Interview with Cynthia Figueroa, head of Congreso de Latinos Unidos

Posted: February 25, 2014

With a $25 million annual budget, Congreso de Latinos Unidos has a big impact in Hispanic and African American neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.

Operating a health clinic and charter school, the nonprofit also offers programs dealing with parenting, housing, truancy avoidance, domestic violence, job preparation, drug abuse, mental health, after-school care, and HIV.

Any one of the programs could have been a full conversation, but what Cynthia Figueroa, 40, Congreso's president and CEO, wanted to discuss was data and the importance of measuring whether programs actually made a difference in people's lives.

Since Figueroa took the helm in 2011, Congreso's budget has expanded $3 million, even as many other groups are scrambling for funding.

Question: What's been your strategy?

Answer: We have a history of strong services in the community, but we are also very well-known on a national level for proving our outcomes. We actually have a quality-assurance team, so we have indicators on our clients.

Q: It's easy to measure progress toward saving for a house or getting a high school diploma. How can you tell you've helped someone with a domestic violence problem?

A: We measure in terms of education attainment related to the issue. What is their understanding of protection-from- abuse orders? Do they have a better mastery of what it means to have a safety plan?

We do pre- and post-tests.

Q: As an executive, how do you stay in touch with the Congreso's mission?

A: At least once a quarter, I physically go out in the field with one of my staff. No supervisor, no chain of command. I do home visits. I answer hotline calls. I hand out meals. I do HIV testing at a community location.

Q: Does that help you?

A: Sometimes I see things in real time that puts things into perspective when I'm advocating. I'm getting unfiltered information. Sometimes, it's very hard and very sad because you are seeing very difficult situations - situations I saw often as a case manager, but it's very different when you are sitting in the CEO's seat.

Q: How do you balance work and raising two young children?

A: As a mom/CEO, I won't do more than two evening events a week. I really work 8:30 to 5. I may log back on later, but I'm not a workaholic.

Q: Many Latinos proudly identify themselves as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, or whatever.

A: It's important to note, but I think it has created undue tension at times.

Q: How do you identify yourself?

A: As Latina.

Q: How about you?

A: My father's Cuban. His father moved to the U.S., and my father was actually an American-born Cuban. My mother was born and raised in Central America in Honduras. She grew up in abject poverty, dirt floor.

Q: And you?

A: Me and all my siblings were born in Puerto Rico. We moved to Miami, so I'm Americanized by my experience, going through school and college [here].

Q: Are you good at Latin dances?

A: I grew up dancing with my mom and my sisters.

Q: Is salsa proficiency a requirement for a Congreso job?

A: Unwritten, maybe. We just had 200 folks at our annual holiday party, and we were all out on the dance floor. It didn't matter whether you had the moves or not.


MORE ONLINE

Speak up, Cynthia Figueroa advises ambitious women. www.inquirer.com/jobbing


CYNTHIA FIGUEROA

Title: Chief executive, president, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, since January 2011.

Hometown: Mount Airy, Philadelphia.

Family: Husband, Robert Clark; children, Lola, 7, and Santiago, 2.

Diploma: Spring Hill College, Ala.

Resume: Deputy commissioner for the City of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services, executive director of Women Against Abuse.

New Year's challenge: To fit into her gala dress in time for the Congreso Gala Latina on March 15.

Saturday mornings: Zumba class .

Music: Marc Anthony, Frankie Negron, Shakira.


jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769 @JaneVonBergen

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