‘Helping people is satisfying for me’: Gabriela Chavez-Lopez takes back the power
Gabriela Chavez-Lopez leads a community protest in support of the closure of Reid-Hillview Airport. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Chavez-Lopez.

    Gabriela Chavez-Lopez learned about the power of organizing from an early age.

    Born and raised in the Central Valley, the birthplace of the farmworker movement, Chavez-Lopez grew up hearing stories about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. She was inspired by their ability to mobilize the community to aid farmworkers and create policy change.

    “Here are these people who don’t have privilege,” she told San José Spotlight, “but collectively they moved the needle, standing up for their rights. I have such admiration for their organizing and the power of people working together in unison.”

    ‘We are fortunate to have her’

    Chavez-Lopez, 33, epitomizes these qualities in her position as the first executive director of the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley, said  founder Teresa Alvarado. The coalition develops the power of Latinas through sisterhood, leadership and civic engagement, mentoring them to serve on boards and commissions.

    The coalition named Chavez-Lopez as executive director on Aug. 13, and she started in the position on Tuesday.

    Gabriela Chavez-Lopez draws inspiration from Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in mobilizing the community to affect policy change. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Alvarado, who served on the executive director search committee, said Chavez-Lopez stood out against 16 other candidates as a natural leader and is “uniquely suited” to advancing and expanding the pipeline for Latinas.

    “Gabby is a connector and change agent,” Alvarado said. “She has vision, is dynamic, motivating and civic-oriented. We are fortunate to have her in this critical role.”

    Alvarado said if it wasn’t for Chavez-Lopez expanding membership and building relationships with funders, the coalition could not have hired an executive director.

    “She at least tripled the budget if not more, including a $10,000 matching grant from the Castellano Family Foundation,” Alvarado said.

    Previously, the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley was fully volunteer-run, including Chavez-Lopez’s prior role as board president. Chavez-Lopez said she is proud of raising funds for an executive director and other staff positions, and having people show they value the organization and the services it provides by contributing.

    According to Jen Delara, board vice president, additional positions that will be funded include a program manager, marketing director and board assistant. Delara said between 75 and 100 residents volunteer with the coalition.

    Chavez-Lopez said it’s especially meaningful doing the work with her three-year-old son, Jaycius, by her side.

    “My parents involved me in their work and their vocation,” she said. “It feels good to take him to hear me speak.”

    Gabriela Chavez-Lopez works to empower Latinas and the community. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Speaking up

    Under Chavez-Lopez’s leadership, the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley became involved in advocacy. The organization recently united with East San Jose residents to demand the closure of Reid-Hillview Airport after a study found elevated levels of lead in children from nearby neighborhoods. Santa Clara County supervisors agreed, unanimously approving a measure to do so in August.

    “Latina mothers’ voices had to be at that table and that voice had to cry out and say this cannot happen to our children,” Chavez-Lopez said. “Bringing a voice to an issue and getting the community behind you was something that felt impactful. It was a major accomplishment for us and that women’s voices were at the center of that was really important.”

    Participating in the coalition’s Engaged Latina Leadership Activist program while studying political science at Santa Clara University helped Chavez-Lopez learn how to be a community advocate and lobby elected officials, she said.

    “Helping people is satisfying for me,” she said. “My grandparents worked really hard, opening up doors of opportunity for my parents, who opened doors of opportunity for me. How do I pay that forward not only for my son, but for others in the community who may not have that same experience?”

    ‘She isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said’

    Chavez-Lopez learned about leadership and giving back from her parents, Janice Chavez and David Lopez, who are both college professors.

    Lopez, who describes his daughter as insightful, analytical and articulate, said she is passionate about helping others, especially women with children.

    Latinas have suffered the most during this pandemic,” Lopez said. “Thank God there are people like my daughter and organizations that can provide some guidance, assistance and direction.”

    Chavez-Lopez said Latina women face systemic barriers from affordable housing and health care to childcare.

    “It’s about taking those positions of power and influence for ourselves,” she said. “Taking control of our own lives and destinies.”

    For things to change, Chavez-Lopez said elected leadership has to become more reflective of the community it represents, which in California is largely Latino.

    “There need to be more voices at the table making policy: women, working mothers, working class and people of color,” she said. “When you get new voices at the table, conversations change, priorities change and funding resources shift.”

    Milpitas Councilmember Karina Dominguez said Chavez-Lopez is a catalyst for change, building equity and bringing a spirit of “we” to the table.

    “She’s a visionary, educated and has a skill set to elevate the Latina Coalition to the next level,” Dominguez said. “We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us… to create change so future generations don’t have to face the same oppression that so many of us have. I think Gabby understands that well. She is a leader who unifies people.”

    Lennies Gutierrez, chair of the Latino Leadership Alliance, said Chavez-Lopez knows policy and leads with her heart.

    “She does her research, talks to people who are involved and isn’t afraid to push,” Gutierrez said. “She isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said, and we need that as a voice for the community.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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