Meet the woman leading an innovative new Santa Clara County office

Carla Collins has been a “lifelong feminist.”

From listening to stories of her grandmother — a Mexican migrant worker who single-handedly raised five children — to engaging in the political process with her mother as a child, Collins said she attributes much of her success to her family.

Now, after nearly two decades working within Santa Clara County, Collins is leading the newly-created Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention. The role marks another point in her illustrious career, one that’s been dedicated to eliminating prejudice and viewing issues through a “gender lens.”

But young Collins didn’t know she was set to change an entire county. She lived in the same house her entire life, went to school in the Franklin-McKinley School District, graduated from a class of 40 students at a Catholic high school, and despite being an only child, had cousins who lived “ten houses down the street.” Yet, she grew up walking precincts, going to community meetings and paying attention to local politics.

“It was sort of our fabric as a family; it was just part of what we did,” Collins said. “We’ve always had this sense that public service is very honorable work and a great way to serve the community.”

Even as a philosophy major at Santa Clara University, she aimed to “expand the conversation.” In a western philosophy class where most of the philosophers studied were men, she pitched the idea of studying women philosophers to her professor — who encouraged her decision. She would look up women authors and “find ways of working it in somehow to whatever paper” she was writing.

Collins started her career at the county in 2002 as a coordinator for the Network for a Hate-Free Community, a program designed to track local hate crimes and hate incidents.

“After 9/11, there was a surge, not just in hate crimes, but hate incidents,” Collins said. “The network was a group of county organizations, government, law enforcement, community based organizations and individuals who just wanted to reduce and interrupt prejudice.”

Of her 17 years at the county, Collins spent 14 years at the Office of Women’s Policy, a role she was drawn to because of her love of social justice work.

That move allowed Collins to work on a myriad of issues, including juvenile justice and the gender pay gap. Collins also piloted the Girls Advisory Team, a policy-centered program that hosts the Strong Girls, Strong Women Leadership Conference every March during Women’s History Month. The team kicked off with ten girls, but has now tripled in size.

“The charge of the office is to address issues for women and girls, and much of what we had been doing historically for girls was through agencies,” Collins said. “It was important for me to try and bring that voice to the table.”

Mirelle Raza, a student at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, in 2014 served as an intern in Collins’ office with a focus on criminal justice.

Raza calls Collins an “incredible” mentor.

“She’s this warm person who is so knowledgeable about what she’s doing,” Raza said. “She’s clearly so passionate it makes you do your best work as well.”

The Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention, which launched on Sept. 24, won’t provide direct services such as operating shelters or doing first responder work, Collins said, but it’s funding many of these efforts. In the past few years, the county raised funding for these efforts from less than $500,000 dollars to several million dollars, Collins added.

Collins said “too many” residents deal with domestic violence daily. A newly-released study by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office reported a decrease in the county’s domestic violence deaths, but sexual assault numbers are still increasing.

“This is perhaps the very worst time in their life, and it’s about stopping the silence,” Collins said. “What I am hoping to do is get strategic on all the different efforts, be able to really see the gaps in services so that we can better meet the needs of all our residents.”

Julie Ramirez also started as an intern — hired by Collins — and she “never left” the county. Today, she works as a management analyst at the Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention.

But Ramirez said her 8-year relationship with Collins goes beyond the office.

“Carla has been an amazing mentor to me personally and professionally,” Ramirez said. “I would not and could not have learned everything I know now if it weren’t for Carla.”

Ramirez said Collins’ greatest strength is her “connection to people.” With their combined experience, longtime relationships with the community, a new office and funding, the dynamic duo aim to view “everything from a survivor-centered lens.”

“We’re going to make great things happen,” Ramirez added.

To Collins, the most pressing issue right now for women globally is intimate partner violence. She said the most dangerous place for a woman sometimes is her own home.

The Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention’s efforts will be more inclusive than anything that’s been tried before, Collins said, because generating change takes “absolutely everyone.”

“I feel so privileged to be able to come to a job where we get to focus on issues of equity and social justice,” Collins said. “The amazing opportunity and vision I have for the Office of Gender-Based Violence Prevention… I believe will have measurable, positive impact for our local community and our policy and legislative agendas will help us lead the region in these efforts.”

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at the.loananh.lede@gmail.com or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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