Welcome to our Changemaker Profiles blog series! Each edition will profile one outstanding social changemaker from the JVA client community. By sharing the stories of some of the incredible people we get to work with every day, each accomplishing extraordinary work in nonprofits, government, social enterprise and elsewhere, we hope we will bring a little light and inspiration to your day!
Erin Mooney is the now former executive director of Cultivando, a nonprofit that works to cultivate community leadership to advance health equity through advocacy, collaboration and policy change. Erin stepped aside January 18 and this week is moving to Guatemala with her family, where she will be the new executive director of Mayan Families, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works within the Mayan community in the Lake Atitlán region. We spoke with Erin on January 15 about her experiences while working at Cultivando and about her upcoming adventure.
1. You mentioned in your announcement on Facebook that when you step aside and the interim executive director steps in, Cultivando will be have “one of very few completely Latina-staffed and -led nonprofits in the state.” Can you talk about the impact of that/why it’s important?
“First and foremost, representation matters. And if we’re being honest with ourselves about equity and social justice, the nonprofit community needs to be a lot more self-reflective about what leadership means and who is leading our work.
“Communities of color carry the brunt of health disparities and inequity of all sorts—economic, health, education—so communities of color know the most about what the problems are. About where there is a lack of resources, where systemic problems are. So if we’re not listening to those communities in an authentic way, and truly giving power to their voices and their expertise on systemic issues, then we are not going to have the impact we would like on building equitable systems.
“I genuinely believe the nonprofit system, including foundations and social service agencies on the government side, should reflect the community they are trying to serve. When impacted communities are behind the work, we see real impact, real change. It all comes down to a couple of things—racism and poverty. So if nonprofit systems continue to put money and power of decision-making in the hands of people outside the affected community, that’s paternalism, it’s not fixing systems.”
2. When you were part of JVA’s Genius Panel last October, you talked about some of the ways you pushed the boundaries of the sector, particularly with regard to funding. What do you think needs to change in that regard?
“I think we really need to work harder to have honest, open dialogue with funders. When I have done that, I have found that a lot don’t want the sugarcoated version; they want the truth.
“But there is a power dynamic between nonprofits and foundations, where nonprofits feel like they have to give the positive version. So both miss out on opportunities to do deeper work, better work and really shift power. The status quo is not working in Colorado. So we need to be talking with funders. They should be asking hard questions of nonprofits—such as why is your leadership team all white, or why do they all live outside of the community you serve?
“If your paycheck is going home to a high-income community, we are exacerbating the problem. If funding stays in the community by hiring qualified staff from the community and by purchasing from within the community to provide food and materials, that has an impact.”
“There are so many missed opportunities between nonprofits and foundations to impact the community—to have harder conversations and hold ourselves accountable for how we spend money and how we don’t. Ultimately, these issues are about poverty. So if I am getting the biggest paycheck—as the executive director, I am—and I come home to spend my paycheck outside of south Adams County, funders should ask me about that.”
3. You’ve been Cultivando’s executive director for six years. What kind of progress have you seen in terms of organizations being able to focus on underlying causes for issues like health equity?
“Organizations like Cultivando and others are doing great work and have been really lucky in the last few years, with local foundations asking the right questions. For example, the Colorado Health Foundation is thinking more deeply about equity than they ever have. It’s a good time to be working in health equity.
“That said, it’s not enough. Ultimately, these are society’s most intractable problems, and they require a deeper commitment in the form of government spending and individual spending. You can’t fix racism with a $100,000 grant and a staff of five.”
4. What keeps you inspired and going when things get tough?
“The ability to flee the country is a great privilege when I can’t take it any longer… I’m not completely joking.
“Also, building an incredible community of friends and mentors and partners. My family is incredibly supportive. I work night and day on self-care and healing. It’s never quite enough, but I’m working on it.”
5. Tell us about the new position you have accepted as executive director of the Mayan Families NGO, working in the Mayan community in the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala. What drew you to the region and the position?
“A particularly hard day at work pushed me to get on LinkedIn and look at international jobs.
“My husband and I did our thesis work on Lake Atitlán. My thesis was on the intersection of indigenous land loss, poverty and malnutrition in that area. And we lived there for just six months when we were completing our thesis projects.
“I have worked as hard as I can to get as close to international development work as I can here in the U.S. I have been blessed and lucky to work with the Latino community.
“Also, it’s been really heartbreaking—I have felt incredibly impotent looking at what is happening at our border and with our immigration system here. So I felt really compelled to move closer to the root of the problem. Mayan Families does really incredible development work within the Mayan community. It is working to help families thrive and have access to what they need in their homes, on Mayan land, and not have to make the impossible decision to uproot, leave family behind, take one child but not another child.
“I work within the trauma of migration on this end, and if I have the opportunity to support families to stay where they want to be within their culture, language and home with dignity and self-determination, that really feels like the right place for me in my life.”
6. How have you worked with JVA, and how has that helped your organization?
“I have been really lucky to attend most of JVA’s trainings early on in this role—Executive Director Academy, Development Intensive. We got the training packages for my first couple of years here. It helped me immensely to feel I had the tools around managing this impossibly big job. JVA has been incredibly helpful for me and for our organization.”