Celebrating Latino Leaders: Yolanda Caldera-Durant
"An important part of my continued success is giving back to young people, helping them understand that they deserve success as much as anyone else."
Director of Program, Talent Philanthropy
Hometown: Bridgeport, CT
As a child, Yolanda Caldera-Durant’s parents consistently reminded her of the importance of education. And, as a young student, she had no problems excelling in school. Though her parents did not go to college, she was encouraged to, and Yolanda watched as her sister and a cousin went on to higher education after graduating high school.
“I thought to myself, ‘If they can do it, then I am fully capable of getting my education and there’s nothing to be afraid of.’”
But when she began classes at the University of Connecticut, there were a few things for which she was unprepared.
A Sense of Belonging
“Coming from a community [in Bridgeport] that was predominately Latino and African-American and Asian, to the University of Connecticut, which was – at that time – about 90% white, that was a bit of a culture shock.”
She took advantage of UCONN’s Center of Academic Programs (CAP), which is designed to provide resources and support for students who are the first generation in their families to go to college or are from under-represented groups on campus.
“It helped me to enter gently into a four-year university setting, where there were very few Latinos and very few people of color in general.”
Yolanda quickly found her niche, along with a few other Latinas having the same experience, through the Puerto-Rican and Latin American Cultural Center on campus. A bond was formed, and after that, she and seven of her classmates co-founded the Beta Sigma Alpha Sororidad Latina Inc. - the first Latina sorority on the UCONN campus.
“It was a big deal and we received a lot of support from the black fraternities and sororities already on campus.”
The sorority supported community service projects on campus and raised money to help the community. To this day, the sorority’s Alma Maldonado-Cordner Book Scholarship, named after Yolanda’s mentor and the sorority's first academic advisor, is awarded every year to Latina high school students or undergrads attending a four-year university.
Graduating on the Dean’s List, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, Yolanda was hired by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). She was back in Bridgeport, as well, in high demand because of her bilingual skills. She found herself in the middle of a system of families who had their children removed, and not enough foster families for all the children needing homes. She recognized that a better connection to community services would help so many of the families she was seeing.
“The parents who were having their kids removed had a lot of challenges: there was extreme poverty, there were mental health issues, there were addiction issues. It was a very complex problem, and I wanted to be part of a way to help prevent families from being separated, because it takes multiple generations to recover from a child being removed from a family.”
She moved into the philanthropic world, taking her knowledge and experience as a DCF social worker to help secure financial resources for organizations already working to prevent families from being impacted by child welfare issues, supporting youth and family development.
“I didn’t want to work in a place where I was putting out fires; I wanted to be in a position where I was able to impact macro-level change, systems change. My work has always been about social justice.”
She gives credit to the many mentors she’s had throughout her life, influencing her to have a strong work ethic, be responsible and take care of others. She says her mother was “the original feminist”, always pushing Yolanda to be empowered, get an education and give back.
Leading the Next Generation
Yolanda has just become the first Director of Programs at Talent Philanthropy, a national campaign launched in 2014 to maximize foundation investments in a nonprofit workforce that is diverse, high-performing, impactful, and enduring. Informed by an Advisory Council of stakeholders from across the nonprofit sector, and supported by several national foundations as well as local funders, Talent Philanthropy encourages investment in nonprofits to increase professional, leadership and career development opportunities, thereby increasing impact and sustainability of the nonprofit sector.
Most recently, Yolanda spent several years as Senior Program Officer at the Connecticut Health Foundation, managing grants related to expanding healthcare and access for communities of color, while also directing the Foundation’s Health Leadership Fellows Program. Prior to that, she was a program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Community and Economic Opportunity in New Haven, creating workforce development opportunities for low income residents and promoting economic self-sufficiency for families in our region.
“A really important part of my continued success, and my ability to feel like I deserve what I have, is by giving back to young people, helping them develop leadership skills and helping them understand that they deserve success as much as anyone else and helping them to make informed decisions about their lives.”
As a member of the Progreso Latino Fund’s Advisory Committee, Yolanda is excited to see the Fund taking a partnership role in the Immigration Strategic Funders Collaborative of Connecticut, which recently received a grant from the Open Society Foundations to help local nonprofits and community organizers prepare for the implementation of both Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) and the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) under President Obama’s 2014 Executive Actions.
“It’s an aspirational body of work, and it truly hinges on the upcoming presidential election. I am proud that the Progreso Latino Fund, The Community Foundation and other partners are building this infrastructure to help Latinos to come to and remain in the state, legally.”
This fall, Yolanda will also be teaching Fund Development and Grant Writing for Nonprofits as adjunct professor in UCONN’s Nonprofit Leadership Program. And, she has recently helped to rekindle a local group of Las Comadres, which is a national Latina social networking group, providing a supportive community for Latina professionals to share experiences, support, professional and personal connections, resources and networks.
“I really think it all starts with developing our young people, and I think a lot of young Latinos lack strong leaders in their lives and they need support to really understand that they have the ability to succeed. It’s not about, ‘Who do we bring in to save people?’ We need to save ourselves. We have the passion and the knowledge, and we have the ability to really do better.”