leticia Peguero for the first time might be surprised to learn that she once felt intimidated by her accomplished peers. But it is an experience she thinks many people of color share. “When you live in a society that tells you there is something wrong with being brown and black, where you are ‘the other’… I don’t know that that ever completely leaves. But you begin to see yourself and your worth differently.”

Statistically, says Peguero, “I am an outlier.” The child of a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican father, she was raised in a single-parent, Spanish-speaking household in Brooklyn. Her mother had been a teenager when she gave birth and although she worked all her life, the family also relied for periods of time on public assistance. “Many people like me don’t go on to become executive directors of foundations,” she says with charming understatement.

Her drive to serve the community is rooted in that background, and it finds expression not only in philanthropy, but in art. A dancer by training, Peguero helped to develop Areytos Performance Work, a New York-based dance theatre company. The troupe celebrates African–Caribbean traditions by fusing it with contemporary dance, as it examines issues of race, nationalism, and the African diaspora.

Peguero’s own life story has convinced her that the narrative of individual achievement in the American landscape needs to be understood in a fuller context. “One of the wonderful things about the U.S. is that as unequal as we are—and as the data tells us we are getting more so—to think that in one generation through grit and resilience we can make this leap is pretty phenomenal.”

That can happen, she insists, only when the right supports are in place. “I do not think I am in any way special. I think that given the right opportunities and hope, there could be many more of me. That is a really different version of the story that says, ‘Look at these folks who make it [on their own.]’ My version is, ‘This is a community, lots of people played a role and deserve to be recognized for their collective achievements. This is not about me, but about all the potential “me’s” out there that can also make a difference in their communities.”

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 RWJF’s Debra Pérez.

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 Leticia Peguero: Bringing a commitment to community and social justice into philanthropy