Gloria Perez: Investing in Women and Girls

When Gloria Perez arrived at Macalester College from San Antonio in the mid-1980s, it was a formative experience in learning how to face her fears. Her father died when she was 10, so she was no stranger to grief and loss, and recognizing the hard work and stress of her mother. But those early years in Minnesota had a lot to do with setting the positive foundation for the kind of work she does today.

For example, decades ago, while walking near campus on a chilly day in a mini skirt, a shop owner gently encouraged her to invest in a warmer coat to prepare for the winter season. Rather than take umbrage at unsolicited advice, Perez says she was grateful for “being seen. Friendliness matters.”

When there were less than pleasant experiences in the classroom, she discovered people who listened and talked to her about what might be a way to change what was happening. “The message was not that there was something wrong with me, but with the environment,” she recalls. “I felt validated.”

The long-term effect is that today she is not afraid to say things out loud and potentially be dismissed merely as a “troublemaker” or as someone who “does not belong.”

With her experiences, Perez evolved into a small business owner in Saint Paul. Then executive director of what is now Esperanza United, which mobilizes Latinas to end cycles of gender-based violence. Then the President & CEO of Jeremiah Program, which has a mission to disrupt the national cycle of poverty for single mothers and their children. In February 2020, she became the first new Women’s Foundation president and CEO in nearly 20 years, replacing Lee Roper-Batker.

It required courage to step into those shoes, Perez told an audience at the LEAD Speaker Series hosted by Dunwoody College of Technology on November 3. She joked that she also faced fears to step in front of a large group to speak after two years of Foundation leadership largely talking on Zoom.

Her talk was titled “Investing in Pathways for Women to Thrive” and centered on the barriers that women experience in building economically prosperous lives. She talked about the investments that are needed to ensure that all women are able to succeed, thereby enhancing families, communities, and businesses.

According to 2019 data, nearly 50,000 organizations are dedicated to women and girls across the United States, but the Women’s Philanthropy Institute consistently shows that less than 2 percent of all philanthropic support goes to these organizations.

Perez believes in the power of mentorship. Knowing that “people want to help me” show a belief in interconnectedness — that by supporting others, it brings us power as well. A regular theme in her talk was that when we lift up those who experience barriers, everyone benefits alongside those policy and funding and community building priorities.

[Mentorship is the theme of Minnesota Women’s Press magazine in January. Our recent Changemakers Alliance discussions with diverse voices engaged in political leadership lifted up the power of coalition, rather than ‘divide and conquer.’]

Perez said that many like to point out that education is the lever that lifts people out of poverty, but “for many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), that is not the case. It is not enough for them to be able to have a safe, prosperous life.”

What is key is being able to build relationships, alongside community-based solutions created at the grassroots level to end gender and racial injustice. “Investing in those who have been pushed to the margins leads to transformational change for Minnesota,” she says.

She echoed what most Minnesota Women’s Press readers know: economic strength and public safety requires investing in mental health, addressing generational trauma and oppression, enhancing economic justice for all, and minimizing oppressions across identities.

Perez indicates that Minnesota is a national leader in women’s participation in the workforce — second only behind Washington, D.C. — with 79 percent of mothers working who have kids under the age of six. However, a large number of them do not have good salaries and benefits.

Just as equity compounds for those who invest early in stock markets, she points out, “inequities compound over a lifetime.”

Perez offered Minnesota data from 2013-2017 about families that are led by a single mother as the primary or sole breadwinner: 32 percent of those single mothers are Asian, 36 percent are white, 37 percent Latina, 51 percent Native, and 57 percent African American.

The top paying industries in Minnesota are male dominated: construction leads the list. The worst paid fields, as we have written about: healthcare, office support, teaching, social service, food preparation. These are often jobs held by single mothers.

Perez outlines central variables to solving some of Minnesota’s most ingrained problems:

  • Make childcare accessible and affordable, among other wraparound services, which includes paying childcare workers a living wage with benefits
  • Increase educational opportunities that pay well, especially for immigrants, particularly those that can lead to nontraditional employments, such as science and technology careers
  • Invest in teachers of color and mentoring programs
  • Promote healthy relationships and gender equity with men and boys

Other solutions she says, are to provide more opportunities for women to learn in cohorts, rather than being the ‘only’ person of color in a program.

“Sisters uplift each other,” Perez says. The hardest part of the work Women’s Foundation is doing, Perez adds, is “changing the hearts and minds of people who do not see the barriers up close. Unless we change hearts and minds, actions won’t follow.”

Women’s Foundation and Changemakers Alliance, the action-and-discussion division of Minnesota Women’s Press, will be working together on reproductive justice conversations. If you are interested in learning more, sign up for our Reproductive Justice alerts.

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2022 Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota

Road to Transformation listening session report with working women, including an executive summary of nine listening sessions

Growth & Justice: A Blueprint to Thrive

Women’s Foundation Young Women’s Initiative: 2017 Changemaker

Women’s Economic Security Act: 2014 Changemaker

History of Women & Economic Power: Minnesota Womens’ Press Archives