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Latina addresses philanthropy

Liz Miller | Monday, December 10, 2007

Recalling her experiences as a minority who faced discrimination, Antonia Hernández spoke about the importance of generating social change in America in her lecture Friday titled, “Latinos, Philanthropy and Civic Engagement.”

“If you’re really a Catholic, you should be a revolutionary,” Hernández said.

Hernández is currently the president and CEO of the California Community Foundation, a $670 million foundation that is one of the largest and most active philanthropic organizations in Southern California. In her lecture, Hernández shared her personal story and beliefs as a Latina woman.

Born in Mexico and raised in East Los Angeles, Hernández called herself a, “product of public education.” Though neither of her parents spoke English, they pushed Hernández and her six younger siblings to earn college degrees.

While she initially hoped to continue her academic career and become a historian, an incident at Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1968, where she worked, changed her mind.

At that time, thousands of students walked out of schools and marched for an improvement in Latino Civil Rights. Many of the students that she worked with were put in jail, Hernández said.

Hernández had found her calling.

“I went to law school for one purpose and one purpose only – to use the law as a tool to be an agent of change to improve the quality of life for my society,” she said.

She ignored the criticism she received from her family members over her decision. Her uncle told her, “You’re a girl, and you’ll cry when you go to court.”

“The only one who ever cried was my uncle when he needed my help,” she said

As a young lawyer, Hernández was invited by a friend to apply for counsel to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

“I didn’t know that this is one of the most coveted positions from the legal perspective in the U.S.,” Hernández said.

She helped develop the 1980 Refugee Act, a law designed to admit refugees into the United States for humanitarian reasons that is still in effect today.

“Working in the public policy arena is a very important way to change the rules of the game,” Hernández said.

While she loved her work in law, Hernández had a newfound desire to work at the grassroots level and implement social change. After serving as president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Hernández joined the California Community Foundation (CCF) as president and CEO in February 2004.

“Philanthropy is another tool to change the norms of society for the better,” she said. “Last year, CCF gave $245 million. Of that, we control $25 million.”

The foundation allocates funding to projects it believes will succeed, such as chartering new schools, funding emerging artists and helping new immigrants learn English.

“In this country, to be successful, you have to speak English. Period,” Hernández said.

Beside raising funds, Hernández believes that identifying crucial community issues is an essential part of the social change process.

Hernández expressed her hope to further engage the Church in her project for social change. She spoke warmly of the social activism of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, archbishop of Los Angeles, who has pressed for change on the immigration issue.

For Hernández, philanthropy is an essential part of Catholicism.

“It’s about sharing, giving and taking care of your brother and sister. … Philanthropy is about supporting human beings,” she said. “My belief in social change is from the Ten Commandments. The basic tenets of Catholicism, the communal nature of our religion … that’s my life.”

Hernández concluded by remarking on the process of social change.

“Win some, you lose some, remember: Social change is incremental and very slow,” she said. “You have to be committed for the long run.”