Changed and Engaged by the Strong Women Who Shaped His Life

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024

An esteemed leader in civic and philanthropic work who currently serves as the president and CEO of the California Community Foundation (CCF), Miguel Santana has been deeply influenced by the women in his life, from his mother and grandmother to transformational L.A. activists and civic leaders Gloria Molina and Antonia Hernández.

A lifelong Angeleno whose work has spanned politics, the nonprofit sector, and the foundation world, Santana began his career as a community liaison at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), after which he worked with L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina. His administrative skill and desire to help underserved communities at scale led him to become a Deputy Chief Executive Officer for Los Angeles County, managing all social service programs supporting children, families, veterans, and persons experiencing homelessness. He then became City Administrative Officer for the City of Los Angeles, overseeing the City’s $9 billion budget and designing its first comprehensive homeless strategy.

At CCF, which stewards nearly $2.6 billion in assets, Santana strives to continue the Foundation’s focus on creating a more equitable region for all its residents, especially those who have been historically marginalized. This work includes an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, both at the Foundation and in the broader community, and an awareness of how women have provided a model of leadership for all communities.

Santana also serves as co-chair of The Angeleno Project, an innovative collection of civic leaders that formed after the pandemic and is committed to the critical issues of homelessness, anti-Black racism, the digital divide, and equitable support of the nonprofit sector. He is the board second vice chair of the Los Angeles County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency and commissioner of the CalAccount Blue Ribbon Commission, which aims to provide financial services like checking and savings accounts to all Californians.

Giving List Women: You began your career at MALDEF, then had a yearslong stint in politics with L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina. You then worked in nonprofits as the president and CEO of Fairplex, before running the Weingart Foundation and now the California Community Foundation. Why the shift from politics to nonprofits to the foundation world?

Miguel Santana: In many ways, I feel I’ve been working on the same issues my whole career. The context changed, and maybe the hat I’m wearing changed, but the through line has always been advancing social, racial, and economic justice in Southern California. I’m a native Angeleno. My lived experience as a son of immigrants, as a first-generation college student, becoming a father at 19 – that all really informed my purpose. And I’ve been working on ways to make our community more inclusive in its economy and in ways that allow every person to achieve their greatest potential.

GLW: Women and girls are a key lever for change. In your grantmaking work at CCF, do you apply this lens in your grantmaking considerations?

MS: Well, I apply it to my life. On my bucket list is to one day write a book about how women shaped my life, starting with my mother, who came from Mexico in the 1960s as a young woman, feeling she couldn’t fully be herself in a country that doesn’t always give wom en opportunities. My grandmother, who endured a difficult childhood and a difficult marriage, found ways to celebrate her life and to contribute. And I have four daughters who remind me every day of what most matters. And I’ve benefited from the mentorship of very strong women – Gloria Molina and Antonia Hernández. When the civil unrest happened in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, I found my purpose: to be of service to our community, to try to identify the systemic issues that created the environment for the civil unrest.

My first entry into that was working at MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Antonia Hernández was the president and general counsel. I learned from her the power of being able to give voice to a community, to advocate and be centered around outcomes and working in collaboration with other communities to have a vision for Los Angeles. Through my work at MALDEF, I met Gloria Molina. I was just 24 and already a young father with two children. And she asked me to join her team as a newly elected [county] supervisor. I saw this phenomenal leadership of a woman who was told her entire life to sit down or to not pursue her life purpose, who was denied opportunities in very specific ways. And despite all that, she was able to break through those barriers to be the first [Latina] elected to the five-member Board of Supervisors.

Gloria was tenacious – never abandoning her values and principles, willing to take on any issue, no matter how difficult or how slim the chances of success, but always remembering that what matters most is the outcomes to community. Gloria knew how to use her authority effectively as an elected official to advance those issues. I studied under Gloria for 16 years, saw her in action, partnered with her on many issues.

GLW: Do most community foundations apply the lens of women and girls in their grantmaking?

MS: Maybe not as directly as what you articulated, but when you think about all the issues that philanthropy works on, women and girls are at the center, and now in leading nonprofits, leading social change movements in government, and certainly in the issues to which philanthropy seeks to respond. I think about our work in the immigration space. We host an annual conference, and the majority of the attendees are women. Many of the movement leaders are women. And that lens is very much part of how we think about these issues and certainly the experience of girls who are victimized, abused, and experience the brunt of a broken system. And so it is not as intentional as it should be. But it is very clear that women are a significant part of that work.

GLW: How do you think we can better engage men in these conversations about the importance of supporting women and girls, and to help them understand the impact that has on us all?

MS: In a couple ways. First, philanthropy often focuses on data and measures of success. If you look at many of our issues, the data clearly takes you to this core issue in poverty, in access, in healthcare. And now, unfortunately, in homelessness and housing, women are the fastest-growing group experiencing homelessness, when it was largely seen as something that was mainly experienced by men. And the elderly population is growing at a significant rate, and in that population, women are disproportionately represented. So the data makes it clear that we have to focus on these issues from the perspective of how it impacts women. And how the solutions must be responsive to their experience. One size doesn’t fit all. There must be intentionality to create a pathway towards solving these issues that are clearly connected to and grounded in the experience that women have.

The second way to engage men is by drawing the connections in their own personal experience, as I have in our conversation. I am of a generation where the women that mentored me were the first groundbreakers who, through their own tenacity and persistence, were able to break through a very patriarchal system that wasn’t created for them – that in fact was created in part to exclude them. And when you understand that history and how the women in all our lives are really in roles that a generation ago would not have been considered, it’s a testament to the drive that women have. But [it] also creates a real lens of what we need to do to advance all communities, particularly other marginalized communities. So, it’s a template in some ways. I think that hopefully most men would see that and would see it in the women they work with, see it in the women close to their lives, see it in the mentors that they may have. That trajectory, that history, that movement that women have experienced in our lifetime is transformative in a way that could help us understand how to be responsive to all issues.