Meet The Sacramento Bee’s Top 20 Latino Change Makers in the capital region

Whether it’s teaching students about history, spreading the joys of life through music or advocating for the fair treatment of others, change makers invest their time and energy into projects and passions in the name of reformation.

We are happy to introduce our Top 20 Latino Change Makers. Among these capital region leaders, we honor educators, advocates and and artists. Their passions range from empowering fellow Latinos and researching health disparities to sharing lowrider culture and advocating for safer roadways.

The Sacramento Bee’s Equity Lab and Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program (NELP) partner on the Change Maker series to highlight those in our Sacramento region who lead with urgency. We have celebrated pioneers in the Latino, Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities these last two years. What they have in common is their persistence in the face of adversity. These leaders stand out as thoughtful community members transforming where they call home.

This cohort of Latino Change Makers represents the final in a series of three, which began last September. In this time, we’ve honored the Top 20 Black Change Makers and the Top 20 Asian American and Pacific Islander Change Makers. Celebrate these 60 leaders on March 22 at the Unity Change Makers Celebration held at the University Ballroom at Sacramento State. The event is open to the public, but tickets must be purchased in advance.

Since the change makers project’s inception in 2022, it has honored 135 individuals who represent nonprofits, elected officials and everyday community members.

With the assistance of nominations from the community, a selection committee made up of past change makers, the Nehemiah Community Foundation and members of The Bee convened in January to discuss the merits of each application.

Our selection committee included: Mariana Corona Sabeniano, Sacramento County Board of Education trustee; Rita Gallardo Good, senior associate vice president for the Office of Community Relations and Campus Engagement at Sacramento State; Carissa Gutiérrez, an arts and culture advocate and former director of the Latino Center for Art and Culture; Lydia Ramirez, senior vice president/chief operations officer and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Five Star Bank; Scott Syphax, founder of the Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program; Scot Siden, chief operating officer of the Nehemiah Community Foundation; Deneva Shelton, chief executive officer of the Nehemiah Community Foundation; Mathew Miranda, Latino Communities reporter; Sabrina Bodon, editor of The Sacramento Bee’s Equity Lab; and Colleen McCain Nelson, executive editor of The Sacramento Bee.

Here are The Sacramento Bee Equity Lab’s Top 20 Latino Change Makers.

Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, 69

Director of UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities

Background: If Aguilar-Gaxiola closes his eyes, he can hear the voices of farmworkers “singing and joking around” as they line up before dawn to buy tortillas from his parents in Sinaloa, Mexico. “That shaped my commitment to serve the underserved,” he said.

Impact: The California Department of Public Health enlisted Aguilar-Gaxiola to join a 14-member task force that recommended how COVID-19 vaccinations should be disseminated when they became available.

While several task force members prioritized health care workers, Aguilar-Gaxiola said, he focused on hard data showing that 80% of people ages 24-59 dying from the virus were Latinos.

His center contracted with CDPH and federal authorities to reach Latinos, employing mobile units to test, vaccinate and eventually provide antivirals to workers around the Sacramento Valley.

Among the center’s other work: Researchers led Solano County’s behavioral health team in working with Latino, Filipino and LGBTQ+ communities to find culturally competent strategies to boost the use of mental health services. Not only did calls for treatment jump, but members of each demographic also markedly increased their usage of outpatient services rather than waiting until they were in crisis to seek help.

Plans: Aguilar-Gaxiola and his peers continue to share their research proving health disparities decline when care is offered where low-income patients live and work. Building upon Aguilar-Gaxiola’s work with the National Academy of Medicine and Solano County, the UCD team is training county health personnel around California on best practices for community engagement.

Best advice: “If we collectively join hands to improve access to quality care, we can improve the utilization of services,” Aguilar-Gaxiola said.

Why a nominee: “Dr. Aguilar-Gaxiola’s team undoubtedly has saved lives during the pandemic because many Latinos … learned they had COVID through the center’s mobile testing efforts,” said his colleague Edwin Garcia.

Rene Aguilera, 62

Sacramento Programs Director of Empowering Latino Futures

Background: Aguilera grew up in Roseville with parents who started a scholarship and became pillars in the local Chicano community. Aguilera, determined to expand on those legacies, has committed his life to organizing Latinos. Even today, he is known for constantly passing out flyers to make people aware of upcoming events.

Impact: During the last 40 years, Aguilera has helped organize first-of-their-kind events for Latinos. During the 1980s, he spearheaded the Sacramento Latino Jazz Festival. Then in 2001, he founded the inaugural Cesar Chavez Youth Leadership Conference and Celebration at UC Davis. The annual conference now welcomes more than 1,000 students each year. Last year, Aguilera added another event to his annual calendar and created the first ever Sacramento Latino Book & Family Festival.

Plans: Aguilera aspires to continue volunteering at events and bringing people together for as long as he can. His next dream event would involve Kaiser Permanente and UC Davis Medical Center joining forces for a Latino-focused health fair.

Best advice: “Make as many friends as you can, invite your friends to events that can help the community, and make sure they connect with as many people as they can to help out the community,” Aguilera said.

Why a nominee: “Rene has always been involved with the Hispanic community, especially with young kids because that’s where you really can influence people,” said Aguilera’s older sister, Horfa Jeppesen. “He’s always wanted to give and share opportunities.”

Jose Manuel Ayon, 30

Associate Governmental Program Analyst for the California Department of Veterans Affairs

Background: Ayon chose to hone his character and his leadership skills in Grant High School’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a youth development program run by the U.S. Department of Defense. There, he learned that very few Grant graduates had gone on to become officers in the military.

Impact: Ayon chose the Army Reserve because he wanted to serve Sacramento while also serving his country. He attained the rank of captain in the U.S. Army Reserve by age 27, earning the Meritorious Service Medal and other accolades. At CalVet, he assists underserved veterans with getting access to health care, employment and other benefits.

Ayon said he wants to show students from his old neighborhood that socioeconomic circumstances do not define what a person can do in life. He’s a U.S. Army officer and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, ranked the ninth-best college in the world.

Plans: He’s working on a master’s in public administration from USC, and he and his siblings annually fund two $1,000 scholarships for Grant graduates.

Best advice: “Always put in the effort, put in the work and trust the process. Sometimes, we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you stay consistent, if you stay on course, things will turn out for the better.”

Why a nominee: “His journey from a first-generation graduate to a dynamic leader is inspirational, showcasing his influence in service, education and leadership,” said his sister Carmen Ayon.

Angel Barajas, 42

District 5 Supervisor in Yolo County

Background: In a historic first, Barajas became the first child of farmworkers to represent Esparto, Dunnigan, Guinda and other agricultural towns as a supervisor in Yolo County when he was elected in 2021. District 5 also includes north and east Woodland. Farmers and ranchers held the seat before him.

Impact: When Barajas ran for the Woodland Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees in 2010 and then the Woodland City Council in 2014, he had to win an at-large seat to be elected. He then led efforts to convert both bodies to district seats, which traditionally offer people of color and other marginalized groups a greater chance of electing someone from their demographic.

He championed $10 million in road improvements in Esparto and other rural areas that have not been repaved in roughly 50 years, and he advocated for partnering with the Woodland City Council to put a combined $1.4 million toward launching a Boys & Girls Club after-school program.

Plans: Barajas said Yolo supervisors plan to put shovels in the ground this year as they begin development of the first park in Knights Landing, something families there have long sought.

Best advice: “Believe in yourself. Have a vision, ask questions and work with people in a collaborative way.”

Why a nominee: During the COVID-19 pandemic, “Supervisor Barajas … led the charge to have Yolo County farmworkers be at the top of the list to receive their vaccinations,” said Dr. Tico Zendejas, a leader in the county’s health and human services agency.

Lisa Cardoza, 42

President of American River College

Background: Cardoza describes her life through the lens of two women. The first girl was raised among a family of eight in a poor, largely Hispanic town in Texas and became pregnant in high school. The second girl grew up in that same community, yet was the school valedictorian, went to Stanford and now has a lengthy resume in higher education administration. Cardoza is both women and is using those life experiences to make education available for all students, no matter their background.

Impact: While in Texas, Cardoza worked in outreach and college access, enrollment and student services. She arrived at Sacramento State in 2015, quickly making a name for herself by helping to increase the university’s four-year graduation rate by nearly 20% and leading a record-setting fundraising effort. Last year, Cardoza became the first Latina president of American River College.

Plans: Cardoza hopes to leverage community partnerships to invest in new equipment, increase student scholarships and elevate the athletic program during her time at American River College.

Best advice: “You have to know who you are at your core, in order to show up as your authentic self in the workplace,” Cardoza said.

Why a nominee: “Lisa Cardoza is an exceptional leader within our community who displays passion, drive and dedication to her community, family and friends,” said Lydia Ramirez, a colleague and friend. “We are so proud of the work she has done for our community.”

Elyse Doyle-Martinez, 35

Artist and educator

Background: Doyle-Martinez melds art and advocacy to work for change and to empower youth in her native Woodland. Doyle-Martinez was inspired and encouraged at a young age by her mother, an educator who taught in Woodland and in Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation schools, and by her father’s restless creativity. Her mother stressed the connection between art and social justice, a link that runs through Doyle-Martinez’s artistic works in silkscreen and large-format murals and her work in the classroom.

Impact: Doyle-Martinez’s student art projects take youth out of the classroom and onto Woodland’s streets where her and her students’ public mural projects build pride in Latino culture and community. Her work as a Yolo County adviser for Brown Issues, the advocacy group working to cultivate the next generation of young Latino leaders, has helped take the students to the halls of local government to advocate for young people in the community.

Plans: “I don’t think there’s enough support for youth to be able to express themselves,” Doyle-Martinez said. “To have art programs that they can be part of — that’s my ultimate goal. Art that reflects them, their culture and where they come from.”

Best advice: “Know who you are. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will,” she said. “Build with people who want to win with you.”

Why a nominee: “When I think of a change maker, I think of folks who are willing to disrupt, who truly believe in the beauty of others,” said Carissa Gutiérrez of the California Arts Council. “Elyse is an artist — an exceptionally talented one — but it’s her dedication to her community that doesn’t waver. She uses whatever platform she has to lift other people up.”

Diana Fuentes-Michel, 66

Former Executive Director for the California Student Aid Commission

Background: Education was a way out of East Los Angeles, where Fuentes-Michel witnessed gang violence. Coming from a family of teachers, she grew up understanding the value of education.

While attending Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Fuentes-Michel worked multiple jobs to overcome financial roadblocks. Since graduating in 1979, she dedicated her life to ensuring the affordability of education for low income, working class students.

Impact: Fuentes-Michel’s life is about giving back and bringing up. When she was the executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, she created several programs that assist Latinx students in accessing higher education and financial aid.

She advocated for legislation in 2001 that removed the ban on providing financial aid for undocumented students.

She helped to found the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership project in 1982, an organization that has helped thousands of Latinx youth become civic leaders. Her work has been credited with helping thousands of low-income students access financial aid.

Plans: Now retired, Fuentes-Michel continues to mentor others. She funds scholarships at Sacred Heart High School in Lincoln Heights.

Best advice: “Work hard to achieve your dreams,” said Fuentes-Michel. “Reach out to others, bring others along with you for the journey.”

Why a nominee: “She paved the way for the future that we exist in now,” said Angelo Williams, a former employee of Fuentes-Michel’s at the California Student Aid Commission.

Isaac Gonzalez Jr., 43

Active Transportation Commissioner for the city of Sacramento

Background: Gonzalez, a child of divorce who grew up in Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood, leaned on mentors in his high school years. He pays it forward as an adult in his adopted Tahoe Park neighborhood and throughout the city.

Impact: Gonzalez has raised tens of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research as an American Cancer Society “Real Men Wear Pink” ambassador and tens of thousands more for the Sacramento YMCA via an annual bikeathon on his birthday. He is working to reduce stigma and shame around mental health as the NAMI Sacramento president. And as a traffic safety committee chair at his children’s school, he has secured millions of dollars for safety improvements on a street where a parent lost their life.

Plans: Gonzalez continues to advocate for safer streets and equitable investment in underserved neighborhoods with his new project, “Slow Down Sacramento,” and through his work on the city’s Active Transportation Commission.

Best advice: “People want to plan until they’re blue in the face. Don’t let perfection stand in the way of good enough. There are so many opportunities to learn. Get out there and do it.”

Why a nominee: “Isaac is a problem solver and leader with a holistic and heartfelt approach to service — a legacy that continues to bear fruit in the lives of the many he has touched,” said Matt Malkin, a community member and traffic safety advocate.

Maria Harrington, 41

Owner of Casa de Español

Background: Born in Mexico to a painter father and mother who was a bilingual teacher, Harrington grew up in the East Bay city of Albany. A University of California, Berkeley graduate, in 2007, she founded Help Chiapas, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting health and education in southern Mexico. She, with students at UC Berkeley and at Holy Names University in Oakland, soon organized trips taking along doctors, educators, dentists and optometrists to the region.

Impact: Harrington’s Spanish-language school Casa de Español has become a Sacramento staple and an invaluable resource for Spanish language and culture.

Casa started in the fall of 2011 in a 700 square-foot room in a restaurant’s courtyard at 21st and J streets with an enrollment of 25 students. Casa de Español’s numbers quickly swelled, and the school outgrew its humble beginnings. Harrington moved Casa de Español to its now-familiar corner on downtown’s R Street corridor in 2015.

During the pandemic, Harrington and her students became translators at vaccination clinics offered by Sacramento nonprofit La Familia Counseling Center in south Sacramento and at Southside Park.

Plans: Casa serves about 360 students which includes a mix of retirees eager to continue learning, working adults seeking to expand their resumes with added language skills, and families looking to reconnect with their language and heritage. The school has begun to collaborate with local artists and museums, including on a March installation with Sacramento’s ARTners Collaborative and Sojourner Truth Museum.

Best advice: “Know that you’re not alone,” Harrington said. “We’re better together.”

Why a nominee: “She focuses on building a community and fostering understanding and respect for our Latino population,” said Casa de Español Program Assistant Lesslie Menendez.

Carlos Kandia, 32


Background: In his native Colombia, sports were Kandia’s first love. But music and theater soon grabbed hold. Kandia rose from televised talent shows as a teen in Colombia to perform on Broadway. He has called Sacramento home for the past 14 years. His energetic performances connect culture and community and have drawn a devoted fan base.

Impact: His Kandia Entertainment is a leader in Latino live entertainment, producing more than 5,000 shows in 10 years. Kandia’s Tropical Sundays series at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, which he produces with his wife, employs local Latino artists, photographers, technicians and other professionals.

A music educator, Kandia teaches at Sacramento Spanish language school, Casa de Español. In collaboration with Sacramento City Unified School District, Kandia teaches music in Spanish and English to students.

Plans: Kandia is working on a self-titled musical project and has a goal of establishing a performing arts academy.

Best advice: “You are in a country where everything is possible,” Kandia said. “All you have to do is work hard with love and respect.”

Why a nominee: “Carlos is unique as an entertainer in so many ways. Carlos moves people with his music. He is proud of his roots, and he shows it with his music,” said fan Yvonne Perez Castro.

Luis Leon, 32

Educator at Valley High School

Background: Leon is a proud product of south Sacramento’s Valley High School, but there was a time when he didn’t envision himself graduating. Leon credits his teachers and counselors with pushing him to continue school. He has returned to his alma mater to offer similar support to new generations of students as the men’s soccer coach and a teacher for Advancement Via Individual Determination — a program intended to improve college readiness for students.

Impact: Seven years after Leon came onboard as a coach at Valley High, his players boast a nearly 100% enrollment rate in post-secondary schools. In 2022, the National Federation of State High School Coaches Association chose Leon out of more than 46,000 coaches for state Coach of the Year.

Plans: Leon said he has unfinished business in his current role as a teacher and soccer coach. Leon’s longer-term career goal is to become an athletic director with the hope that he will be able to effect change in even more students’ lives.

Best advice: “Share your story,” said Leon. “It is powerful. Let it be heard. And always find a way to pay it forward.”

Why a nominee: “Leon has created a culture starting with his soccer program and now our AVID program to create future Latino leaders,” said colleague Erica Galentine.

Gina Lujan, 52

Co-founder and CEO of Hacker Lab

Background: In 2012, when Lujan returned home to Sacramento from the Bay Area, she posted an ad on Craigslist inviting other local nerds, hackers and start-up enthusiasts to form a community. Hacker Lab was born.

Impact: Lujan and her partners at the time, Charles Blas and Eric Ullrich, created a makerspace where innovators and artists could find not only the equipment they needed but also other creatives willing to share their expertise and time.

Hacker Lab partnered with HP, Kaiser Permanente, SMUD, community colleges, local governments and more on projects that nurtured entrepreneurship in Sacramento.

As business slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lujan began rethinking what Hacker Lab should look like. She heard from women, people of color and creatives on tight budgets that their business concepts didn’t seem to fit in a “hacker lab.”

She and her partners parted ways in August 2022, shuttering Hacker Lab, but a few months later, Lujan opened MADE Studio at 3519 Broadway in Oak Park, adding a “powered by Hacker Lab” tagline as a nod to a name that many Sacramentans knew and trusted.

Plans: At MADE Studio, Lujan continues to offer tools and equipment to everyone, a two-week business bootcamp and an eight-week business accelerator program aimed at women.

Best advice: “Don’t be afraid to fail because you will. ... You can’t have success without having had failure.”

Why a nominee? “Gina … is the first to show up when needed and gives her time and skills freely,” said Cathy Rodriguez Aguirre, CEO of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Lorena Marquez, 47

Acting Chair and Associate Professor of Chicano/a Studies at UC Davis

Background: It wasn’t until she was a student at Sacramento State that Marquez learned about Chicano history. It was this learning opportunity that connected her to her lineage. Raised in Galt by her Mexican farmworker parents, she was blown away it had taken her so many years to connect in this way. Now, her mission is to make history accessible.

Impact: Marquez’s work has been vital to the documentation of civil rights history, where she looks at trauma, identity and resilience within Sacramento’s Chicano movement.

Her commitment to the Latino community shines as the project director of the Sacramento Movimiento Chicano and Mexican American Education Oral History Project. This project preserves the history of Chicano artists from the 1960s to the 1980s. Within this archive, there are 125 oral histories documented.

Plans: Marquez is working on another oral history project on Mexican American servicemen and servicewomen housed at the Center for Sacramento History. Additionally, she’s working on a series of documentaries on race and racism with the center.

Best advice: “It’s not going to be easy,” Marquez said. “But you should absolutely pursue your dreams, because we need (the younger generation) to succeed. Our community needs role models that have positions of power.”

Why a nominee: “Her work is an important and vital and welcomed addition to the field of Chicano and civil rights history,” said Rhonda Rios Kravitz, board member of the Sacramento Movimiento Chicano and Mexican American Education Project Oral History Project.

Cynthia Moreno, 39

Press Secretary for California Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas

Background: Moreno has always been an overachiever. The eldest daughter of Mexican immigrants, she was the “first to learn everything” in her family, she said. She was the first to learn English and how to navigate American life.

For 15 years, Moreno covered Latino communities as a journalist for Telemundo, Vida en Valle, The Fresno Bee and McClatchy. Her career took a turn in 2017, when she was laid off. But after decades covering state politics at the Capitol, she was approached with an opportunity to work inside the building.

Impact: Moreno currently serves as the press secretary for California Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas. She is the first Latina to hold the position in 20 years.

In 2019, when she served as assistant deputy director of communications for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, she used her Spanish-language skills to help roll out the Real ID and ensure Latino communities were informed. During the COVID-19 outbreak, Moreno was responsible for providing information to Latino communities in Spanish alongside the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Plans: In Rivas’ office, Moreno would like to do outreach and support the Indigenous farmworker community.

“My goal, in this capacity, is to ensure that all voices are represented, especially the Latino community,” Moreno said.

Best advice: “Follow your passions. Do what you love,” Moreno said.

Why a nominee: “Cynthia has always been profoundly passionate about ensuring Latinos have a seat at the table,” said Monica Griffis, a mentee of Moreno’s. “When people say ‘representation matters’ — that is a space where Cynthia is usually representing.”

Juan Novello, 34

Vice President of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Background: Novello grew up in a humble village in Mexico raised by his single mother. At 12 years old, he migrated to the United States. It wasn’t until he was applying for colleges that he learned he was undocumented.

After graduating from San Diego State in 2012, Novello was preparing to return to Mexico. But then came Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA, which allowed him to stay. He started his career in Sacramento within the same year that the DACA program was initiated.

Impact: In 2009, he founded Education Without Borders, an undocumented resource center within the California State University system. As the chief operating officer for the Latino Economic Institute and as senior vice president for the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he led the development of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Report, which serves as a platform for individuals within the chamber to work with elected officials and community and business leaders on solution-driven efforts.

Plans: Novello said he aims to fully integrate the Association of Latino Professionals for America, an organization he assists with, into the business industry. Additionally, he hopes to finish his MBA and start a family.

Best advice: “Possibilities are endless,” said Novello. “Together, no doors can be shut.”

Why a nominee: “Juan’s community service portfolio is a testament to his ability to catalyze positive change,” said Cathy Rodriguez Aguirre, president of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Juanita Polendo Ontiveros

Director of Community Advocacy, Special Projects & Human Resources for California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation

Background: Born into a farmworker family, Ontiveros and her family witnessed firsthand the racism, discrimination, segregation and labor exploitation of farmworkers. Whether it be standing up against inequities or being the voice for others, Ontiveros has been part of key social and organizing movements in California for the past six decades with the support of her mentors and family.

Impact: Ontiveros has received strong mentorship, starting with her extended family who fought for the rights of farmworkers during the Mexican Revolution and having worked with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

By the time Ontiveros was studying at Sacramento City College in 1966, Chavez was calling for supporters to make the pilgrimage from Kern County to Sacramento to give the plight of farmworkers to lawmakers. They didn’t have to ask Ontiveros twice. Ontiveros began collecting donations for striking farmworkers and joined the Royal Chicano Air Force artist organization.

When Chavez closed the UFW Legal Department, Appellate Division Office in Sacramento, Ontiveros joined the newly formed CRLAF, where she has been since.

Plans: In speaking with farmworkers, Ontiveros has identified labor abuse, lack of enforcement of existing laws, wage theft, horrific housing conditions, deterioration of rural education and little-to-no healthcare for farmworkers.

Best advice: “Whenever anybody asks you to do something — no matter if it’s something little or something big — you do it, because you want to do it, you do it from the bottom of your heart,” Ontiveros said.

Why a nominee: “Juanita Ontiveros has dedicated her life to bridging rural, low-income, migrant farmworkers and mixed-status families to crucial supportive and legal services, increasing empowerment and leading to successful impact litigation and legislative wins,” colleague Rebekah Sophia said.

Rachel Rios

Executive Director of La Familia Counseling Center, Inc.

Background: Rios, a Sacramento native, started her career at local nonprofits focused on substance abuse and youth runaways. Decades later, her life has come full circle. She leads La Familia Counseling Center, a highly regarded nonprofit with a 50-year history of providing multicultural support to low-income families. Prior to joining the center, Rios rose up the ranks of the California Youth Authority, now known as the Division of Juvenile Justice, and became the first Latina director for the agency.

Impact: Under her leadership, La Familia stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic to help the Latino community and became the regional model for other nonprofits. At the height of the pandemic, the center tested more than 34,000 people, vaccinated nearly 8,000 and had a 97% return rate for vaccinations.

Plans: Rios looks forward to empowering young leaders in the organization and seeing through the building of La Familia’s newest center. She envisions the new facility as a place that can expand the organization’s educational, employment, housing, youth and health care services, while also forming new community partnerships. The $16 million facility is expected to open in early 2025.

Best advice: “Forget all the reasons it won’t work and believe the one reason that it will,” Rios said.

Why a nominee: “Rachel has the ability to bring people together and produce something that’s tangible for the community,” said Carla MacDonald, a Sacramento community member.

ShaVolla Rodriguez, 46

Exhibits Manager at the California Automobile Museum

Background: Rodriguez’s father, Raymond Vasquez, was always working on cars and motorcycles. As a child, she was mesmerized by the paint jobs, hydraulics and the curves of the cars. About 15 years ago, she and her husband, Carlos, took the leap and bought their ‘47 Buick Super, entering the lowriding scene as adults.

Impact: Rodriguez, a member of Dukes Car Club, has organized donation drives and feeding-the-homeless events. Through her work with the car club, she connected with the California Automobile Museum. There, she volunteered to curate the Art of Lowriding, her first exhibit. It brought in more than 700 people on the first day. On display this winter is Rucas y Carruchas: Latinas in Lowriding, which is Rodriguez’s first exhibit since officially joining the museum’s staff six months ago.

Her skillset has helped increase the diversity of patrons visiting the museum, bringing in more women, children and people of color.

Plans: Rodriguez partnered with Sacramento Academic and Vocational Academy, SMUD and Sacramento County in the electrification of a 1964 Chevrolet Impala. This project engages younger generations, which Rodriguez said is the most rewarding part.

Best advice: “Show people what you could do,” Rodriguez said. “I encourage people that have a passion for something to get out there and do it.”

Why a nominee: “ShaVolla didn’t get into this work to get paid, it’s a passion of hers,” project partner Jaime R. Lemus said. “Lowriding is her family’s lifestyle, and the passion she brings into all of these projects truly reflects the love for her community and lowriding.”

Adrian Ruiz

Executive Director of Youth Development Network (YDN)

Background: Ruiz never looked for a leadership position. In fact, he never wanted it, but, as he puts it, “the universe did what it did.” Born in San Francisco, Ruiz came to Sacramento by way of Miami in his thirties. Ruiz approaches his relationship building with curiosity and authentic listening. By asking questions, he helps others identify their strengths.

Impact: Ruiz enables others to discover their strengths and tap into the leadership qualities they possess. As a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach, Ruiz helped to create the Sacramento Strengths Based Institute, which assists organizations in building cohesive teams.

In 2021, Ruiz shepherded the creation of Nueva Epoca, a leadership program designed to foster local Latino leaders into executive positions. In its first three cohorts, more than 45 participants have joined various boards and commissions, according to YDN’s website.

Plans: Ruiz’s work through the nonprofit YDN primarily focuses on working with schools and school districts, but has also expanded outside the nonprofit sector to government contracts.

Best advice: “Listen with all your heart,” Ruiz said. “Suspend the voices in your head. It really isn’t about you at the end of the day. It’s about them. And once you’re comfortable with that, it’s freeing.”

Why a nominee: “Adrian acts as mentor to the majority of up and coming Latine/o/a/x community members as well as up and coming leaders of various racial and backgrounds in our region,” YDN Board Vice Chair Addie Ellis said. “He gives tirelessly and unselfishly.”

Anya-Jael Woods, 41

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Program Manager for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District

Background: As an Afro-Latina born and raised in Los Angeles, Woods finds inspiration from her grandmother, Louise Price, who traveled across the border from Mexico. Woods grew up seeing her family open their home to others, inspiring her own generosity.

Impact: A maternal figure by nature, Woods advocates for children and marginalized groups.

Woods started her own child care business in her late teens, and for 12 years, she worked with families and children in foster care. Known as “Ms. AJ” to the kids, she fought to show them they were cared for.

At SMUD, she advocates for Black and Latino communities through workforce readiness and financial literacy classes. For the SMUD Sustainable Communities Partnership Summit 2023, she helped to bring in more than 60 organizations and nonprofits for a day of collaboration and community impact.

During the past three years, she created the Oak Park Summer STEM Camp for middle school students.

Plans: Woods is a year and a half into her doctoral studies in education leadership at Sacramento State. Upon earning her Ph.D., Woods plans to continue her efforts in social justice and anti-racism work within the community.

Best advice: “Don’t ever feel like you have to waver on your values,” Woods said. “It will make such a difference in the way that you show up and in the way that you’re able to serve other people and the way that things will turn out for you.”

Why a nominee: “Anya mentors local students, builds connections with elected officials and advocates for equitable housing,” SMUD colleague Sierra Stalcup said.

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