Mar 30th, 2021
Helen Torres is the CEO of HOPE — Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, one of the nation's most influential Latino organizations. She has been instrumental in the development and implementation of the HOPE Leadership Institute (HLI), a program that prepares adult Latinas for the next level of civic participation. HLI has resulted in more than 180 Latinas being appointed to state and local commissions and over 200 Latinas serving on nonprofit boards to improve local communities. To date more than 565 Latinas have graduated from HLI.
Learn more about Helen and HOPE.
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Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast, where we talk with women who are following their passions to inspire you to do the same.
We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. And today we're talking with Helen Torres, the CEO of HOPE — Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, one of the nation's most influential Latino organizations. Helen has been instrumental in the development and implementation of the HOPE Leadership Institute, a program that prepares adult Latinas for the next level of civic participation. HLI has resulted in more than 180 Latinas being appointed to state and local commissions and over 200 Latinas serving on nonprofit boards to improve local communities. To date more than 565 Latinas have graduated from HLI.
So please welcome to the show, Helen Torres.
Helen: Thank you so much, Nancy and Amy. It's a pleasure to be part of this.
Passionistas: We're really happy to have you here. What are you most passionate about?
Helen: The first thing that comes to mind is my family. I'm most passionate about my family and making sure they're okay. Especially my twin boys, Adam and Joshua, who are teenage boys. And I want to make sure they grow up to be good kind people with a feminist streak and a Star Wars fans.
Right now are good in kind. They definitely understand that I'm a feminist and I can hear them speaking in those terms as well. And we are all Star Wars fans in our family. So I think I'm on the right route with them on that. Outside of my family, I am very passionate about our democracy. And very passionate of creating opportunities for everyone to be a part of this huge social contract and to really, truly define how we can all, you know, have the pursuit of happiness.
And so I do that through HOPE ensuring that Latinas are part of that equation. Ensuring that Latinas are part of government non-profits corporations, businesses, so that we're really creating a place where there's liberty, freedom and justice for all.
Passionistas: Love that and love that you're raising Star Wars fans. That's very, very, very important. Talk more about the work that you do at HOPE how do you do the things that you just described?
Helen: Everything that we do at HOPE has a civic engagement lens, as well as a financial literacy education lens. And so how we do it, we break it down into three key bucket areas, if you will. First is around leadership development. And we have leadership programs for high school students, college students, young professionals and Latinas who are already at the executive level. And all of those programs are to ensure like from a high school program is to ensure those young ladies are already finding and defining what type of leaders they want to be.
Engaging them in the political system. So understanding how they can be advocates around education in their school board. How they can engage their community and position themselves as community leaders. And then the ultimate goal is to ensure that they see a pathway into college. So we have 92% of the young women that go through our program end up being accepted into a college program as well, which is way above the national average.
So we found that civic engagement. Coupled with realistic learnings of a pathways. Works in college. What we do for our college age, Latinas is still, we give them a civic engagement project. If it's voter registration, if it's getting more people to sign up in their community around the census, and then we give them a format to run a town hall among their peers.
Yeah, Rhonda subject area that they decide to tackle. We give them a lot of professional development around workforce integration. How do you interview for your job during these COVID-19 distanced zone times? Right? How do you position it? You write that resume. How do you review? We do a lot about how they're reviewing their social media.
And positioning themselves. And then we connect them with various corporations, business opportunities. So that they can hear from peers in these organizations or role models. So they understand what they can expect when they're going into the workforce. So that's our college program. This college program enrolled over 3000 people in the census they added outreach for.
And so we're really proud of our college program. Then what we're known for is our HOPE Leadership Institute, which is, target audience is about a Latina that's about 35 years old. Ari has to prove quite a bit of years of community activism. And this Institute is designed to get the Latina to her next level of civic engagement.
About 10% of them will end up running for office. About half of them will serve on a local or statewide commission and close to 80% will be serving on nonprofits or running nonprofits. So it's really seen that civic engagement taken to another level. And that's a program that we're really proud of as well.
The HOPE Leadership Institute. The last program we launched three years ago is the binational fellowship where it's for Latinas across the United States and in Mexico who are already at the executive level and are looking to take their leadership at either a national level or international. So we have two sessions with policy experts on trade, workforce development, the future of the two countries and negotiations and political understanding of each other.
But also we have a lot of conversations about how to really truly bring best practices around policy to each other as well. That's our leadership development and that's really what we are known for.
We also have an advocacy agenda where we create reports. We do a lot of studying a lot of reports on the status of Latinas. How are Latinas fairing in the United States? And how are they fairing specifically here in California? And from those reports, we create an advocacy agenda. So for example, we did our economic status of Latinos report about two months ago and found that 60% of Latinos overall made up the COVID-19 cases here in California.
And our population's 40%. Over representation in an area that we don't want to see over representation in. Right. We also know that for the first three months of the shutdown that we had back in March through May 30% of Latinos lost their jobs. So what does that mean to us economically? We're able, when we do these types of reports, we're then able to go advocate in Sacramento, in Washington, DC, around policies of like, how do we help individuals that are losing their jobs during this time?
To reenter into the workforce. Is there training programs? Is there the stimulus package that did not reach Latina micro businesses or small businesses? Is there an opportunity for the third stimulus package to be much more concentrated on small businesses and micro businesses? So that's what our advocacy agenda looks like.
We do a lot around health care reform issues. Wanting to ensure when we first started healthcare reform conversations and part of the coalitions about 20 years ago, the uninsured rate of Latinas was at 30%. Now we're at 13%. So it's incredible to see that, you know, and a lot of that's because of the Affordable Care Act, but advocacy works.
You just have to be patient and know that it's going to happen eventually. And then the last thing we do is what we call this bigger education bucket. We do do a lot to educate the general market and ourselves about the impact Latinas are having on our government, on our corporations, on our businesses and our civic society overall.
Passionistas: So let's take a step back. Let's talk about growing up. What were your experiences that led you to be interested in this kind of work?
Helen: I blame my mom a hundred percent. And I mean that with all well, with a lot of endearment and love, my mother was a single mother in, in Puerto Rico, beautiful Island, a Commonwealth of the United States. She had to work really hard in the garment industry, in Puerto Rico. I was born with a heart defect and disease. And that she was advised to come to the United States to ensure I had the best care. Everyone knew that eventually I would have to have open-heart surgery by the age of 12. And some of the best doctors happened to be in Detroit, Michigan, where also I had an aunt and uncle were living.
So it made it easy, somewhat for her to migrate to the United States, but it was really difficult for her. And as her daughter, I witnessed the struggles she had with people accepting her accent. You know, as she was learning English, she was made fun of a lot. People ridiculing her, correcting her. And just little by little, you saw this very independent woman just being her spirit, been chip away at.
When we moved, when my mother remarried and our stepfather moved us out to the suburbs. She even had a harder time because in Detroit, we at least had community the, of fellow Puerto Rican's and Mexicanos that we could, you know, she would at least have friendships with, but it was when she went outside of that community, taking me to my hospital visits, doing banking transitions, trying to get a job is where things really kind of, it showed me the level of, I would quite frankly say discrimination that so many people face, right.
When we moved to the suburbs that even multiplied because we moved into a very blue collar, very lovely in so many ways, but blue collar, a hundred percent Caucasian. Give you an example. When I graduated from high school, our high school itself had 2000 people. I think we were four Latino families out of those 2000. It just gives you a sense of the isolation she was feeling.
I always hated there, there was this one moment in my history that crystallized, I think my pathway into advocacy and being very passionate about people being included and ensuring that we have an inclusive society. I was in third grade. It was the first year that I was going to a public school.
We always had a, I went to Catholic school up until that point. And my mother received a call from another mother that was organizing some kind of bake sale or something for the school. There was something lost in translation. My mother just understood that she was asked to bring a cake. So she baked this beautiful cake.
When she showed up with the cake, the mother that was organizing on this just really yelled at her saying, I meant cupcakes, not a cake. You have to learn how to speak English. And even at that age, being a third grader, I step in between them. And I yelled at the woman saying, how dare you? My mother knows two languages and these are beautiful cupcakes.
I think that's where the advocate in me started. It's crazy to think, even in third grade, you can see some injustice. So I always think of that incident. And I experienced similar changes in my mom. She went through her own stage of depression. It wasn't until I was in college, that I really started getting more involved in political and started really understanding the need to understand how the system works and the part that I can play in it.
But at the end of the day, I found HOPE the organization I run as a place to ensure what happened to my mother doesn't happen to other Latinas. Now, of course, we're not a hundred percent in making that happen, but I feel like I'm working towards that. And that's why I'm so passionate. My mom is still very politically active.
She's still my role model in so many ways. I often think, you know, she, wasn't given a form, an opportunity for a formal education. And I think somebody, women in our society have not been given that especially of different generations and just the waste of human capital, that if we don't invest in each other, what does that mean to our society?
Passionistas: So you were saying, obviously there's still a lot of work to be done, but, but how do you think those kinds of issues have changed since your mother's time and what still needs to be done?
Helen: Education is the incredible gateway and a lot has changed to ensure education, especially through a public education system and the United States that everyone has access to education. But we also know that that access doesn't look the same. In the quality doesn't look the same. It's really much based on your ZIP code is very much based on your income level. So I think there's a lot more to be done. So I think we've seen more accessibility. Now we really need to talk about the quality of the education.
We have to be very honest about what the workforce of the future is going to look like. Are we marrying education and opportunities and innovation with what the future is going to hold for us? So I think that's where a lot of work needs to be done, especially for Latinas. We are one of the few groups that are not going into STEM education, if you will, at the level that we should too, when we're looking at the future of the workforce. A lot of that is because of the access to certain science courses, advanced science courses are not being made available in low income communities. I always think that's one of the key factors that you can look at.
So we know through our reports at hope that we're seeing a great increase, almost 13% over the last 10 years of Latinas, not only graduated from high school, but going on right across California. So we see these great numbers moving in the right direction. Not only do we need to continue that and grow that movement forward, but we need to think about quality of education and how we're preparing young Latinas as well as Latinas of all ages for this new workforce. So I think that's really important and I'm very much proud to be part of that work.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington, and you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Helen Torres. To learn more about Hispanics Organized for Political Equality, visit Latinas.org.
If you're enjoying this interview and would like to help us continue to create inspiring content, please consider becoming a patron by visiting ThePassionistasProject.com/podcast and clicking on the patron button. Even $1 a month can help us continue our mission of inspiring women to follow their passions. Now here's more of our interview with Helen.
Tell us about your education and what path you took to get to where you are now.
Helen: I was one of those individuals that was told from a very early age and probably cause my mother's experience and not being able to access formal education. She didn't know the pathway. Right. But she just always would tell my sister and I. You have to go to college. You just have to go to college. I don't know how you get to college. I don't know how we're going to pay for college. I don't know how to answer any of those questions. So we fumbled a lot and we figured it out.
I went to Michigan State University, which is one of the great public universities in Michigan. My first year was really hard. It wasn't like anyone in my immediate family could tell me, this is what you can expect in college. This is how you should study how to work 30 hours a week while going to school to help pay and make sure I wasn't going into debt.
That was really important for my mom. Not to have a huge student loan at the end, always reconciling these two things, this mandate to go to college, but also this mandate that you have to work. You have to not get into debt. We didn't know. We didn't know that it was okay to have a little bit of debt because you'd make it up sooner in, you know, in better wages and salaries.
So that was interesting. Michigan State University. Found a passion around communications, but not PR or advertising. It was actually the study of communication. So one of the things I did and I had a great experience with a professor was we studied a deception model. How can you detect the differentiation around men and women and how they, what they consider as deception. So that was a fantastic study. I went on for my master's degree in communications and urban studies, which is more like a sociology really was, became very interested in how. Communities are shaped in urban areas and how people interact in urban areas around civic engagement.
And I took a little bit of a breather. I thought I was going to go on for my PhD program in Santa Barbara, actually. But then I had to have this real honest conversation with myself. I didn't like writing. I still don't like writing. When you go out for your PhD, you've really got to love writing. I love the research part.
I love the human interaction and understanding how humans thought about communication and. The implications of the study of how that can enhance communications either interpersonally or culturally, but I just didn't like writing and it made me really miserable. So in a whim, I came out to California. I had one friend that lived out here and after my master's program, I met her boss.
He was in public relations. He saw that I had a communications degree and just assumed that I knew what public relations was. And so I'm like, sure. Why not? Um, and that's how I ended up in California, but all my degrees are from Michigan State university.
Passionistas: And how did you get involved with HOPE?
Helen: I went through five years of being very miserable in public relations. I was really great at the pitch and getting media coverage. But once again, that writing thing came back to haunt me just was not happy, ready, and all these press releases and whatnot and white papers. So I did it and I did it fine, but it was just not where I was. I didn't find my passion there. And then I just said, you know, I'm not using my master's degree, the way that I envisioned that I would about really building community and understanding the psychology and sociology behind community building.
So I just applied it, you know, from a, an, an ad to United Way of Greater Los Angeles. They needed fundraisers. I thought that would get me my foot in the door because I felt PR is very much about sales as well. Just made that transition. They hired me. It worked out, I loved the opportunity, not only to fundraise for great causes like you doing United Way, but there was a lot around the community development piece that I was also exposed to that I just loved.
And I was very fortunate that one of the board members of United way was the founder of hope. Maria Contreras-Sweet an incredible leader and trailblazer in the Latino community. Maria know, founding the organization always recruited people to volunteer. So I started volunteering at HOPE and HOPE at that time was about 98% volunteer run.
That 2% was consultants and administrator that would just help the train keep on moving if you will. And I always said, gosh, you know, if we can ever get a grant that can hire an executive director, that's my job. So what happened? After volunteering for almost two and a half years, this opportunity came up.
I was all of 31 years old. That was 20 years ago. I just followed my passion. I had this vision of where I could see the potential and the growth of the organization. And here I am 20 years with really a pride moment of not only the growth, but the impact that the organization's making in California and nationally now.
Passionistas: Tell us about that growth. What was the organization like when you started with it? And we know how far it's come but tell us about that process.
Helen: Part of it is, I always say, you said you're, you're, you're handed this beautiful gift of that is made up of a vision and a pretty good brand at, by that time. Right? Cause HOPE was already 10 years old by the time I was hired, but no infrastructure. No real long-term funds. Uh, so I had to come in and kind of be this operational person of not only raising money, not only keeping the vision and the excitement that was around hope already, but really developing programs that foundations and corporations and individuals would invest in.
So it was putting, you know, five years of my life, I would say that I started at 31. I remember my 35th birthday. I said, Oh my gosh, all I have done is hope. All my friends are part of HOPE my mom tesingly would always say, you know, who is this Hope person that keeps you from visiting us and stuff? Cause they were still in Michigan.
Uh, but she, you know, she said that jokingly of course she knew it was my job, but she didn't understand what I was doing. Right. I think sometimes it's a little bit hard to explain to your parents when you get involved in civics and politics. Exactly what you do. It consumed me because I had to put in the infrastructure of one day hoping to hire staff. Right? So putting in that infrastructure with you, following all the rules and regulations fundraising for the first two years was my mandate so I can build up the team.
So we went from an organization that was driven by event to event. You know, you just fundraise whatever you need to get that event going to the next to an organization that now has four established programs, has an advocacy agenda, 10 staff members, one located in Sacramento as a policy director and has a national profile where we're able to provide not only the governor.
But, you know, the new incoming administration names of women, they should be considering in appointments. It was about professionalizing it, the first five years were, you know, very difficult because it was building it up, building up your board, building up your stakeholders. And then we went into a recession.
Thank goodness. We built it up. And we had this great brand and credible programs for five years that people can see that track record. So we survived the recession, but we didn't do any growth really, you know, and sometimes just surviving is pretty incredible. Right. Then we were back into a growth pattern where we were becoming even more statewide because we were very much a regional organization to begin with in LA, but now we're going through COVID-19 in, which is very interesting because it's provided us an opportunity through our virtual programming.
We pivot within a month. Everything went virtual for us, which allowed us to get to a bigger audience. And so, as we're looking almost like at a hybrid model next year, we're really thinking about how do we market even to, for all our programs, not just one to a much larger audience. So that's part of the growth and the trajectory of HOPE
Passionistas: You mentioned all of the different programs that you do. Are there one or two specific success stories of girls or women that really stand out to you as ones you're proud of?
Helen: One from the HOPE youth leadership program, the first class, which was 15 years ago, now two of the participants, one of them is now a chief of staff for an assembly member in CA in Sacramento.
So it was just great to see that the other one is. A co-leader of an advocate national advocacy group that has done incredible grassroots work to ensure larger Latino and Latina civic engagement and voter registration specifically is in at great success in this past election. So those two come to my mind from the youth leadership. We've had a couple of the youth leadership women after their graduation, from college that they went on and ran for their school boards.
So we have to have those success stories when it comes to our Hope Leadership Institute, uh, success stories. We've had quite a few, we have elected officials that are now serving in.
Or have served in the state Senate. We have a couple that are now serving the assembly. The most recent is we had a high-level appointment in governor Newsome's cabinet that came from HLI. So that was an incredible success story as well. But we have so many grassroots success stories from the hope leadership Institute.
And even success stories of how these women come together and support each other. We are a nonpartisan nonprofit, so we don't get into a electionary. We can't support a candidate individually. This network can do that. And they individually really came together to support the first Latina supervisor in San Diego County.
Those are some of the success stories of HLI. They often the women often help each other. So they're from Silicon Valley view of our alumni a few years ago. Donated X amount of, uh, computers to alumni that was working at LA USD. And so there was this great computer exchange that wouldn't have happened otherwise. Right. So those are some, a great success stories.
The binational is a little bit early still to see how that evolves. We are starting to really measure the impact where you are going to be entering with a contract with Dr. Manuel Pastore to do this great study of the impact mentors of HLI or our leadership Institute, women, but of Latinas that they're, that we're having in local communities, either through civic engagement. Or because of our economic contributions, they're starting businesses being part of the workforce, going to be a one-year study. So it's going to be pretty intense.
Passionistas: And you yourself are a success story from the HOPE leadership Institute you were graduate yourself. So what did you learn personally from that experience that you've taken away?
Helen: I thought I was pretty already savvy about understanding how government works. Right. We all probably took those civic classes that aren't as offered as much as we need them to be offered now. But, you know, through civics, through being engaged in college and working on some campaigns when I was in college, too volunteering, when I was a professional.
But when I started going through the leadership Institute, it was really that insider baseball about how the sausage is made both from a policy perspective, but how candidates are brought along and that road, that was incredibly insightful. So that's one of the things that we constantly do is we create this environment of people feeling safe.
So they can share stories because see, you can learn from a textbook about how a bill gets passed, but you need to understand the census building that you have to do, how you bring together, what does negotiations look like? How do you even plant that seed with that legislature? What's the timing of it?
We do so much around budgeting people sometimes don't realize that your state budget is really your blueprint of how advocacy and how programs are going to be funded. Right. So part of it makes a lot of sense. But if you're a strong advocate in your community, you need to understand what the budget looks like. And you need to understand how you can influence where the dollars are going. So that's what I got out of the HOPE leadership Institute was that more minutia, that detail of how government works and the role that advocacy can play in it to be effective.
And then the second thing, and this is. I say the second thing for me, but from all our evaluations from the alumni, they say the number one thing is the network itself. Is meeting other Latinas who have probably very similar, humble, beginning stories. We don't all think alike. We don't all approach students the same way, and we're not all friends. But through the Institute, you learn from each other and you really do create a bond in which there's this unspoken promise to be of support.
Passionistas: And as non-Latinas, how can we be supportive of your community?
Helen: Come and be part of the training. Come and understanding, you know, read our reports. I think part of it is we're always looking to have this exchange of how do we understand each other better? How do we walk in each other's shoes? And there's a lot of opportunities. Most of our trainers, half of them are Latinos and half are not.
And we do a lot around putting the women in situations. Where they're not always surrounded with people that are thinking the same way or come from the same background. That's what's true. Leadership is, is when you're able to bring everyone together. So I think that's one of the key ways. And then we create so many reports that hope that really is for people to understand our community, reading those reports, getting those reports out, understanding that Latino lens, if you will.
And that data. I think it's just beneficial, especially in a state like California, where there is no clear majority, even though Latinos are now at 40%, but there is no clear majority. And we also know that future generations and you can see this already with gen Z. There's going to be a lot of mixture happening, right.
And that's a beautiful thing and that needs to be celebrated. And I think also it's the celebration of understanding each other's cultures and having those exchanged and you know, why do you see the world the way that you do? And that comes from a place of judgment, but really come from a place of understanding.
Passionistas: What's the most rewarding part of what you do.
Helen: Seeing the success and the impact our graduates are doing, or when we've been advocating for a specific policy issues, seen it implemented next to being with my boys and my husband. That is like the biggest thing that gives me a smile on my face, the success of our graduates across the state and the nation, literally all pun intended, that's what gives me hope.
I get to see it every day, but not everybody else does. It just makes you think, okay. For all the craziness that we sometimes think about what's going on in our nation or in our state, there's a lot of good things going on too. And I get to witness those daily. I get to hear those stories.
Passionistas: And what does your mother think about what you're doing and the success that you've had?
Helen: When we hope publications and stuff, she looks through things and says, well, where's your picture? Where are you? I go, mom, that's not, it's not about me. It's about the women that we're putting forward. I think at the end of the day, she's just proud that I followed my dreams and that I've been able to create a life that it brings happiness to me. And so that, that brings a lot of joy to her.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Helen Torres. To learn more about Hispanics organized for political Equality, visit latinas.org.
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