Mayra Arreola is a force of nature. Her colleagues here at United Way are routinely inspired by both her deep level of expertise about the issues facing our region and the amount of heart that she applies to her work. As Director of Community Collaborations and Investments here at United Way, Mayra is a tireless advocate for underserved communities and highly visible presence in our work to break the cycle of poverty in our region. Mayra recently became a U.S. citizen and is looking forward to voting in the upcoming primary elections. We asked her to reflect on that journey and how her lived experiences connect to her work.
Please tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born in Mexicali, Baja California North in Mexico and at a young age we moved to the central part of the country to Morelia Michoacán. I lived there for almost 20 years before meeting my husband. He went down to Morelia for a student exchange program and we decided to marry while we were still in college. The timing of everything allowed us both to finish our degrees while we waited for my spouse visa to come to effect. A year after our wedding, I arrived in Ciudad Juarez at the U.S. Embassy hoping to pass my interview and finally be able to cross the border with my husband and start our life together. I remember being armed with a backpack full of wedding pictures, love letters, emails and any evidence I could think of that would help me make the case about how much we loved each other.
What was your work experience before joining United Way of the Columbia-Willamette?
Once I moved to the U.S., I spent my first six months in Eugene, OR where I volunteered at el Centro Latinoamericano before going to work at Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs (OAME). After OAME, I had the opportunity to work for Rural Development Initiatives (RDI), where I focused on Latino small business and leadership development in eastern Oregon. These experiences gave me insight into what it takes to build bridges between communities and create the right environment for different cultural groups to come together and learn from each other. I’ve been involved with the Human Rights Commission in Portland and I currently serve on the Oregon Housing Stability Council as well as the Women’s Foundation of Oregon board. I also enrolled in a Master’s program in Public Administration at Portland State University and graduated last summer.
What was it that drew you to UWCW’s mission?
I was drawn to the organization’s strong emphasis on racial equity and prioritization of communities of color. Community efforts cannot overlook race when designing strategies and programs to affect change in the community and at UWCW there was a strong and formal commitment to re-shaping priorities to increase equitable outcomes. I’ve been with UWCW for almost three years now as the Director of Community Collaborations & Investments. My role allows me to have direct impact in our partnerships and collaborations with nonprofit partners and help guide investments in alignment with our overall mission of breaking the cycle of childhood poverty.
How have your personal experiences influenced your work at United Way?
I am a woman, an immigrant, a Mexican/Latina, a mother, a wife. All these experiences have played a role in shaping who I am and what I believe in and they absolutely influence the lenses through which I approach my work. Having started from zero almost nine years ago, I realize the importance of having a community, of feeling like you belong, that you identify with your environment and feel connected. On the contrary, all the not so positive experiences of feeling misunderstood, stereotyped and judged based on what I look like, my accent or my background, gives me an understanding of the role that race plays when thinking about opportunities and systemic barriers.
You recently applied for and became a U.S. Citizen. Can you share with us what that experience was like?
When I was at the naturalization ceremony, I was struck by the diversity of applicants and cultures, languages and backgrounds – there were 42 countries represented that day. During the ceremony each person said their name and in that moment I felt visible and that my heritage was recognized as a plus. While many consider Portland to be a very white city, it is clearly diverse and multicultural. It was interesting to go from this moment where I felt seen and compare that to other moments where I’ve felt invisible, particularly moving through societal systems. It was such a contrast. It reaffirms why I’m working for an organization that is removing barriers and influencing systems and policies that affect the lives of people like me.