An interview with Sarah de Guia, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network
Who are your heroes? Who inspires you — and why?
One of my heroes is Maria Blanco. She was my supervisor when I worked at MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund). Maria was a wonderful mentor, and she was instrumental in getting legislation passed in California that permits undocumented students to be able to pay in-state tuition at state universities. (Maria currently is executive director of Undocumented Legal Services at the U.C. Davis School of Law.)
Two other heroes are Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They both demonstrate poise and conviction in their beliefs, and are pillars of strength in the U.S. justice system.
What shores you up? Where do you get your strength?
Family first. I have bicultural family. Mom’s family is Mexican-American and my father’s family is from Virginia. We have a lot of strong women in our family on both sides, and I draw my inspiration from them. When I have challenges or I feel a little lost, I give my Mom a call or I check in with my aunts and my grandmother.
I also draw strength from my son Max, who is three-and-a-half. He needs me when he needs me — and I have to be there. It’s a good reminder to turn off the phone and unplug and be there for the people you love.
The other place I get strength is from our community partners. At CPEHN, we work with fantastic, on-the-ground organizations in communities across the state. When I hear the stories about the struggles of the people those organizations serve, I am reminded about what we’re all fighting for.
What gets you down and discouraged? And how do you get past it?
The work we’re doing is really deep. It’s about fighting systemic discrimination, and this is a long game we’re playing. But at the same time we have seen a tremendous amount of positive change in a short time, and it gives me hope we can overcome today’s challenges.
How would you describe your current state of mind?
Cautiously optimistic. I am cautious because we really are under attack. Communities of color and immigrants are facing strong, systemic challenges. But I am optimistic because we have a lot of motivated, smart and engaged people working with us.
What are you reading?
One book I am reading is a new one called Supervision Matters by Rita Seever. I have been working as an executive director for two-and-a-half years, and I find new challenges and opportunities all the time. I have been working with an executive coach and she suggested the book. It’s given me a lot of bite-sized, practical ways to connect with the staff at a time when we are all moving at 150 miles per hour and it’s hard to connect. I also just finished re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale since it came out on Hulu. That story is a reminder to stay awake and make sure we’re doubling down on protecting our rights.
A guilty pleasure?
Ice cream. We go to Fenton’s in Oakland pretty regularly. I get a junior Black & Tan Sundae with toasted almond.
What is your greatest achievement?
When I was at MALDEF, I worked with a team on some fairly substantial state legislation that set standards for interpretation and translation services in private health care settings. When it passed, that was a big deal. Another achievement I’m proud of is winning the Herman Wildman Social Justice Writing Award for a paper I wrote in law school. I was always a little nervous about my writing, but my professor submitted a paper I wrote about language access and reproductive services. And I won!
Any failures or regrets you want to talk about?
It’s not a failure or a regret, but one place I am focused on as an area for growth is improving my leadership skills and learning how to help the next generation grow and learn and become strong leaders. That’s why I am reading Supervision Matters. I am thinking a lot about the best ways to reach out and connect with new, younger staff members. When I think about my personal achievements and leadership, I want to see that reflected in the growth and achievement of mentees and the people I work with.
What does “wellness” mean to you?
Wellness means that people feel confident and healthy in all aspects of their being.
Finish the following statement: “Advancing and defending wellness means [blank].”
Securing the gains we have made in areas from health care and immigrant rights to environmental justice and climate change. Those are all places where we have moved the needle and we need to make sure we don’t backtrack.
What can people do in their daily lives to help find solutions on the issues you work on?
Get to know your elected representatives. Visit them, call their offices, talk with their staff, and learn more about how they are representing your beliefs and your concerns. And if you don’t agree with them, then make sure you vote. Next, I would say that people need to identify those issues that really concern and motivate them and get involved.
What is your greatest hope for the years ahead?
My greatest hope is that people are reminded in this period of darkness that we all need to be involved and engaged, and that we will come out all right on the other side.
How do you defend your own wellness and stay healthy?
My work is a big part of my wellness. If I stopped being an advocate, I would be undermining my own health and wellness. So part of wellness for me is to continue to be engaged and involved in advocacy. But I also understand the importance of unplugging the phone and reconnecting with family and friends. It’s about finding that balance.