Community Stakeholder Forum Blazes Trail for Latinas


Brian Healy

News Editor

For the third consecutive year, the Latinas in Leadership Conference provided a day-long forum intended to strengthen relationships between USF students and key Latina community leaders from across the Bay Area. The conference is part of the Stakeholder Community Forum series the University established in 2013. The forum’s vision statement is to “advance the public’s engagement on issues that impact diverse and disproportionately represented San Franciscans in the public discourse.”

The founder of the event, Mary Wardell Ghirarduzzi, said she took a chance back in 2015 to use her former position as USF’s Chief Diversity Officer to the advantage of a group of Latina USF students she encountered that were community leaders. Wardell said she wanted to “offer the University as a space for them to share their challenges and triumphs in relation to family, community, education and occupations.”


This year’s program included panels that focused on health and the community, politics and nonprofits, and business and technology. Barbara Garcia, Director of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, was to anchor the health and community panel. Having received her master’s in public administration from USF, Garcia planned on talking about how the degree helped shape her career, but was unable to attend because of an emergency at work.


Her replacement was Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Elena Flores, who considers Garcia a lifelong friend after graduating with her from UC Santa Cruz in 1984. Although she lamented her absence, Flores praised Garcia’s commitment to her job. “San Francisco has been fortunate for many, many years to have a director of public health like Barbara with her  holistic perspective toward health and wellness […] and that’s why I don’t want to talk about me, I want to talk about we, us as Latinas,” said Flores, adding that “Barbara couldn’t be here because she is out there fighting the fight,” concluded Flores.


There were also acoustic musical performances sprinkled throughout the day, and art decorating the space of McLaren. Latina leaders from throughout the Bay Area donated their time and talents to the conference, that in its short history, has already welcomed some special guest speakers through their doors.


Besides the Latinas in Leadership Conference, the Stakeholder Community Forum also holds two other forums that look to address and hopefully solve some of the problems we see in San Francisco today. “Pathways To Success For Urban Communities With A Focus On Housing” was the first forum to debut in 2013.The Mayoral Stakeholder Community Forum kicked off in March 2014, with Mayor Ed Lee delivering opening remarks.

“Three years later, I see, more than ever, that Latinas are among the most educated, the most tech savvy and the most connected groups in this nation,” said Wardell about the progress she has seen since the inception of the conference.  “More than ever, they are writing their own destinies and challenging historical narratives of who others have thought they should be,” continued Wardell.


Wardell said she works closely with the students, staff and faculty of the planning committee in order to decide what issues will be discussed during the conference. “Once we had a general idea of some of the topics we wanted to address this year, the committee first started by thinking through their own contacts and community members to be panelists,” said Wardell “We always have a focus on lifting up our own community in settings like this, and that’s where we wanted to start from,” she added.

Since then, all of the seats conferences have sold out, including the $25 registration packages offered to people outside of the USF community. Wardell said feedback from the community was a key reason for the success of the event. “Participants told us this year that this gathering was exactly what they needed, and that they find so few spaces that are like it. We want to keep building on that momentum, so that the space we created is not unusual. It’s needed, and we need more spaces like it across the nation,” said Dr. Wardell.


Some have concluded that this space actually needs more men in attendance. “I think nationwide the statistics show that Latina women are more likely to get an education [than Latino men],” said Natalie Muñoz, an academic success coach at CASA who was attending the event. Muñoz, who recently moved to San Francisco from New York City, also said that she is constantly “wondering about the people we don’t see or hear about as much, and Latino men tend to be on the lower rate in terms of college retention,” said Muñoz.


“One of the things that’s important to always realize is that something may be aimed for a group that you may not identify with, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t go there, listen, and learn,” said Danny Rodriguez, a male audience member who made the trip up from UC Santa Cruz. “So even if we don’t see ourselves as being part of something, we have to realize that with current times and conflicts, we’re going to need one another now more than ever,” he continued.


“And what I have known is that women have always been at the forefront of starting some sort of movement, starting a movement for liberation, and I want to be a part of that. I would encourage Latino men to really think about engaging,” said Rodriguez.

Photo Courtesy of Sofia Deeb/ Foghorn


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