Q&A With Jose Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation
The following is an excerpt from an October 14 conversation with Jose Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. This interview was a part of the Do Good Institute’s Leadership Exchange, our virtual speaker series featuring exciting and innovative nonprofit and social impact leaders. Tijerino’s conversation explored the power and importance of storytelling, effecting change for Latinx communities, responding to workforce and societal needs, and his leadership journey.
Below you can find some of our favorite moments between Antonio and Kaitlin Ahmad, Do Good Institute’s communications manager and interviewer.
Kaitlin Ahmad: I'd love to start us off by learning a little bit more about your organization. For those who don't know, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation is dedicated to inspiring and preparing Latinos to become leaders in the classroom, the community and the workforce. Can you tell us a little about how you all approach your mission.
Jose Antonio Tijerino: The first approach is that the community leads us; it's not the other way around. So when I get asked in interviews, ‘what are you going to be doing over the next five years?’ I say, ‘I don't know, my community is going to tell me what to do.’ And so that's the first approach.
We're also, unfortunately for my team, a reflection of my unique approach to everything in life, which is that I'm naive, I'm impatient. I try to be creative, I try to be audacious, I try to be aggressive. And those are usually the negatives, we consider them the positives. So I urge everyone that's in the nonprofit world, in the education space, and in all these other areas of social justice to be more impatient with your mission. There should be no room for patience in dealing with racial injustice, in dealing with sexism and homophobia. All these other areas, Islamophobia, antisemitism, there should be no patience with that. And we've been able to create programs that are very malleable and can react very quickly now to the needs of our community — whether it was COVID, whether it was the murder of George Floyd. That's what we try to do is to be very adaptable.
KA: Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that you think social media and storytelling can be used to affect change, especially for the Hispanic community?
JAT: Yes, I will start with my 10-year-old daughter, she does experiments all day long. And I'm like, ‘where are you getting this stuff?’ Believe me, she makes a mess, but she's in the process of creating and learning ... But she gets all her experiments from TikTok. And then she'll start telling me about Indigenous Peoples Day, and that we shouldn't celebrate Columbus because he did all these things … So, that is her TV, that is what she watches the way I watched something very different many years ago, when I was her age, which was an influence to me. There's a danger, and there's also a very positive space that social media presents to us. But I will also say this, my 16-year-old daughter or my 14-year-old son can go on social media, and in a split second, they'll reach more people potentially than Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Cesar Chavez did in a lifetime combined. So there's a power there that needs to be used in the right way. And when I see the Black Lives Matter movement, the Dreamer movement and the Me Too movement and other movements, I really see it [social media] being used in a way to mobilize and inspire and inform communities.
Now that can go the other way, but I think that it's important for us to recognize who the influencers are. When you have someone that we recognize that has millions of these followers and is being socially responsible in putting messages out about body image, representing the intersectionality of being trans and Latinx; that, to me, is even more powerful in terms of telling our story. I've always said, ‘Who better to tell our story than everyone that's in our community?’ No one speaks for our community. We're too diverse. We're too broad. So we need everyone telling their stories. And I think social media gives us that opportunity to do that.
KA: Before leading the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, you worked across sectors in a variety of roles from the Fannie Mae foundation to Nike to Burson Marsteller, which is a large public relations agency, in the capital. So how did some of those decisions that you made and experiences that you had that shaped your career and landed you to where you are now?
JAT: Thank you for that. I should add in my resume and bio the most impacting job that I ever had in my life … was waiting tables. The skill[s] that I learned when I was waiting tables ... I've used them in everything I've done, especially in this job ... Whether it's the person that's making the food, to the people that bus the tables afterwards, to the host that's placing people in different tables, if you don't take care of that entire chain, you're not going to have a satisfied customer.
So I learned so much in every one of those stops; I learned how to write; I learned how to position things; I learned how to deal with clients; when I was at Burson Marsteller. Messaging and comms is my DNA, that's the basis of everything I do. Program people are great at programs. But I'm able to help those program people in terms of the messaging and the marketing of the organization, the positioning, all of that is so important. So I learned all of that at Burson Marsteller.
At Nike, I learned that intersection of marketing and PR and all these other areas, I was kind of in the PR space. So I learned how it all worked, as well as the public affairs side and how a big company works. That helps me now that I'm working with Nike, who by the way, sponsors our social justice track for our Latinos on Fast Track program. So it's always nice to work with a company that you used to work for, and now they're supporting what you're doing.
And Fannie Mae Foundation was actually a place where I think I learned a lot about the value of research, and presenting that research in a way for others to use to be able to go forward with their mission and then take action.
So I learned a lot from every one of these places, I also mostly learned about how to deal with people, and when to push, when to lay back. I mean, I didn't learn that much because like I said, I'm very impatient, and I believe in being a loud voice in everything I do. But I did learn a lot about how to work with different groups of people and get out of my comfort zone. And you know, what else? The biggest thing I learned, Kaitlin, was that just because somebody has gray hair and a gray suit, doesn't mean they know more than you. We all have value and perspective to offer any institution, any company, any client.
KA: What's the best piece of advice that you've received that led you to where you are, something that you practice daily, from advice you've received?
JAT: Thank you for that, I think that's really important. I'm often asked to give advice, but I got great advice from a couple of people. So one was Lisa Quiroz, who passed not that long ago, who was very important to me. And she told me that I needed to toughen up, that I couldn't take things so personally. Otherwise, I'm in the wrong game. And she was right ... If it was somebody that I actually cared about that said something, okay. But these are people you don't even know.
And Dr. Pedro Jose Greer, who's my hero, MacArthur Genius awardee who got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he hired me as a PR guy that had no business coming into this position ... Everybody was like ‘Why’d he hire that guy?’ But I think Dr. Greer wanted someone that was going to serve and be disciplined about serving; and that this is a position of service and that real leadership is service. And he instilled that in me the minute he hired me and all through my career, when he could have given up several times when things weren't going great. And he said, ‘As long as you're serving the community with that as the primary focus, I will continue to support anything that you want to do.’
And Sister Norma has told me to have more grace. I try sister, I'm trying to get there. I'm trying to evolve in that. I need more grace. Empathy is a tough thing. I think it's so much easier to have empathy with a child at the border that you see in a tattered t-shirt looking lost and scared. And it's not as easy to do with somebody that has said that they hate you and are against every ideal and every value that you have. But that is another form of empathy that I'm working on sister!
- Do Good Institute