Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Toni Rivera-Joachin has been serving in the Milwaukee community for more than 20 years and has been the leader of Centro Hispano since February 2015. Growing up in the South Side community she now serves, Rivera-Joachin identifies with the people her organization serves. Centro Hispano serves children, families, the elderly, immigrants, and non-English speakers through housing, education and other social services. In this interview, Rivera discusses her organization and what leadership means to her.
Q: When did you develop a passion for helping others?
A: I have always wanted to help. In high school, I did a lot of service projects, which earned me awards for helping different community programs and projects. So it really started there. It helped me get ready for what I think is my life career path.
Q: Which leader do you look to most for inspiration?
A: My ideal leader is Mother Teresa. What she stood for and the principles and the morals and values that she lived by have really spoken to me. Embracing the servant attitude that it is a pleasure and an honor to help other people, no matter what the reward or what the title you might have, has stuck with me.
Q: How would you describe yourself as a leader?
A: I’m a hands-on leader, and I like to work alongside my staff. I don’t like to be a dictator, but I want to help support them as we go through the process, so we can learn together. I want staff to feel like they can tell me what’s going on, and be real about what’s happening, so we can work on it together. I really believe in empowering the staff to make the decisions that they need to make, so that we have the best outcome.
Q: What is a characteristic that every leader should have?
A: Passion will get you through the tough times. It will get you through the negative talk and the criticism. If you are passionate about what you are doing, and you are centered on knowing for yourself that you are doing what’s right, there is nothing that will shake your faith in what you’re doing.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you have faced personally as a leader?
A: People thinking they know you when they really don’t know you. They judge you by what they see — and, yes, I’m a very put-together professional; I have a bachelor’s degree; I have a master’s degree in business; I’m very smart and intelligent – but even within our community, especially when I’m speaking in the Latino community, we don’t always embrace females in positions of power and leadership. We’re still a little bit behind in coming to this idea that Latinas can be powerful and lead organizations.
Q: What’s something you would like to improve?
A: (I would like) to have more time to spend with every single person that works here. It’s so hard when you’re managing an organization that’s almost $10 million, 14 different buildings and staff that number between 110 to 150 employees. You just never have enough time for interaction with the staff. I try as much as I can to get to every building. (I’d also like to have more time for) visiting with residents at the elderly housing or trying to engage with parents, because you learn so much about what’s going on — what’s working, what’s not working.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the future for this organization?
A: I have big dreams for Centro Hispano. I think sometimes my vision and my energy and my motivation really outpace the staff and I don’t think they realize how much goes on in my head. For example, we have a lack of quality early education and I’d like to see us strengthen in that area.
Q: What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
A: I would tell them to not get discouraged. Nobody’s going to come and pat you on the back and tell you you’re doing a good job. You’ve got to do that by motivating yourself; living out what you’re truly passionate about will help you do that.