Seven Questions for California Community Foundation President and CEO Antonia Hernández

California Community Foundation president and CEO Antonia Hernández

California Community Foundation President and CEO Antonia Hernández was born in Torreon, Mexico in 1948. Her family moved to the United States in 1956 and settled in the Maravilla Housing Projects of East Los Angeles. Hernández attended East Los Angeles College, earned her B.A. in History at UCLA in 1970, and her J.D. at the UCLA School of Law four years later.

In the mid-1970s, a 26-year-old Hernández and a colleague mounted a class-action lawsuit alleging that Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center doctors sterilized Spanish-speaking mothers either without informed consent or through coercion. While the ruling was ultimately in favor of the doctors, the landmark case, Madrigal v. Quilligan, compelled California legislators to repeal its sterilization law, which had legalized over 20,000 nonconsensual procedures since 1909.

In 1979, Hernández became the first Latina to serve as staff counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee under Sen. Ted Kennedy. Two years later, she joined the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) as regional counsel and went on to become the president and general counsel.

Hernández took the helm at the CCF in 2004. She told me that when the opportunity was presented to her, she viewed it “from the perspective of my experience of being a change agent on behalf of Latinos and the poor throughout my professional career.” The foundation, which has $2.6 billion in assets, has granted approximately $2 billion during her tenure, with a focus on health, housing, education and immigration programs.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Hernández about her influences, what philanthropy needs to do now that the pandemic is hopefully receding, and her literary guilty pleasures. Below are excerpts from that conversation, which have been edited for clarity.

What made you decide you wanted to work in the philanthropic sector?

It wasn’t very well thought out. Having been at MALDEF for 23 years, I knew philanthropy from what I would call the grantee perspective, whether it was Ford, MacArthur, Rockefeller or Carnegie, and then I served for 10 years on the Rockefeller board. So while I wasn't really new to philanthropy, I identified — and still identify — as a civil rights lawyer.

When I worked in the Senate, I used that experience to make laws to benefit people. When I went to MALDEF, I used the vehicle of litigation and advocacy to advance public policies. And so my simplistic thought about going into and leading the CCF was that money would be the means for me to improve the quality of life for Angelenos.

Who are your biggest influences?

It’s always been my parents. I’m an immigrant, and when I came to this country, my parents sought to advance the possibilities of their children through education. My parents have always been very ethical and hardworking — the values that I have come from them.

Professionally, it’s been very interesting. For most of my life, I have been “the one” — the young Latina woman. When I started law school in 1971, there weren’t very many women, and there certainly weren’t a lot of Latina women in law. When I went to work for Senator Kennedy, I was the first Hispanic to work as counsel to the Senate Judiciary, and so for me professionally, it has been the folks who inspired me to dream bigger than the world that I knew and lived in.

When I went to community college, I wanted to be a historian, and I had a professor, Helen Bailey, who was a fabulous woman. Then I went to UCLA. I studied history, and when I was getting ready to graduate, a professor, Bradford Burns, who was a renowned scholar on Latin America and Brazil, said to me, “Antonia, have you thought about the law?” And I said, “The law?” And he said, “Well, you ask a lot of questions. Maybe being a history professor would be too boring for you. You can change laws that will improve the quality of life of your community.”

I didn’t know a single lawyer, but I was very involved Latino/Chicano Movement. That was in January of 1971, and by August, I was in law school. 

I had a similar experience when I worked for the Judiciary Committee. My best friend, Gloria Molina, worked on the Carter campaign and went to work for the White House personnel, and she kept saying, “Come to Washington, there are no Latinos,” and I would say, “No, I have no interest.”

But then one day she called me and told me that Ted Kennedy took over the Judiciary Committee and was hiring. David Boies, who was the chief counsel to the committee, was coming to speak at a conference in Palm Springs, so I drove out there and met him, and the next week, I got the offer.

David Boies was the chief counsel, and after him was Stephen Breyer. So they influenced my life, but in my experience, Ted Kennedy really showed me how one can work to change the law and reinforce that passion in me. And finally, as a litigator, I’ve been really influenced by the clients I’ve served, the lawyers I’ve hired, and many of the wonderful staff here at the CCF.

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

I struggle with this one because, actually, I wouldn’t change anything. The reason I say that is because I didn’t have a roadmap. I didn’t have people in my surroundings where I said, “I want to be like them.” There was just this entrepreneurial immigrant ethic of taking risks. I wasn’t aware of obstacles and just dealt with whatever came my way, so in many ways, I wouldn’t change anything.

What have been the most important changes in your work or in the field across these last two years?

I think one of the hardest things has been to navigate the work while realizing that your colleagues are struggling. It means being very patient and understanding with staff and to know that I am asking them to deliver for the community while they were struggling with uncertainty and isolation.

The pandemic also erased the barriers between the office and home. You were at home and you were expected to be on 24/7, and while I think that it adds some convenience, I personally like it when there are barriers between work and home. And maybe most importantly, before the pandemic, we knew there were homeless people, we knew that there were all these inequalities in society, but the pandemic put them right in our face. You can no longer look away from the inequalities in our society — food insecurity, hunger, education. We have a lot of catching up to do.

So where does philanthropy need to go from here?

Philanthropy is at an inflection point. I hope it will become less risk-averse and more action-oriented when dealing with issues of poverty, the environment, equity and discrimination.

There’s a lot to be said about bringing diverse voices and experiences. I think we have an opportunity to make lasting change, and those experiences are going to make philanthropy more responsive, accountable and transparent.

I also hope philanthropy engages in advocacy. I tell people, if someone’s hungry, I’m going to give them a loaf of bread. But then I’m going to ask, why are they hungry? I hope philanthropy can do more of that, and one way is to partner with the public sector. Philanthropy sometimes tends to say, “the public sector is a bureaucracy,” but that’s where the resources are to deal with these issues. Philanthropy and the public sector have a lot to gain and to learn from one another. 

What was the last great book you read?

The one that I’m beginning to get into is the life of Justice William Brennan, who was one of my role models. I usually prefer books about the law and historical figures, or cheap detective novels [laughs]. I’m also addicted to the New York Times.

Any parting thoughts?

Philanthropy has to change the way we grant money. We need to focus more on building the infrastructure of the nonprofit. We need to give more multiyear support and general operating support.

The last thing I would say is, don’t overburden nonprofits with extensive compliance. Let’s say an organization has a $2 million budget. You give them $100,000, and then you ask them for all of this feedback and paperwork, most of which you’re probably not going to use. Yes, be transparent and develop processes that enable you to figure out if the grants are being properly used. But understand where you fall in the ecosystem of that organization, and at the end of the day, you’re giving to them because you believe they’re doing good work.

The power dynamic between philanthropy and grantees will always be there, but I think it is changing to become more of a partnership. I see CCF as an enabler. I have to have faith in the nonprofit, and I think more transparent partnerships will enable us to be more effective in the distribution of the funds that are entrusted to us.