Use These Three T's to Make a Difference (With IBA's Vanessa Calderón Rosado)
Elias Torres: Hola. I'm Elias Torres, co-founder and CTO, Drift. You're listening to The American Dream podcast. On this show, we talk to leaders who have achieved their own version of the American dream, but we also focus on the work that needs to be done to create a more consistent and diverse space of corporate America. That's why I'm setting aside time to talk to leaders of nonprofit organizations, the people leading the charge to build a brighter future for the next generation. foreign language. Today I have Vanessa Calderon- Rosado on the show. Vanessa is the CEO at Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion, a Boston- based nonprofit community development corporation, whose mission is to empower individuals through high quality affordable housing, education and an arts program. Vanessa has been part of the IBA for 18 years, and during that time she's also served as an advisor to the Boston Police Department, the Boston Public Health Commission, was the first Latina to serve on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts, served on Boston's Housing Task Force, and founded the first dual language innovation high school in Massachusetts. Needless to say, you are accomplished, you're a supporter of the community, supporter of the Latina community, and so we're going to... It's a pleasure of mine to be here talking with you on this show where my goal is to show role models that inspire me and that could inspire many others for what they could become and what they could pursue in their lives to have a purpose, to have a goal, and how do they accomplish great things as a Latino, as an underrepresented person minority in this country. So thank you for being on the show today. Hello, Vanessa.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Hola, Elias. I am so excited to be here with you today and also very thankful and grateful for the invitation to join your podcast, which I had looked at a few of the shows already that you have done already, and they're really inspiring and interesting through the different takes and the different perspectives. So I'm just thrilled to be here and share my perspective with you and your audience.
Elias Torres: Yeah. I mean, it's such an important thing, I feel like Latinos we do not have the breadth and the depth of the network that the people that were born here, people that are white that grow up in large networks. Latinos, we're immigrants. We come, we don't know anybody. We do not know how the system works. We're very community- driven, but do not understand how to apply the network. And ever since I met you I've been able to learn from your network and the work that you've done over your legacy over so many years of work. And I think that I want to encourage other people to get to know you and hear more about what you're doing in Boston.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Thank you.
Elias Torres: So let me see, we can talk a little bit about IBA a little bit, but I really want to dig into your story as a person and what you've accomplished, because I think that so many people look up to you and I want to learn more about that and tell others about why they look up to you and what you do on a daily basis here in Boston.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Sure. So let me start at the beginning briefly to make it short, but I was born and raised in Puerto Rico in San Juan.
Elias Torres: Okay, brilliant.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: I come from a very traditional middle class family, Puerto Rican family, with a small nuclear family, but a large extended families of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, and relatives that I call foreign language but we're not really related by blood. It's that extended network of people that you have around you to your point of having a network of people that will look after you, that will support you, that will knock on doors, that will connect you, et cetera. So I was born with that privilege of being in a family that was tight knit, that was middle class, that provided me with the opportunities of a good education and with the support to really reach for my full potential. However, very early on because my family, even though I was born in a middle class family, that was not the beginning of my family. Both of my parents were the first ones in their families to go to college. My father with a associate degree in business, and my mom with a degree in nursing. And they came from very humble beginnings. So from a very early stage in my life I was exposed to issues of poverty, inequality, race and racism, urban versus suburban or non- urban issues. So from that very beginning, that helped me broaden my perspective about the issues including when one of my uncles had to serve in the Vietnam War and I saw the impact of that in my family. And at that point I was too little to understand, but I always felt why war? Why are we fighting? Who are we fighting for? Who is representing us, especially us as Puerto Ricans who are citizens by birth, but if we live in the island we don't have the right to vote for the President or have full presentation in Congress and government? So all those issues from early on spiked my interest in issues around justice, also justice and equality. And also my family had a very strong value and a number of family values, right? But one of the values that I cherish the most was transferred to me by my parents, especially my mom was the value of giving back and paying it forward. And that to me has always been an important thing to do, giving back from all the blessings that I have received, and also paying forward those same blessing to the next person. So all those things have been kind of my north star as part of the work that I do. So I came to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico in 1992 to pursue a graduate degree and PhD in public policy because also I realized that many of these issues of inequality are based on policies, policies that someone made without the persons impacted at the table. And those policies many times had adverse impact on low income communities, on Latinos particularly in this country, the black in this country as well. So disenfranchised communities most likely are adversely impacted by those policies. So I came in 1992 to do my PhD in public policy. At the time I was in a kind of an academic track doing policy research and teaching a class here or there as an adjunct professor, and the opportunity to join IBA came about. I had known IBA from the beginning when I moved here to Massachusetts because hence the name Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion. So as a Boricua coming to Boston not knowing anyone and with a very rusty English people said, " Oh, you should know about IBA." And so I learned about IBA, I came to some events. Eventually I did some small consulting projects for IBA, and the opportunity appeared, right? Of joining the organization first as director of operations at that time and to becoming the CEO. And at the time I felt well, what do I want to do when I grow up type of crisis, right? Do I want to continue with my academic career or track or do I want to go back to community work which I had done in Puerto Rico? But I really felt in love with the mission of the organization and the work that IBA had done since 1968 when it was founded up to that time. And I also saw the possibility of really growing that impact and really make it deeper, but also bringing other people to push beyond the walls of our organization and our community of Villa Victoria where we own most of the housing units that we own. And that's how I said, " Yeah, I'm going to do this. Maybe I do it for two, three years and I go back to academia," but honestly, Elias, I haven't looked back. I think it was the right decision. It has allowed me not only to do great work with a great team of people. Not one person can do all of it, right?
Elias Torres: Yeah.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: But really attract great talent to do this fantastic mission work, mission- driven work at IBA, but also has allowed me and allowed the organization to push for those policy issues, to push for having a better voice, to amplify our voices, to really bring the issues of the community to light and into the forefront to address the disparities and really to push for equal treatment and equality. So that's my story and how I came to IBA, and how I fell in love with the work. And I'll tell you more about it, but that's how I came about.
Elias Torres: It's like I just think that one of the most important things that I'm trying to do is just raise awareness. You're raising my own awareness because I think that people grow up and we live in our own small bubbles, and we need to get outside of our bubbles and learn about what others are doing. In a way, my bubble was really I kind of fell, not fell but it's a long story, but I was from an early stage of my life I was on the tech journey and I was consumed. My mind early on was I had a growing family and I had to work, and all I would do is just work, work, work, family, family, family, and I would not know anything else that was going on outside. And so all I thought about the whole time is, " How can I be able to afford a house?" All these basic stuff, but I was kind of on an island. And I think by learning what you do is just I want to bring awareness to that of guess what, all of Boston has a Latina community, has a black community, and like you said just resonates with me, they're affected by policies and they're not usually at the table when those policy decisions are being made. And what you have done is you've dedicated your life. A lot of people are looking for purpose, are looking to, " Should I go focus on just getting a job and get paid a lot or should I do something that has a purpose?" And you dedicated your life to represent community, to work for them and people don't sometimes realize what it is. Tell me more about that. What is it like on a daily basis? What are the things that you do? You're on the boards, you're on the communities and the committees of all these other stuff. Tell us a little bit about what it's like to represent our community as a mission- based dream.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Yeah, that's such an important question. It's definitely, and you said it very nicely, it's a purpose, life purpose, and also being driven by a mission, right? And again, as I said earlier, I am driven by the mission purpose goal of really creating equal opportunities for our community. And it bothers me when I see injustices and when I see disparities and I know that there's something better that can be done. So for me it's been that. So I have felt from the beginning, even before coming to IBA through the research that I was doing on health policy in particular, and I was concentrating on casual disparities, on how we can open opportunities, what kind of policies, what kind of programs, initiatives, funding, resources we can devote and allocate to break down those disparities? So I use a lot of research often to frame my conversation, so people understand that it's just not a paternalistic approach though. We have to the needy. Oh, we have to help poor Latino community. There's so much talent in the Latino community that I want people to understand that. You're a great example of that, right? Of the talent and the potential and opportunities there. So I want to first use the research so people understand why the disparities exist, how can we do it, and then help advocate for solutions, right? And some of those solutions are already evidenced in research. Some of those solutions are coming from the community themselves from our own lived experiences and the lived experiences of the community I represent. So when I sit at these tables, I always listen to the issues and then I say, " Okay, now let's look at this different perspective." Because sometimes what happens is that people even with the best intentions, they just see the reward. And that's why we always talk about in the workplace, for example, how important diversity is in the technology and the innovation fields. Diversity is so important because you want people to look at the problems from different angles so you can come with the right solution to the problem. And oftentimes we don't do that with policy. Oftentimes we don't do that with public education. Oftentimes we don't do that with affordable housing or healthcare. And so that is what my job I feel it is, right? When I sit in these boards and in these commissions and these tables is to bring that perspective and use that also as a wedge to open the doors for others to come and bring their perspective. Not just me, because sometimes I think my opinion is important, but it's not the only opinion. And also oftentimes I want people to hear it exactly direct and from the voices of the community. So the community also has an opportunity to walk in with me into those doors that I'm able to wedge open so they can provide that perspective. And I think that that's what I do really, bringing that perspective and the numbers. For example, in Massachusetts, the growth in population in Massachusetts it's due to the Latino Canadian growth, the population growth in our communities. So really helping people understand that to the extent that we don't work on solutions that address the needs of our community, our economy and our society will lag behind because our numbers are there, have grown, and will continue growing.
Elias Torres: Yeah. I mean I think that a lot people in tech we talk about increasing diversity and sometimes people ask me, " What is your framework for diversity and inclusion?" And I said... I was doing a podcast with my CPO, chief people officer, she's a woman and I said, " Do you have a framework to be a woman? Do you have a framework to be a woman?" And she goes, "No I'm just a woman." And so when this guest, this host asked me, " What's your framework for D& I?" I go, " I don't know. I'm just Latina. I'm just fighting for what I just feel is obvious how I want to be treated if I'm not included, if I'm not paid the same, if I'm not accorded the same opportunities, right?"
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Right.
Elias Torres: It's injustice. It's simple, right? It's something as basic as you're doing the same job and you have the same title and the same experience and you should get paid the same, right?
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Right, absolutely.
Elias Torres: Regardless of your ethnicity and your gender. And so those are the things there, but what people don't realize is that in order for us to be able to benefit from diversity in the workplace in tech, you're helping Massachusetts create policies that help the people be able to have access to basic needs and to be able to have access to housing and have equal access to food, education. Give me examples of policies that you've been closely involved with, because you're involved with the city and with the state, right?
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Yeah.
Elias Torres: crosstalk.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: I'm involved with the city. I've been involved with the state and the federal government as well because I sat for three years in the Committee Advisory Council for the Board of Governors of the Federal Historic Bank, and then for five years at the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Board. But both of those jobs already expired so I'm no longer in those boards, but I really made sure that my tenure there was meaningful. And I'm going to give you one example of the... We can go on multiple examples, but I know we have limited time, but I'm going to give you an example on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. When I was at that board I joined different committees, and one of the committees that I joined was the Charter Schools Board. Charter schools have created a lot of controversy over the years for a number of reasons that we don't need to get into, but I believe that they're not the solution in the toolbox of solutions for public education issues. So I was very interested in seeing they traditionally have great outcomes for students, at least in Massachusetts and across the nation, but certainly Massachusetts they were showing great outcomes in the students. However, the majority of the students that they were serving were not black or Latino students. So I sat on that committee on purpose because I said, " Okay, let's look at the accountability that we're putting for the public schools in general. How can we use those same accountability measures for the charter schools? So we make sure that when they do enrollment, when they create their boards, when they create their budgets, when they do suspension policies, they keep in mind the students that actually we're trying to close the gap for, right? Black and Latino students." So the time that I spent in that committee within the board was very interesting because at the beginning there was a lot of tension between the work of the committee and the Field of Charter School Educators Association. But over time we said, "Listen, you do a great job. So now let's make sure that black and Latino kids are in your schools and families are in your schools so you can do a great job with them." So it's that kind work that I think is important and that's just an example of how we then change and how the accountability measures that were imposed on the regular public schools were also imposed on the charter schools. And the charter schools were held accountable to the community, especially the black and Latino community. There's still a lot of work to do in that area, but there have been tremendous strides that we've done since. So that's just one example.
Elias Torres: I like to interview people of all kinds because I think people fascinate me and that everybody has an amazing story, right? And it's-
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: I agree.
Elias Torres: ...you know what, if there's only one thing I could do, I just want to just be with people and hear their story and get to know them. That would be my most basic need, but and no matter what they've done and what they've accomplished. But you're an amazing, amazing woman, right? And-
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Thank you.
Elias Torres: ...what you do here as a Latina it's like you're navigating a very difficult, very complicated, very political world, and you earned the respect and you gained authority, and you're representing your people. And this is something I want to highlight to people in tech that it's not just about maybe go build a company or get to make lots of money or be a vice president, but people can choose a path like this because we need more people. The community doesn't run itself. The community's not just going to be a website. We need people on the ground with the people, understanding, getting to know them, helping them and understand that they need to be included in every facet of our lives, of our country, of our cities, of our government.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: I agree.
Elias Torres: And so it's vital. So I was going to ask you speaking of that, I think I've seen your name. I don't know many people in Boston, but there's this famous list in Boston, it's top 100 most powerful influential people in Massachusetts. And I go through the list and I used to know zero, and then now I know three people. You're one of them, right?
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Yeah.
Elias Torres: Tell us about that. What does that mean? And how does it feel like? I think you don't strike me as a bragging type of person, but it's an important recognition for you to be there, that Massachusetts values you, all the work that you do. Tell me more about that. What does it really entail and how are you using that to keep growing your influence?
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: You're absolutely right. So first it's a great honor and a humble one because you don't get nominated. There are a number of awards in which you get nominated and either you self- nominate yourself or you ask someone to nominate you and hopefully you get it. In this case, this list is done kind of behind the scenes and there's a mystery that no one really knows much about it. So there are rumors of who gets to decide, but there's a mystery. There's no real transparency on how the list comes up. But clearly the 100 people on that list are all very influential and all very worthy of the recognition. So when you get that email that you're going to be... That the issue is coming up in two weeks and you're in it, you're like, " Oh, my God. That's unbelievable." And so it's not only an honor, but it's really a source of great pride, not only for me, but for my family, the community that I represent, my friends, my mentors, my sponsors, everyone that has invested in me and in my growth professionally and personally. So its a great moment for celebration. I am not very hung into I have to be on this list, I have to get this award. I definitely receive them with open arms and embrace them because it's recognition of the hard work. It is also a recognition of that we're making progress in that hard work.
Elias Torres: As Latino, yeah absolutely.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: But I use this as an opportunity to really continue to elevate the profile of the issues that I care for. So as I'm in this list so I've talked to other people on the list or when I'm recognized for it, I say, "Yeah, that's nice, and this is what we need to do and this is what I do, this is what I advocate for in terms of housing and education." And so I use it more as a ball pit where I need to continue to bring attention to the issues and the challenges and the opportunities, because I always tend... Not tend, that's what I do. There's a challenge, there's an issue, but lets talk about the opportunities. Because when there's a challenge, there's a great opportunity on the other side waiting. And like I said with the growth of the Latino community in Massachusetts with as you know Elias and you're a business person, the fastest growing sector in small businesses across the country and in our state in Massachusetts, it's Latinos. Eight out of 10 new small businesses are Latino- owned. So there's so much opportunity for economic growth, for social growth, for economic mobility in our community that I want to frame our challenges in that way. I want to frame our challenges in a way in which this is where we're heading and this is how you can help, and this is how we can work together to make it better for everyone. And obviously as a Latina, I'm Boricua, that's where my heart is, but I also speak for other communities that have been marginalized like the black community, our black brothers and sisters. And after last year's racial reckoning with the murder of George Floyd, obviously everyone, myself included have been thinking about what else can we do to move that ahead crosstalk?
Elias Torres: And if you think of that's the great question. That's why I love talking to you because I think that it's like we have the younger generations are so passionate and they're so much better balanced I think in a way, compared to me where I was like, " Well, I'm supposed to just work and go home, change some diapers, we cook dinner and we put the kids to bed, and we pass out and we just keep doing this over and over." And-
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Everyday.
Elias Torres: ...pay the mortgage and this kind of stuff. I don't know. That was the immigrant thing that I learned, but you have another one, both as an immigrant and for the new generations where they're like they want to have a higher purpose and they want to... They suffer and they feel the pain of injustice and social inequity and they want to advocate for it, but I feel like they don't quite understand how to take action. And I think what you created for yourself is a magnificent sacrifice that you made, but at the same time you now have what you do is you're like, " I'm going to go help with that problem. I'm going to go help with that problem." This is what you do, and I think this is a dream that most people do not know is possible and that life is rewarding doing what you do. And so what advice would you give to someone in their 20s that's saying, " I don't know if I want to be at this job or in this hamster wheel or rat race"? Whatever they want to call it. You're like, " I want to do something more meaningful." What would you advise to them?
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Yeah. There are a number of things. First, what you've just described of your experience of wash, rinse, fold, repeat cycle. It's the cycle of many immigrant families, right? You come to this country with a dream and you work for it, and it's hard to really get involved in other things that take you away from those day- to- day demands and that dream. So that's not unheard of. My advice would be first to anyone who listens, that definitely raise your voice and point out... First, educate yourself. What are the issues? What are the opportunities? Frame the issues from an asset- based perspective. So educate yourself about what are the issues and see how you can... What's your passion? What's your passion in education? Is it the arts or is it housing or is it economic mobility? Or a combination of all of the above? And then find opportunities to raise your voice with your employer. " Hey, what are we doing around housing? How's our organization and our company supporting housing issues, if at all?" Also, I always say especially to young people the three Ts, time, talent and treasure. Give your time, volunteer for organizations like IBA and many others that are based in the community that are working on a daily basis on those challenges and opportunities. So your time is important. Your talent, if you're a techy, if you're a HR person, if you're a marketing person, all those skills that you can apply to that field, to that organization, to policy, in your own town, in your own municipality. And lastly, your treasure. We need to give. Latinos actually have a tendency to give, but it's primarily to churches through religious organizations. So I'm not saying you can't do that. If you do that, also give, find a way to give to nonprofit organizations that are doing the work on a day- to- day basis in the communities. So time, talent, and treasure. And get involved in your company, in your town, in your city, join the Broadband Access Board or join the... Raise your hand and say, " I want to be part of it. I want to participate. I want to support. I want to help." And it's hard because obviously when you're raising a family and you have all these other commitments and demands it's harder. Based on what your bandwidth is, figure out how you can give your time, talent and treasure. And never be afraid to speak up because if you're going to be sitting at the table, then yes, that's your chance. Go for it, don't sit silent.
Elias Torres: I like that. I think the Latino communities usually give to churches, but we can't forget the nonprofits, and this is what you're teaching me, right? I mean, it's like there's I'm learning about nonprofits. And the thing is that there's just so many needs and I think it can be very specific and personal to the individual, right?
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Yes.
Elias Torres: They can focus on housing. They can focus on access to the internet. They can focus on helping small business. They can focus on food, education, benefits, access to government contracts. There's just so many options that I'm really learning by getting slowly more involved in the community. As I'm getting older and my kids are getting older, and I'm creating some of that bandwidth and the opportunity, then I have ways to give back. And so I've learned so much and people need to listen to this. It's to say, " Let me just join one thing."
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Yeah, exactly.
Elias Torres: crosstalk.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: We don't need to boil the ocean, right?
Elias Torres: Yeah.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: We just need to pick something that is meaningful for us and see how we can make a difference there and make an impact. One thing that I want to point out that is very characteristic of Latino- led organizations is that even when you pick an organization that is youth serving, let's say you're passionate about youth issues so you want to pick an organization that serves Latino, one thing that is very characteristic of our organizations and that's also we found that in the study by the Greater Boston Latino Network which IBA is a member of, was that when the researchers studied our organizations they found that we are multi- serving. IBA is multi- serving by nature. We do a number of services, not just one single thing. But even those single- serving- issue organizations spread their wings and really work on whatever the issue because our families have challenges, and it's not just the youth, there are other challenges in that family unit. So what you find is that many of our organizations are stepping into helping even something that is not directly related to their mission. So I say this because I think as you and I are trying to raise awareness with your audience and others about the great possibilities that are there in providing your time, talent and treasure to working in nonprofits, that's something to keep in mind as well.
Elias Torres: Yeah. I mean, I think that I've learned I don't do enough. It's like we can easily be so self- absorbed with our own lives just like I was saying earlier, and in anything like giving to others is just the best thing we could do. It just completely distracts us from what we think are our problems. And if we spend our time, our talent and our treasure with others it's just so rewarding and just makes you realize in what areas you're blessed and you're provided for, or you have access or you made progress. And helping others, just that feeling just can't beat. I just want people to realize how important and how inaudible and how successful you are-
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Thank you.
Elias Torres: ... in thecommunity as an activist, as a fighter for social justice. More people should know what you do and say like, " I want to be like Vanessa," right? And say, " I want to be like Vanessa." And now you're teaching me what it's like to fight and get involved in these issues. And you're an amazing role model. You're an amazing version of the American dream that you came to this country, you were able to join a community that welcomed you, there was people like you, and then you were able to grow that community and you were able to fight for that community and be respected in this state, in this country, and rewarded and recognized for your success in your journey or your mission. So thank you so much for being here. Thank you for joining me. Keep doing what you're doing. Please help, be involved with IBA. Donate, volunteer time. If you don't have that specific connection to IBA, Vanessa can connect you.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: crosstalk.
Elias Torres: She's everywhere in Boston wherever the Latino and others are there like in the Boston Foundation, right?
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Mm- hmm(affirmative).
Elias Torres: The Latino Equity Fund. You're just everywhere. She's there fighting every day for somebody, for something, and we appreciate so much what you do.
Vanessa Calderon-Rosado: Thank you so much, Elias. foreign language. It's just a pleasure. It's my life's calling, and I love sharing it with others. If people want to learn more about IBA, they can go to our website ibaboston. org. My information is there, including my email and phone number if you want to connect. Happy they can do that through the website as well. Happy to do that. Thank you for the opportunity of chatting and thank you, Elias. foreign language.
Elias Torres: Thanks for listening to The American Dream podcast. Make sure to hit Subscribe so you never miss when a new episode drops. If you liked this episode, please leave a six star review wherever you listen to your podcast. And if you're interested in learning more about my American dream mission, subscribe to my newsletter linked in the show notes.
You can find Vanessa Calderón Rosado's name on Boston Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in Boston list, but that's just one accolade of her many.
For the past 18 years, Vanessa has sat at the helm of Inquilianos Boricuas en Acción, a Boston-based nonprofit focused on empowering underrepresented individuals through high-quality affordable housing, education, and arts programs. As she built out programs with IBA, she's also become the first Latina to serve on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts, served on Boston’s housing task force, and founded the first dual-language innovation high school in Massachusetts.
There's so much more to Vanessa's story, and Elias gets into it all on this episode.
- (3:30) Vanessa's background
- (12:34) What it's like to be "driven by mission"
- (18:12) Vanessa's influence on Boston policy-making
- (23:26) What it means to make Boston's Top-100 Most Influential list
- (28:51) How to get started with nonprofits
To learn more about IBA and how to get involved, head to https://www.ibaboston.org/
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