Change Agent

Published in the Spring 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

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With one foot in philanthropy and the other in community activism, Evette Cardona is helping to advance both

Elisabeth Butler Award winner 2008 

-By Charles Whitaker

Evette CardonaA social occasion with Evette Cardona often morphs into an impromptu professional meeting. As a senior program officer for the Polk Bros. Foundation, one of the Chicago area's most prominent supporters of nonprofit civic groups, Cardona assists the foundation in the awarding of nearly $23 million annually to social service, education, arts and health organizations. "You can imagine that when I'm at an event and I say I work for the Polk Bros. Foundation, suddenly everyone wants to talk to me for fundraising advice. The job brings with it a lot of unwarranted clout," she says.

And when she's not discussing philanthropy, Cardona is likely talking community activism. In her other persona as grassroots community organizer, Cardona has been at the forefront of a variety of local efforts to mobilize and buttress groups in often overlooked swaths of the city for more than 25 years. From working with disadvantaged young mothers and their children to spearheading the formation of Amigas Latinas, the area's first support group for Latina lesbians, Cardona has played a stalwart role in Chicago's robust community of community activists. She has served on numerous boards, including those of the Center on Halsted's LGBT Community Center, the Lesbian Community Cancer Project, Columbia College's Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media and the Illinois Caucus on Adolescent Health.

Put it all together and Cardona has created a career that has multiple avenues to make a difference. It hasn't gone unnoticed. A 1998 graduate of SSA's master's program, she was honored with the School's 2008 Elizabeth Butler Award, given to a graduate who shows exceptional promise in the field of social work, and in January, the University of Chicago recognized her with its Alumni Diversity in Leadership Award, presented to individuals who have made strong contributions to diversity both in the university and the community at large.

"The diversity leadership awards are on some level about selflessness, about seeking to provide others with opportunities and promise and hope," said Julie Peterson, U of C vice president of communication, who introduced Cardona at the awards presentation. "There are few who embody this spirit of openness and selflessness more than Evette Cardona."

In many ways, Cardona found just the right home at Polk Bros., a foundation devoted to reducing the impact of poverty and providing better education, health care and other services in underprivileged communities. Unlike a lot of foundations, which prefer that grant-makers maintain a measure of distance from potential petitioners, Polk Bros. encourages not just social mingling by its staff but also working in the trenches through volunteer and board involvement. "We value accessibility," Cardona says of her employers. "We don't believe in being in our chambers on high, doling out grants. Throughout my time here I have been able to be an activist and be recognized and affirmed here for that."

Cardona has been at the foundation since 1998. She oversees segments of the foundation's small grants schedule, reviews proposals and financial statements submitted by myriad community groups seeking support, and oversees grants in youth and family support, student academic achievement and community health program areas, including those for groups like the Latino Education Alliance, the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group and the Carole Robertson Center for Learning.

In the tumult of the current economic meltdown, the stakes for funding feel higher than ever, with many community groups on the brink of financial ruin. "A lot of groups are in crisis management mode," Cardona says. "The recession has hit them pretty hard. And when you have these groups operating in communities that have been so impacted by violence and poverty, you really want to do all you can to help."

In the end, however, she says, an organization, no matter how well intentioned, has to have the structures and leadership in place to demonstrate that the funding will be put to good use. "You have to resist the temptation to take on the role of savior. I'm not going to give a group X amount of dollars to enable their mediocrity. I'd rather that money go to an organization that I know has the capacity to put it to good use," she says.

As a Latina and a lesbian, Cardona is acutely aware that she is still a rare presence in the world of philanthropy, a domain not historically known for its diversity. But more than being a minority presence, she is committed to bringing her activist perspective to the grant-making table—forging connections between funders and disenfranchised communities.

"At this point, it's about more than representation," Cardona says. "The field of philanthropy has matured in that regard, so I'm not interested in representation discussions anymore. It's about how those dollars are used. It's about not just funding the status quo. It's about using dollars for social justice. And from that standpoint, there's a lot more work to do."

Cardona's career at Polk Bros. began while she was still a student in SSA. She did her second-year internship at the foundation under the direction of another SSA alumna, Gwen Rice, who was a senior program officer at Polk Bros. at the time. "I had met Evette years before, when she worked as a site coordinator at Christopher House, and I was just so impressed with her initiative that I never forgot her," says Rice, now executive director of the Developing Communities Project. "She was so grounded and good with all kinds of people. When her resume came across my desk with the applicants for interns at Polk Bros., I just knew we had to have her."

Cardona credits the training and experience she got at SSA with preparing her for her current work, both in activism and philanthropy. She loved the variety of the coursework at the School, the exposure to multiple disciplines and the interaction between future clinicians and would-be program administrators—although she does say that she was a little apprehensive at first about how she might relate to her classmates at SSA.

"Not only was I older, I was Puerto Rican and lesbian. I expected I'd always have to be the voice of the 'other,'" she says. "But that wasn't the case, and having the diversity of social work experiences and also policy wonks in class together added so much richness to the discussion."

On a sweltering July day in 1995, 15 women gathered in a North Side apartment with no air conditioning for the first meeting of Amigas Latinas. Cardona, who had only come out two years before and was soon to start grad school, said she had no idea that the Chicago area's first-ever coalition for Latina lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning women was about to take root.

"I didn't go into this with the intention of creating a nonprofit organization," she says. "It started out just as a simple support group, to provide a safe place where we could get together and celebrate who we are without apology. But it kept growing, mostly through word of mouth. There was just so much fear around being gay and Latina. It was very palpable. But there was no place to go to discuss those issues, so we created it."

Today, Amigas Latinas is a nexus for Spanish-speaking women in the Chicago area looking for support and resources as they struggle with issues of coming out. It serves about 300 women, providing education, advocacy and a place to be heard through its monthly programming. As the organization has grown, so too has its diversity. "We've had to address many layers of life experiences," Cardona says. "Language is a big issue, because we have native-U.S.-born women and women who just arrived in the country six months earlier. We have married women, single women, mothers and women who have not come out at work. Our role is to plug them into networks no matter what their experiences and help them find support."

The women find Amigas Latinas through referrals from friends and Internet searches. Nearly two-thirds are Spanish language-dominant or non- English-speaking women who somehow get word that the group is there. "It's amazing," Cardona says. "People come to this country and plug into the network to find support."

Cardona says that being able to be out at her job is critical to her, as is the fact Polk Bros. supports LGBT organizations. "When I go back and talk to SSA students who are about to go in the job market I tell them it's not all about the salary; it's also about the other important things an employer can offer you," she says. "The comfort to be who you are is certainly one of them."

As steeped as she now is in the world of philanthropy, Cardona readily admits that is not the life she envisioned for herself growing up in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. As a child, she dreamed of being everything from a doctor to a police officer. She discovered photography in high school and majored in it at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she earned a bachelor's degree in art and design in 1984. Following college, she kicked around doing audio-visual work for small design companies and freelance photography until the economy tanked in the early 1990s.

While in college, Cardona had begun to dip a toe in the pool of community organizers, involving herself with an assembly of artists and activists in the Near Northwest Neighborhood Network. That led to work with Christopher House, a social service agency for low-income families, where she worked with adolescent mothers and their children, and then to Urban Gateways, a center for arts education, where she taught photography.

She enjoyed the work enough to apply to SSA, setting her on the path she is still on today. Her wide-ranging community work has been honored by a number of groups in addition to the University, including leadership awards presented by the Humboldt Park Empowerment Project and the Coalition of Africa, Arab, Asian, European, Latino Immigrants of Illinois.

Cardona says she is grateful to be in a position to make a difference, both as an activist and a grant-maker. "I'm fortunate in that there were many people who came before me who made it possible for me to do what I do," she says. "But I'm also fortunate because I get to go out and fight the good fight and be a champion for people who haven't been as fortunate as I am. And being that champion is very much a part of me."