In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we are featuring one of our Providence leaders, Gabriela Robles, who proudly identifies as Latina and is the chief executive of the St. Joseph Community Partnership Fund (SJCPF) and AVP of Community Partnerships. Robles brings a wealth of knowledge, passion, and unique lived experience to her role and through her work at SJCPF, she has been integral in capacity building and disaster/crisis response in communities throughout California and now across the full Providence footprint and globally.
Robles is making her mark at SJCPF
For the past 15 years, Robles has served as the chief executive of the SJCPF, a grantmaking foundation, rooted in equity and justice, within Providence. It has always been - and continues to be - committed to making systemic changes at the community level, developing community leaders, and stabilizing local structures, policies, and programs that tie directly back to the vision of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.
The SJCPF’s approach is different than typical funders in that they strive to keep the power and the control in the hands of those who know best: the community. SJCPF walks alongside its partners to improve the lives of others, especially the economically poor and the vulnerable.
“The work of SJCPF is really focused on equity and community power building,” says Robles. “Prior to 2000, we focused on grants for traditional health programs like mobile clinics and health education, but we realized we need to address the root causes of these challenges in our communities.” Now, SJCPF engages to determine why inequitable systems exist and how those systems can be changed, investing in changing these systems with a particular focus on housing, education, disaster response and recovery, and nonprofit and community capacity building. In addition, Robles’ team incubates and accelerates programs that create scalable impact in the community we serve by lifting the diverse voices of local leaders, sharing best practices and lessons, offering mentorship, and providing much needed economic support.
Her journey from neighborhood translator to chief executive
Growing up, Robles lived in Los Angeles County with her family of five, including two younger siblings and parents that were immigrants from Mexico. Many of her neighbors were also immigrants, and she recalls seeing Immigration and Naturalization Services, now U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, around, questioning individuals and occasionally raiding family homes. From a young age, Robles has had a servant’s heart. Because she is bilingual, she found a place in her community providing interpretation and translation. “I was that kid that would go to all these appointments with my neighbors,” says Robles. She helped individuals access care, enroll their children in school, and more. This experience played a central role in forming who she is today, developing her identity, and helping her decide on a career path.
"In my family, we were always told that poverty should not limit our dreams, and our mission as a family was to pursue our dreams in the country."
After earning her bachelor’s degree from University of California, Irvine, Robles gravitated towards the nonprofit field. “I was called to work for organizations that focus on health and access to health,” says Robles. “I wanted to be involved in work that looked at health very holistically and concentrated on the different factors that can impact the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of a person, a family, and a community.” It was at this time that she was first introduced to the SJCPF through her position at the time, with an organization that was a grantee. She had the opportunity to regularly engage with the president of the SJCPF and through this relationship and this work, Robles realized this was a field where she could be impactful.
This led her to pursue her master’s in urban and regional planning at UC Irvine and to her first role at SJCPF. At this time, she thought her future would be in law or public policy, but Sister Suzanne Sassus, CSJ, SJCPF founder and one of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, offered her an internship that helped set her on her current path. After spending a short time on the East Coast with her husband pursing further education and working in the private sector, Robles found herself back in California and again with SJCPF, this time working as chief executive.
Since taking the reins of SJCPF, Robles has led several initiatives and built a strong team that play an integral role in the success of the SJCPF’s efforts. Caring for the dear neighbor is the basis of almost all the work done by the SJCPF. Robles’ team strives to help communities become the agents of change they need by ensuring community power building and leadership development are top priorities in their grant partnerships. “SJCPF provides coaches in these communities that help them to identify what the issues are in their neighborhoods. We don’t walk in there and try to tell them what they need,” says Robles. “Unfortunately, SJCPF’s funding can’t last forever, so we want to be sure these communities have the support and resources to develop their advocacy ‘muscle’ that allows them to be prepared to handle future issues.”
"At the end, we want the community members we work with to know they have the power to advocate on behalf of themselves, their families, and the rest of their community."
Robles and members of her team remain connected with former grantees to hear about their triumphs and to be a resource for them. “They know we are always there for them. I receive calls from partners that we are no longer funding with questions regularly and I’m always happy to make time for them,” says Robles. “That’s really the value the SJCPF brings to the community on behalf of Providence.”
Reflections on Robles’ identity as a Latina
With National Hispanic Heritage Month, the annual celebration of U.S. Hispanic and Latino history and culture, running from September 15 to October 15, Robles has been reflecting on her own identity and heritage. She personally identifies as Latina because it both honors her identity as a woman and connects to her family’s Latin American heritage. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, nearly half of people generally thought of as ‘Hispanic’ identify by their country of heritage (i.e. Mexican, Guatemalan, etc.), with nearly 40% saying they usually describe themselves interchangeably as ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino/a.’ Ultimately, for Robles and may others, the most important component is that that people are able to identify themselves in whatever way they see fit.
Identifying as Latina is just one way Robles celebrates and shows respect for her family’s culture and traditions. “My parents were able to offer me many opportunities by immigrating to this country, like being able to pursue a college degree,” she says. “They also supported me as I pursued a less traditional path for a woman from our community. I honor their sacrifices by honoring our heritage and feeling pride in what I’ve been able to accomplish with their help and the help of my extended family and friends.”
Leaders of color have played a major role in Robles’ life and in SJCPF’s partner organizations
As she’s continued through her career, Robles has focused on supporting the economically poor and vulnerable. Often communities of color fall into these categories, therefore she has dedicated much of her time to establishing partnerships with and supporting the capacity building of organizations that are led by and serve people of color. From her experience, Robles has seen that the most successful nonprofits focus on serving the underserved or other marginalized communities and are almost always led by a community member or someone who has relevant lived experience. This lived experience allows them to really take to heart the challenges their community is facing. Robles shared about the importance of showing up in these spaces as your authentic self and how valuable lived experiences are. Her commitment to work with like-minded leaders further underscores her devotion to serving the marginalized and the underserved.
Throughout her education and career, Robles has had the opportunity to connect with many amazing BIPOC leaders. As a Latina, it’s been a particular joy for her to meet other amazing Latina non-profit leaders over the years, as mentors, colleagues, and friends. Dr. America Bracho was one of Robles’ first mentors out of college. Bracho is the executive director of Latino Health Access, a nonprofit organization in Santa Ana, Calif. focused on addressing the serious public health problems that impact uninsured and underserved families in their community. They utilize the promotora, or community health workers, model in which trusted community members are trained and empowered to provide health information to their friends and neighbors. This can be especially impactful for hard-to-reach communities and can be helpful in addressing health inequities. Robles considers Bracho to be a visionary and respects how she keeps the community at the center of everything she does.
Adriana Moreno, executive director of the Orange County Family Justice Center Foundation, is another colleague that Robles immensely respects and admires. Like Robles, Moreno grew up with immigrant parents. Although Moreno’s family was undocumented, she was able to eventually establish permanent residency and pursued an education, all the while keeping her focus on how to help her community. Moreno was part of the fight for health insurance access for undocumented children in California. When access was granted in 2016, she utilized her community connections to ease fears and encourage families to do this for their children. “She’s always proud to say that she enrolled the first undocumented child in Orange County,” says Robles.
Advice for people of color navigating professional spaces
Robles is the first person to acknowledge that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the support and encouragement of her family and the friends, colleagues, and mentors she’s met over the years. She makes it a point to try to give back as much as she’s received, share the wisdom that she’s acquired, and pass along the advice she’s heard from other accomplished leaders. Robles encourages Latino, and other people of color to bring their identity to the table with them. They don’t need to try to fit inside of the mold of what some think of as the ‘norm’. Their lived experience and unique perspectives are important components of who they are and can be beneficial and valuable in professional spaces.
In Robles’ life, there have been numerous times her lived experience helped her, but one example that always come to mind for her is in the first days after 9/11, when St. Joseph Health was deciding how to provide support to the affected communities. They discussed ideas ranging from donating food to establishing a scholarship fund. On a local Spanish-language radio station, Robles heard that the Latino and Hispanic community was particularly challenged finding information on their family members in the wake of this tragedy. Many undocumented individuals worked at the World Trade Center, with many working under different names. Their families and friends were in need of updates. Robles identified this need and presented it to leadership as an unmet need for St. Joseph Health to fill. “Everyone looked at me like, ‘Are you serious?’” says Robles. “I said yes, this is what I understand the need is right now for this community. Shortly after, we connected with a group that worked with immigrant families and started figuring out how we could help.”
She’s often the only Latina and only Latino or Hispanic person in a space and therefore has felt the responsibility of needing to represent not just her employer but also her community. Rather than thinking of this as additional pressure, she encourages members of BIPOC communities to see it as another chance to serve, a way to honor all those who came before, and an opportunity to start paving the way for those who will come after.
To learn more about National Hispanic Heritage Month, please check out their website.
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