Celebrating Latino Leaders: Yolanda Caldera-Durant
"A really important part of my continued success is my giving back to young people, helping them develop leadership skills and helping them understand that they deserve success as much as anyone else."
Vice President for Community Strategies
The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
Hometown: Bridgeport, CT
Education was a Priority
Growing up in Bridgeport, Yolanda Caldera-Durant was consistently reminded of the importance of education. Though her parents never went to college, they made sure their children knew it was a priority. Yolanda responded to their encouragement, studying hard and gaining confidence when she saw her older sister and cousin be rewarded for their own efforts by going on to higher education after 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.’”
When she entered the University of Connecticut, she felt academically ready to take on the challenges of her classes. But when she arrived on campus, she was not expecting what she saw.
“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.”
To help herself adjust to her college environment, Yolanda took advantage of UCONN’s Center of Academic Programs (CAP), which provides 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 and became friends with a small group of other Latinas having the same experience who met through the Puerto-Rican and Latin American Cultural Center on campus. They formed a bond, and together they 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.
After making the Dean's List and graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, Yolanda went to work for the Department of Children and Families (DCF). She was a sought after job candidate because of her bilingual skills. Her new job placed her back in her hometown of Bridgeport, where she found herself in the middle of many heart-wrenching decisions. She was working in a system where children were being removed from their families, and there were not enough foster families for all the children needing homes.
Yolanda recognized that many of the families she was seeing needed better connections to community services that might prevent the removals from happening in the first place.
“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.”
Yolanda took these insights when she moved on from DCF to the philanthropic world. She used her knowledge and experience as a 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 worked 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. She then 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. She later became Director of Programs at Talent Philanthropy, a national campaign that works to maximize foundation investments in a diverse and high-impact nonprofit workforce, and was for several years an independent consultant.
In the Spring of 2021, Yolanda was named Vice President of Community Strategies for The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
Throughout her professional career, Yolanda has emulated the mentorship that helped her when she was starting out as a young woman.
“A really important part of my continued success is my giving back to young people, helping them develop leadership skills and helping them understand that they deserve success as much as anyone else."
Yolanda is also active with the Progreso Latino Fund, where she has served as a member of the Advisory Committee. She also teaches at UCONN’s Nonprofit Leadership Program and 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.”
This is an updated story that was first published in 2015.