Jefferson Award Winners Expand Scope of La PeñaBy Allen Martin

BERKELEY (KPIX 5) When an East Bay cultural center came to a crossroads, it reached out to two young women for leadership. Now that center is exanding and thriving. And the two leaders are this week’s Jefferson Award winners.

Forty-two years ago, Latino immigrants founded La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley as a gathering place. For decades now, it’s been a place for music, food, dance, art, and social justice. But in 2016, after going through three executive directors in four years and facing financial uncertainty, the Center appointed its first Latina co-executive directors: Bianca Torres and Natalia Neira.

“Being women, Latin women, running this organization that is 42 years old, we have a fresh eye and a new vision for how to build on 42 years of legacy,” Neira explained. “To make it as relevant as possible to as many communities as possible.”

Neira and Torres are both in their early 30’s, and are credited with bringing new life, new vision, and new energy to La Peña,

“La Pena has always been known to be an organization that takes risks,” said Torres. “We want to continue to be cutting edge and take risks.”

Since taking over, the team has grown the organization’s staff, secured major funding for arts programs, and raised money for women’s groups, indigenous peoples, even the survivors of last October’s wine country wildfires.

Amelia Gonzalez Garcia has worked with La Peña since 1982, recently helping with its Internaitonal Women’s Day event.

“It is so exciting to see these two women of color be in a leadership positions in a community center that is serving people of color, for the most part or marginalized communities,” Garcia said.

Torres and Neira say they’re just getting started.The women also say they are looking to expand the center and will soon be launching a fundraising campaign in order to make some renovations. The hope is to create more space for community events and classes.

“I feel like we are just beginning to explore the potential of what a cultural space like this can actually have on so many different communities,” Neira said.

So for bringing new life to La Peña Cultural Center and the communities it serves, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Natalia Neira and Bianca Torres.

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