Óscar Chávez to become new president, CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County
Óscar Chávez felt like he was living in society’s shadows when he came to the U.S. in 1981.
He was living in the country illegally and supporting himself on farmworker wages. But he clung to the promise that echoed in the ears of all those who came before him: In America, you will find a better life, more opportunity and you can become anything you desire.
“It shaped who I am,” Chávez said.
Now 49, Chávez has been named the president and CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County, the county’s philanthropic hub with current assets of over $227 million.
“It’s my personal responsibility to make sure that the American dream is available for the next generation,” he said.
Chávez, formerly the assistant director for Sonoma County’s Department of Human Services and executive director of the county’s Community Action Partnership, begins his new role March 27.
The foundation was searching for a person focused on equity and bringing people together to tackle the county’s most complex issues, including climate change, income and health disparities, poverty and affordable housing.
He knew he fit the bill.
“I’m committed to ensuring everyone, regardless of their position or race, can feel like they’re a part of this community and benefit from what Sonoma County has to offer,” said Chávez, who has lived in Sonoma County since 2007.
In his new role, Chávez will bring diverse voices from various sectors — government, business, agriculture, nonprofits and people struggling to live comfortably in Sonoma County — to collectively brainstorm and find solutions for the county’s biggest challenges.
Known as an avid thrifter, who relishes the thrill of finding that perfectly nearly new item for pennies on the dollar, Chávez will be at the helm of a foundation that, since being founded in 1983, has awarded nearly $300 million in grants. How to best leverage the foundation’s funds will be crucial.
“It’s important to me that we create space to have difficult conversations that’s not divisive but can lead to solutions,” Chávez said.
“I want to make sure we truly listen to people and understand what’s in the best interest of our community.”
He and his team will be guided by “A Portrait of Sonoma County,” a report he helped create in 2014 that examines disparities among neighborhoods, with a focus on race, ethnicity and gender.
He plans to step into places that lack access to quality education, transportation and housing — Rohnert Park’s B, C and R sections; Bicentennial Park; Comstock; and Roseland, he indicated, for example — to identify their strengths and challenges.
Angie Dillon-Shore, executive director of early development nonprofit First 5 Sonoma County, met Chávez 15 years ago and they worked together at the Community Action Partnership.
She was struck by his genuine interest in people and their needs.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a custodian of a building or an executive director, he treats everyone with respect and is an empathetic listener,” Dillon-Shore said.
“He’s not like other leaders that I’ve known.”
Serving the community
For 10 years, Chávez oversaw planning research, evaluation and engagement efforts for the county’s Department of Human Services. There, he led the countywide Upstream Investments initiative, which focuses on strategies for prevention — to address local issues before they became problematic.
For example, he said, one goal was to provide access to quality preschool education for all kids, especially those in marginalized communities, to prevent costly spending on interventions or helping kids catch up.
As an assistant director, he co-led and managed a $40 million community grants program — funded by the American Rescue Plan Act — that focused on addressing the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 and fostering recovery for marginalized communities most impacted by the pandemic.
He’s no stranger to the foundation, however, as he has served on its board of directors and as a member of the Community Investment Committee for nine years.
Community Foundation Sonoma County, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, has made $292 million in grants since its founding and is expected to surpass $300 million by the year’s end.
The Community Foundation will host a Virtual Town Hall event from noon to 1 p.m. on May 16 to invite the community to meet Chávez and hear his vision for the foundation.
“We owe it to ourselves to make our community a better place,” Chávez said.
“I want to make sure people have a voice.”