As the country’s first statewide women’s foundation celebrates its 40th anniversary, Gloria Perez is entering her fourth year on the job as the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota’s (WFMN) president and chief executive officer.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, to Mexican American parents, Perez moved to St. Paul to study communications at Macalester College. Minnesota has since become her home, where she has opened a cafe, started a family, and led two nonprofits. Before joining WFMN, Perez served as president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program as a leading expert in two-generation strategies to reduce poverty. She also mobilized Latinas to combat domestic violence as executive director of Casa de Esperanza (now Esparanza United).
IP recently spoke with Perez to discuss her personal and career journey. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you say your personal history has brought you to where you are today?
Part of my personal history that I lean into is that I was raised by a single Latina mom who was not encouraged to go to college and who was widowed as a young woman with three children. She very quickly had to come into her own and own the power that she had. She had to take leadership. I feel like the work I do today to strengthen economic opportunities for women and girls and gender-expansive folks is really rooted in what I witnessed and experienced growing up. The challenges that I saw my mother, and certainly other women in my family and community experience were barriers that I thought I should work to eliminate.
I thought I should work on that just based on my own gifts and talents as a connector, somebody that sees opportunity and can really maximize the resources, since I grew up having to be very resourceful. It feels to me like the work I do today, the leadership that I've provided to nonprofits over the last 25 years, has been about leveraging that internal talent of mine to maximize opportunities and be that connector.
Who are some women or gender-expansive folks who really inspire you?
In this community of Minnesota, there's an elder who has since passed away, her name is Lupe Serrano. She was a Mexican American woman born in Minnesota with immigrant parents. She didn't have a lot of means and ended up joining the convent because it was a way for her to get a higher education. She became a very well known community leader in Minnesota, very involved as an activist and rooted in the cultural traditions of our Indigenous and Latinx community: being communal, recognizing the resilience that exists within our community, very committed to listening and recognizing that all of our wellbeing is interconnected.
She invested in me as a young leader. When I would sit as a volunteer at certain tables. she would encourage me and say, “Have you ever thought about running for office? Have you ever thought of leading a nonprofit organization? We really need you in this community.” I ended up ultimately interviewing for a leadership position and when I got it, I called her and another community leader and said, “Ay mujeres, I got this job. Now, what am I going to do?” And they were like, “Oh, honey, you got this, but if you need us, we're here.” Their encouragement and faith in me gave me the confidence to really lean into the leadership power that I did have. All of a sudden, that just built my spirit and confidence. So typically when young Latinx or gender-expansive folks reach out for an informational interview or want some advice, I almost always say yes and make the time because I just know how powerful those connections can be for folks — it was for me, anyway, and I want to be that kind of inspiration and/or connection to people, as well.
I was looking through your history, and on paper, it looks like you got out of college, you opened a cafe, there was a three-and-a-half-year gap, and then suddenly you're the executive director of an organization. Tell me more about your path.
Actually, my first nonprofit job was at an employment and training center for the Latino community here in Minnesota called CLUES, which stands for Chicanos and Latinos Unidos en Servicios, and I was an employment and training counselor there for two years before I got the Casa position. Lupe was the chief operating officer at CLUES. It was through that organization that I got to know her, and also because I had been a small business owner and served on volunteer boards in the community. Lupe would be like, “Hey, why are you just working as an employment counselor? You should be leading an organization.” And I was like, “Really? I've never even worked for a nonprofit before!”
But I had maintained a volunteer relationship with Casa de Esparanza since I was 19 and in college until I got the job when I was like 29. That was a long time where I had the opportunity to work the crisis line, assist women with their orders for protection, help them develop a safety plan, and work with children who had witnessed violence, so I knew the organization very well as a volunteer. When the executive director position became available, it was one of those serendipitous opportunities where I thought, “OK, I can take the leadership, the civic and professional leadership from running a small business, and apply that to a mission that I really care about for the community.”
You and your team work on some really emotionally heavy issues like human trafficking and missing and murdered Indigenous women and African American women. How do you tend to your own wellness, especially since wholeness is part of who you are in the world?
Wholeness for me has always been rooted in relationships with others. I’m a borderline introvert-extrovert. I have a very strong sense of spirituality. I meditate. I pray. I do intentional breathing and Tai Chi. That’s very introverted, individual reflection time for me. And then I surround myself with people who have a very positive influence on me, who stretch me to grow as an intellectual person or who make me laugh and lift me up and encourage and support me when I'm down and tired. My community is a very important part of my own wellbeing, to be able to be in community with people that I feel good when I leave that interaction.
As an adult, I've really incorporated physical practice into my life, as well, so I'm an avid spinner and I do some weightlifting training. Those kinds of activities, while they give me physical strength, it also feels like a metaphor for that constant practice that we are in. I think about wellness as a constant practice of doing that weightlifting, getting those miles in on a spin bike, doing that active practice of prayer breathing. So it's that intentionality that I think I lean into.
I wanted to ask more about Women's Foundation of Minnesota. I know a key issue that you and your team tackle is economic justice. How do you see that being reflected internally with your work culture and staff benefits?
From an economic justice standpoint, our human resources does equity audits of our pay grades to really make sure that we are providing a wage that is not just a livable wage, but a thriving wage. All of our interns are paid. If we have a conversation with a grantee partner, we pay them for their time, so that ethos is really embedded in the organization. When we order lunch, we go to a local women-owned, gender-expansive vendor to support local business. We have a salaried, flexible employee work culture where people can do what they need to in the time that they need to get the job done. We’ll continue to have internal conversations about hiring people on a pay scale at a level that acknowledges their lived experience as part of their expertise, and not just the number of years of service at a previous organization doing a similar job.
What do you see shifting soon for the foundation?
The real shift for us is to ultimately be guided by the people most impacted by gender and racial injustice, and to build, share and use our power in partnership with leaders, organizations and movements, so that we can create these transformative pathways for opportunity to both urgent and long-term needs.
We’re interrogating what it means to go from equity to justice as a philanthropic organization that has been rooted in capitalism and white supremacy. We have very intentional operating plans that we co-create every year as a full team that includes the internal work that needs to be done to move ourselves from equity to justice. We're planning for an equity audit that would not just look at HR practices, but look at everything that we do with an equity and justice lens to understand what it will really take, whether it's in our research, grantmaking or the narrative change work that we do. What story does that tell about how the Women's Foundation is leaning into justice?
Do you anticipate any shifts in how the foundation engages with grantee partners?
I think our evaluation and learning will shift as we move more toward a justice frame, recognizing that the issues that our grantee partners are working on, such as ending sex trafficking, are long-term endeavors. We’re interrogating what we're evaluating and why, and how extractive or onerous it is to our grantee partners when we engage in that process. How do we make it so that we're all learning together? How do we invest in strengthening their capacity, as opposed to piling on expectations for them to report to us?
What's something on the horizon at the foundation that you're excited about?
We are celebrating our 40th anniversary this year as a statewide community foundation focused on women, girls and gender-expansive folks. What's on the horizon is an opportunity to step into the bold feminism that exists in our community and engage Black, Indigenous women of color as leaders within this organization and across the state, and invest in solutions that they see. I really see the Women's Foundation being more rooted in those relationships so that we can create more relevant solutions for equity and leadership opportunities and for safety.
What would you say is your biggest hope for philanthropy moving forward?
My biggest hope for philanthropy as a whole is that we are more humble and recognize how much learning and healing needs to be done in order to create the transformation that we want to see all across our country. We've been in a binary conversation that has been focused on the “haves” and the “have nots,” rooted in an ethos of generosity that is about centering the philanthropist as opposed to the folks most disadvantaged in community. My hope is that we will continue to center the people who are most impacted by inequities and that we will go to that conversation with humility and gratitude because those are the kinds of strategies that I think are going to create long-term change.
Michelle Dominguez (they/them/elle) is a Queer and Trans Los Angeles native born to Colombian immigrants. After a decade-long career in higher education student affairs, they switched to the nonprofit and philanthropy sector in 2021. What brings Michelle joy? Quality time with loved ones, mindfulness, chocolate desserts, and Disney magic.