United Way of the Wine Country president brings new energy to decades-old organization

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Latino Life

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here

On Lisa Carreño’s first day as the new CEO and president of the United Way of the Wine Country, the local branch of a global charitable nonprofit organization, she held a morning staff meeting for introductions to be made. Toward the end of that meeting, she invited everyone to her office later that afternoon for a celebratory cleansing with burning sage, to bring in positive energy and spirit.

“I was kind of sheepishly letting them know this was something that I felt like I wanted and needed to do to ground myself in the space, and invited them to be a part of it if they wanted to,” said Carreño, 56. “And many of them participated in it.”

The inclusive, spiritual gathering was the foot on which Carreño, a longtime community leader, began her new chapter last summer as the first woman and Latina to head the United Way of the Wine Country since its inception over 50 years ago. It was fitting for a spiritual woman whose lifelong social advocacy work embodies her core belief in building bridges and creating community.

“I believe people really crave community,” she said.

Carreño has served on an exhaustive number of social advocacy and community groups, from being the only Latina to chair the Sonoma County Fair board of directors, to serving on the Sonoma County LGBTQI Giving Circle Steering Committee to being a part of Rep. Mike Thompson’s immigration advisory group, to being the first community member in 2014 appointed to The Press Democrat editorial board.

Since she’s taken the helm at United Way, the organization has raised about $120,000 for the Sonoma County flood recovery and wellness fund, following the worst flooding along the Russian River in over two decades this February. Fundraising for flood victims has proved more challenging than fundraising for wildfire victims, she said.

She partly attributed the challenge to the psychological response to seeing structures still standing after flood, while the aftermath of a firestorm appears more visually devastating. However, she said more vulnerable low- to moderate-income people were impacted by the flooding.

“The disaster may be equal, but the recovery is always inequitable,” she said.

United Way announced this month that in July it will begin to manage 2-1-1 Sonoma County, a free telephone and web-based service that connects residents with health and human service agencies. The service is currently managed by the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, which Carreño said have been strong partners with United Way for over 30 years.

The change at 2-1-1 will make it a more robust information system during a crisis or disaster, including more multimedia tools like additing two-way texting capabilities and an upgrade in how to search data on its website.

“It will be very user friendly and more organized,” Carreño said.

Another effort United Way will soon undertake is partnering with California Complete Count, a state committee, to ensure an accurate U.S. Census in 2020, which will be the first to rely heavily on online responses. It’s a challenge in the area, where there are populations who are considered difficult to count, including residents in homes without internet, renters, low-income residents and immigrants fearful of deportation.

Latino Life

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here

A descendant of Cuban and Sicilian immigrants, Carreño connects with and advocates for the Latino community. About a decade ago she heard about gatherings of Latino community leaders, led by Herman J. Hernandez, who wanted their voices better represented in public decision-making. She starting attending, and she was sitting in the back of the room during a meeting where attendees were discussing forming the group into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Carreño found herself telling the story of how several members of her family worked in cigar factories in west Tampa, Florida. Her mother grew up in one of 100 homes owned by a cigar company for its factory workers. The houses were identical, small and dilapidated. Residents could look through the walls and see outside, she recalled.

“When I told them that story we began to talk about a hundred of us putting $100 into a pool to help fund the startup formation costs,” she said.

The group went on to be called Los Cien, now Sonoma County’s largest Latino leadership nonprofit. Los Cien was volunteer-run until it hired Magali Telles, former Sonoma State University college readiness coordinator, as its executive director last year. Telles said Carreño, who serves on the executive board, is a mentor to her and meets with her at least once a week.

“I think she demonstrates every day her commitment to this community, especially folks that are underserved and underrepresented,” Telle said of Carreño.

Raised in Tampa, Florida, Carreño moved to Sonoma County in August 1992 to be with her long-distance girlfriend who is now her wife. She then spent more than 12 years working as the executive director of the YWCA Sonoma County, a nonprofit that provides resources for victims of domestic violence.

On the wall of Carreño’s United Way office in Santa Rosa is a August 1994 photograph she took of Dame Nita Barrow, the former president of the World YWCA, a global human-rights organization based in Geneva, Switzerland that advocates for gender equality. Carreño was part of a delegation from the YWCA USA who visited with Barrow for high tea in her living room in Barbados, where Barrow was serving as governor-general.

Carreño asked Barrow about the proper role of the YWCA.

“To be the place where women come to know themselves as spiritual beings,” Barrow told her.

Barrow’s response went beyond the organization’s mission of helping women survive domestic violence. And Carreño said Barrow’s words sustained her during the 12 years she worked as the executive director of YWCA Sonoma County until 2005.

“Her answer really rocked me. It really just changed my life,” Carreño said.

In 2007, she went to work as an attorney at Spaulding McCullough & Tansil, but in 2012 she went back to nonprofit work and become the executive director at 10,000 Degrees, a North Bay nonprofit that helps students from low-income backgrounds. She was at 10,000 Degrees for over six years before she became the CEO and president of United Way of the Wine Country last summer.

Bruce Goldstein, Sonoma County counsel, met Carreño about a decade ago, when she was a working attorney. He said she was instrumental in the February launch of the Secure Families Collaborative, a network of nonprofits that provide deportation defense to immigrants in the county.

“Without her it just wouldn’t have happened,” Goldstein said.

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