We asked and you answered. In a big way.
Earlier this year, we asked Angelenos to nominate female leaders who make a difference in L.A. County. We were looking for women who empowered others, shifted perceptions, and demonstrated a track record of success and giving back. After receiving many nominations, we've narrowed them down to eight exemplary nominees.
We’re humbled by the efforts of these amazing women – all of whom embody the qualities of community impact, passion, innovation, and volunteerism this award is meant to honor. These women devote their time, passion, energy, and lives to making a positive impact in the community. They inspire both compassion and action – the repercussions of which are felt far and wide. Narrowing the field to eight finalists was no easy feat. But members of United Way of Greater L.A.’s Women United Cabinet have done just that.
The winner will be announced on April 19 at our 2nd Annual Empower(Her) Spring Salon event. But, in the meantime, we’d like you to meet the nominees.
DIANA COLIN: A fearless proponent for immigrants
Over the last several years, Diana has been a fearless supporter of immigrants – encouraging them and their families to have a voice in both the electoral and organizational process. She developed civic engagement campaigns across not just Los Angeles, but also the state of California, that have mobilized more than 123,000 new American and Latino voters. In fact, her efforts have created one of the largest such operations in the entire country. She uses her power to motivate and train immigrants to be community leaders who in turn motivate their neighbors to become active and vote.
An immigrant herself, she organized other immigrant youth and was even able to meet with President Barack Obama before he signed the legislation that made DACA a reality. Through her efforts, Diana has helped activate one of the most marginalized communities in Los Angeles by training immigrants to be confident community leaders who help move a progressive agenda forward for Los Angeles.
JOYCE LEEMAN: Ensuring everyone has the necessities for living
Joyce is the kind of volunteer that can make even the most ardent activist feel as though they’re just scratching the surface. She started a food bank called Fishes and Loaves, has delivered food to shut-ins with the Foothill Unity Center, is on the leadership board of Children of the Shepard Lois Wise Compassionate Center (which distributes hygiene items, groceries and blankets to the L.A. homeless population), has given backpacks to low income students, sent care packages overseas, supported the Anti-poverty League by supporting their feminine hygiene products collection, collected shoes for Walk a Mile homeless outreach, and been an ongoing contributor to Uplifting Homeless. And that’s just part of her story.
She’s a political advocate who is both passionate and active about getting people registered to vote. She recently reached her 10th year as a Unity Center volunteer, which means she has dropped off food-baskets to shut-ins for over 500 weeks. And her compassion doesn’t stop at her own front door. Over the years she’s also used her guest room to host foreign exchange students, missionaries on furlough, battered women seeking a safe haven, and homeless individuals waiting for permanent housing.
JULIE TOWNSEND: Engineering a brighter future for girls
When Julie was just 13 years old, she was inspired to become an engineer through a hands-on summer course that she enrolled in almost by accident. Her experience in that summer program not only changed the course of her life, but the lives of many other young women as well. In an effort to share her passion, Julie started mentoring a FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team for the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles in 2007. Back then there were 7 girls and 3 mentors working in a small garage with a pair of bolt cutters and a single Dremel tool. Over the last 10 years however, the program has grown to comprise two teams with 24 girls and 10 mentors. They now have a metal-working shop, 3D printing, and laser-cutting capabilities. Better yet, they now have a permanent home through their new partnership with Mayfield Senior School. Girls in the program are offered classes in Computer Programming and SolidWorks Computer Aided Design software. They not only design and fabricate their own custom parts, they also write their own advanced software. Under Julie’s mentorship, the teams have attended the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship five times, won countless regional awards, been honored with the World Championship Inspire Award and have had the honor of presenting at the White House science fair. And along the way, Julie and her teams have inspired dozens of girls to pursue educations and careers in Engineering, Science, and Computing.
AIDA CARDENAS: Empowering an underserved community
For years, Aida has been passionate about increasing the training opportunities for a workforce that is often overlooked. Since 2009, she’s served as Executive Director of Building Skills Partnership, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to providing training and programming to low-wage immigrant janitors and other workers. The group works to improve the quality of life for low-wage janitors and their families by increasing their skills, access to education, and opportunities for career and community advancement.
Aida’s vision of providing immigrant integration and economic equality through workplace training has been highlighted throughout the state as an effective model program that partners with labor, management, and community organizations to uplift workers and their communities. In Los Angeles alone, more than 1,500 workers receive training every year as a direct result of her leadership and ability to bring opposing perspectives to the table. As the daughter of immigrant workers, she understands first-hand the unique issues immigrants face. As a result of Aida’s leadership and advocacy for placing immigrant integration as a strategy to economic recovery, she has recently been appointed to serve on both the Los Angeles County Workforce Investment Board and the Los Angeles City Workforce Investment Board.
MARGARET MCAUSTIN: A strong, vocal advocate of the homeless
As a councilmember in the City of Pasadena, Margaret McAustin has set a pattern of courageous leadership for other local elected officials to follow. An early voice in support of a proposed permanent supportive housing project for homeless families in her district, she never backed down from the opposition posed by the “Not In My Backyard” crowd. The result is Marv’s Place – an award-winning supportive housing project in her district with 62 residents, including 36 children, who would otherwise still be homeless. While on the surface it might appear that Margaret’s primary contribution to the community is the ending of homelessness for the 62 residents who reside in Marv’s Place, her real impact reaches much farther.
By inspiring and empowering other local elected officials to embrace projects aimed at providing housing to end homelessness, her leadership is paving the way for many more similar projects to be built throughout L.A. County. The need for that kind of leadership can’t be overstated. Because despite the unprecedented amount of funding now available through Prop HHH and Measure H, no project can be built unless a community is willing to accept it. The inability to site these projects, due to local elected official’s unwillingness to stand up to “NIMBY” opposition, has become the single biggest obstacle in the development process. But Margaret’s leadership is helping to get projects sited and housing built.
MARTHA SANCHEZ: Protecting a community against corporate pollution
An immigrant who lived much of her life in the shadow of undocumented status, Martha is a community activist who has changed the lives of thousands through her fight for social justice. Growing up in poverty in Mexico and suffering abuses at the hands of those close to her didn’t stop Martha from wanting to help others. And shortly after her young family had settled into one of Los Angeles’ poorer neighborhoods, she had an opportunity to do just that.
In 2003, the Air Quality Management District came to her children’s school to inform parents that the company across the street was using chemicals known to the state to cause cancer. The company – Palace Plating Company, a metal finishing plant – was contaminating the neighborhood and sickening adults and children alike. In this poor, vulnerable and isolated community, most residents didn’t speak English. So Martha took the lead to organize community members, parents and teachers, collecting information and compiling proof. In the process, she found hundreds of kids suffering from asthma, allergies, headaches, bleeding noses, even tumors and brain damage due to exposure. But thanks to Martha’s unrelenting efforts, the company closed its doors for good in 2011.
Now, in addition to her employment with ACCE (Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives) where she fights for social, education and economic justice every day in South Central LA, she’s working on a five phase plan to transform the 11 acre site where the company stood into affordable housing to further help her fellow Angelenos.
NAOMI MCSWAIN: Putting the youth of her community first
As the Executive Director of the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center in South Central Los Angeles, Naomi serves as a constant inspiration to those around her. The center encourages and assists at-risk youth in South Central with educational platforms in homework preparation, SAT preparations, visits from corporation and educational sponsors, and much more. In the last five years alone, she has grown the center from 10 to over 350 kids, while also increasing donations and establishing a strong multicultural board. When she returned as Executive Director in 2010, she faced a litany of challenges. For example, the building itself was unsafe. But Naomi worked tirelessly to raise funds and remodel the building with partnerships and volunteers from UCLA, Loyola, KROQ radio, Pepperdine, and more. She has also made innumerable connections in the community, leveraging resources that help ensure the Center’s kids can achieve academic excellence.
Her passion for helping the youth of her community knows no bounds. Whether it meant taking a cut in pay to keep the doors open and pay others for the sake of the children and her employees, or being there during the holidays while everyone else was at home, Naomi has never wavered in her commitment. And as a result of her passion and perseverance, she has taken a once troubled inner-city youth center to a new level, helping and inspiring kids to invest in their futures.
WENDE NICHOLS-JULIEN: Defending children in the foster care system
As Chief Executive Officer at CASA of Los Angeles, Wende has brought her experience in social justice to the frontlines of the foster care system. CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Los Angeles recruits, trains and supports volunteers to advocate for children in the child welfare system.
As a foster and adoptive parent herself, Wende knows the deep levels of bias that run throughout the foster care system, and is committed to inspiring CASA volunteers in how they work with children in care. She also participates in the L.A. County Commission for Children and Families, DCFS’ Eliminating Racial Disproportionality and Disparity (ERDD) Committee, Office of Child Protection’s Psychotropic Medication Workgroup, and in National CASA’s Urban League, where she shares her personal and professional experience with other stakeholders in order to strengthen the child welfare system.
Prior to CASA, as the Executive Director of the California Conference for Equality and Justice, Wende worked within the juvenile dependency and delinquency systems. There, she developed programs for youth who might not otherwise have had an opportunity to succeed in life. Her commitment to children in foster care goes beyond her credentials and resume. She understands what it means when a child hasn’t been in a permanent home for years. She works tirelessly to ensure that these children, many of whom have been traumatized, abandoned, or not served effectively as a consequence of an overburdened system, are given the respect and opportunities that she would want for her own children.