Fostering Systemic Change through a Personal Lens: How Gloria Perez Found Her Purpose

activism women's rights Aug 08, 2022

To be a changemaker requires a courageous vision, a strong foundation, and an unshakeable sense of purpose.

As the President and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the founding director of the Jeremiah Program, a passion to create a more equitable world for women, children, and gender-expansive people are at the heart of Gloria Perez’s work. Whether piloting programs to break the cycle of poverty for single mothers or helming a foundation with a 38-year legacy, the wisdom and resilience born from Gloria and her family’s struggles against systemic obstacles is a poignant reminder of what is possible for the communities she works alongside.

This insight is at the core of her talent for simultaneously fostering structural change through research, policymaking, and strategy while understanding the impact that programming and resources that offer support on an individual level can have.

Gloria, what childhood experience led you to focusing on “making the world a better place”?

I can remember my parents talking about how important it is to make a difference in the world. In addition to talking about this, they demonstrated it by volunteering at church and through my dad’s work as a social worker. Their beliefs likely stemmed from our Catholic faith, but I also believe this mindset was cultivated by my paternal grandparents. As immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico in the early 1900s, they were proud, grateful, hard-working people. They helped countless neighbors and community members in need. They used to say “ Always leave a place better than you found it.”

You led the Jeremiah Program for 21 years, growing it from one to seven locations. Can you share more about the work you did there, and why it was important to you?


At Jeremiah Program, I was the founding executive director. I was hired to design a program for both women and children that would break the cycle of poverty, for two generations, centering on education. The work I have always done in the community is deeply personal: my father died when I was 10 years old. Growing up with my mother, after that loss, I learned about the power and challenges of higher education for a single mother. My mother worked full-time and as she tried to go back to college, it was difficult for her to manage it all. She spent several years taking night classes during my adolescent years but ultimately couldn’t afford to continue. She has always believed that she would have had greater work opportunities if she had obtained more education credentials. 

Jeremiah Program felt like an homage to my mother. The program provides wrap-around support for women and their children as women pursue post-secondary degrees. I can only imagine how that kind of program could have benefited my mother.  I know my mother’s investment in my education has been critical to my professional opportunities and the way in which I view the world. Jeremiah Program is an investment in the emotional, social, spiritual and educational development of women and their children. Knowing that there are single mothers with young children all across the world, Jeremiah Program was started in Minneapolis as a pilot project. Through external program evaluation, we were able to show a positive return on investment and I was honored to seed the program in other communities in partnership with leaders from across the country. 

What role do you think trauma plays in women being “prosperous”?

Trauma impacts a person's sense of self, learning, behavior, and relationships. While I am not trained as a psychologist, my experiences have shown me that trauma impacts people differently. A traumatic experience can leave an imprint of fear, sadness, shock, hopelessness or anger. I have read that trauma imprints on a person's brain and can have an impact that is both emotional and physical (i.e., in learning, health and life experiences). When I think about the word “prosperous,” for me, it is about living life in alignment with my values and purpose. Trauma that is not addressed can obscure a person's ability to know their purpose and access their values.


Why are you passionate about helping women and young girls specifically?

I am passionate about investing in women and young girls because it is my way of making the world a better place. My life experiences have always informed the work that I do. As a Latina growing up in the United States, I have experienced the biases and inequities that are built into our systems from education, to housing access, and employment. In my career, I’ve worked at the individual level, to cultivate the resiliency and strength that lies within people, and now I am working at the system level to address the structural barriers that limit educational, healthcare, economic and leadership opportunities for all women, particular those at the intersections of multiple identities, specifically race, place, LGBTQ+, and additional identities.

What lies ahead for you and the Women’s Foundation over the next few years?

At the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, we are entering an exciting time of transformation. The Foundation has a 38-year history of boldly investing in creating a Minnesota where all women, girls, and gender-expansive people and their families can thrive. The transformation we will be driving over the course of the next seven years will build upon our intersectional equity framework. Specifically, we will drive investment in women and girls using an intersectional equity lens. We recognize that people's experiences are not only shaped by their gender, they are also shaped by their race, place, and other identities like disability, LGBTQ+, immigration status, ethnicity, etc. The Women's Foundation of Minnesota will continue to invest in grantmaking, research, policy, strategic partnerships and narrative change across the state to advance equity and justice for all women and girls.

How can Passionados participate in your mission?
Passionados can participate in our mission by:

  • Examining your own practices for creating pathways of opportunity for women and girls who live at the margins. 

  • Following the work of the Women’s foundation at and on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram

  • Consider opening up a Donor Advised Fund at the Women’s Foundation so that you can advance gender and racial equity with like-minded people.  

  • Look into our unique research, conducted in partnership with the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota. The research may inspire new thinking about the ways in which you can uniquely create pathways of opportunity through your roles, whether it is for internship opportunities for young women, mentoring, or investing in programs.

  • Lastly, voting is an important tool to elect leaders that can create greater equity in systems and laws that support women and families like paid family medical leave, Safe Harbor (to support all survivors of trafficking), and access to reproductive health across the state.


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