Woman finds purpose as Boyle Heights community organizer
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"If you want peace, work for justice."
A banner with the above quote hangs in the chapel at Proyecto Pastoral, a nonprofit organization that helps residents of the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in the areas of education, leadership, and service.
"Boyle Heights has a very rich, amazing history of resiliency and people coming together and organizing for justice", says Cynthia Sanchez, Proyecto Pastoral's executive director. Just over two miles from downtown Los Angeles, Boyle Heights is a working class, predominately Mexican American community. And despite well publicized past struggles with gangs and violence, leaders such as Sanchez are providing supportive services to women in an effort to revitalize the area.
Proyecto Pastoral board member, Rita Chairez, was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, came to the United States when she was 8 years old, and since 1989 has lived in Boyle Heights. In April of 1990, her then 22-year-old brother murdered in the neighborhood. And yet, she stayed in the community, and has become deeply involved as a staff member of an organization helping those affected by homicide and as as volunteer in Proyecto Pastoral's Dolores Mission program. She has worked in various capacities, including project coordinator, and a teacher with many of the prison inmates the organization works with.
"I didn't know a lot of people here—at Proyecto Pastoral—and was just volunteering to feed the homeless. I felt like I was alone, but the women here were amazing. I started coming to the church and that was an amazing experience for me," says Chairez adding: "It took me awhile to understand what this community is about, but then I learned how it can accompany you in the most difficult moments of your life."
Chairez describes Boyle Heights and her story there in one word, a "journey." Her home represents "a journey of love, action, and healing", the latter of which is “the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing."
18th annual women's conference
This year marks the 18th anniversary of Proyecto Pastoral's annual women's conference. The conference offers educational opportunities for women including financial management.
"We celebrate this conference ever year because we appreciate and recognize the critical role that women continue to play in the community" explains Sanchez.
Chairez noticed that many women often focus on family, friends, and other people, it can be to their own detriment at times. "Women are so good at taking care of everyone else. We wanted to provide a day for women to take care of ourselves", she states. The theme for this year's conference is "Women In Action." "You can't be in your house and not know what is going on outside and not address it," she says. The organization's programs teach women in the community to follow three simple steps:
- See It
- Analyze It
The stories of the people who pass through Proyecto Pastoral's conferences and programs is what keeps Chairez going. She mentions an example of a young woman who originally came to the organization's homeless shelter, graduated its job program, and soon got her own apartment.
Hope for the future of Boyle Heights
Although violence has contributed to lack of work, education, and overcrowded schools, Chairez is optimistic that these problems can be overcome. As a benefactor of Proyecto Pastoral programs, she knows firsthand what a hand up can provide during a difficult moment in one's life.
The after-school programs, homeless shelters, and support from outside organizations like Homeboy Industries to provide jobs give her hope for the future of Boyle Heights. Chairez's main hope is that, "We'll be able to bring peace into the communities and into the homes," she says.
"We can make a way for generations to come."
Evan Kirkpatrick is a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur and Chase contributor who focuses on the intersection of investments, entertainment, and philanthropy. His work has been featured in Forbes, CNBC and the Wall Street Journal.