Alumna Chandra Alexandre: Strengthening Marin County Through Community Action

In our Changemakers in Action series, we meet dedicated sustainability and social justice leaders and learn how they are bringing about positive change. We’re pleased to launch this series by interviewing PGS alumna Chandra Alexandre, Ph.D., CEO of Community Action Marin, the largest nonprofit human services provider in Marin County. Chandra, who received her MBA from Presidio Graduate School in 2005, is an experienced nonprofit leader with a deep commitment to social justice and to the work of strengthening communities through a whole family approach. 

MR: Chandra, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us. First, I must ask how your organization and clients are faring right now. Marin County is dealing with devastating fires and only very recently moved to a Tier 2 coronavirus risk status. How is your organization being impacted by these and other challenges in the region?

Chandra: I’m delighted to connect and glad for the opportunity to share a bit with you. Thank you.

Most people hear Marin County and think about its 70% white population and incredible affluence. But what’s not often realized is the fact that Marin is the least equitable by race in the entire state across myriad indicators of well-being, including health, education, and income. It’s not an overstatement to say that it’s a moment of both great struggle and awakening for the people who live here. We had almost a third of our population living paycheck to paycheck pre-pandemic, and now there’s too much in the news, locally and nationally, to not have the glaring inequities with the pandemic front and center for everyone. First it was essential workers and workers making low wages. Then it was the child care problem putting race and gender into view, which was quickly followed by the violent murder of George Floyd and an opening for the Black Lives Matter movement globally. Today, it’s the fact that Latinos account for more than 80% of coronavirus cases despite being less than 20% of the population. Systemic and structural racism are glaring realities that we cannot ignore.

How are we doing? Well, we’re working hard in partnership with our community family and collaborators. We’re exhausted because we’re doing what’s right and that’s hard, whether that’s direct service or advocacy efforts focused on racial and economic justice. Our community of folks who are out of work or existing on less than 200% of the federal poverty line are afraid, anxious, and stressed. Our mental health services are operating remotely in English and Spanish because we’re responding to a time of increased need. People are grateful to have us in their corner, and as an agency, we’re grateful for the support that’s coming to us from private and government sources. These are strengthening the safety net and making the decisions we took early on in support of the community more sustainable. Some of our early moves, for example, to provide child care for essential workers, were done at an operating loss.

But this is going to continue, and people still need to pay rent and eat—so we’ll continue to do all we can to be nimble, responsive, and listen deeply to what people tell us they need to gain stability or self-sufficiency. It’s the same with the fires. Specifically, we’re supporting the homeless population in West Marin with connections to services and shelter, and we’re helping families and clients across our programs to stay safe and healthy. If we can help, we will. And we’ll continue to do it by putting people at the center in ways that bring forth their unique strengths and give visibility to their resilience.

MR: Thank you for all you do. Beyond responding to these urgent needs in Marin County, what is your organization’s primary mission, and how are you approaching it? What are the key problems you’re working to solve?

Chandra: Our work as a community action agency is to alleviate the causes and consequences of poverty. To inspire my agency’s actions, we have aligned with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Goal #1: No Poverty, adopted by the United Nations. Our twin pillars to make that possible are direct service and advocacy around the key social justice issues facing our community. Right now, the most important work we are doing is keeping people housed, giving cash grants to support well-being, increasing participation in the census among hard-to-count populations, and powering the vote. Civic engagement is a response to racism that we can all do now. We’re also speaking with local government and partners about meeting both urgent needs and also facilitating systemic changes, in particular for our Latino community. We’re helping Marin County to build an equitable future through the challenges we’re facing together. Importantly, we’re also creating more spaces inside of our agency of over 300 employees for critical conversations about passion and purpose in response to the needs of our time.

MR: Reflecting on your journey, how has your experience with Presidio Graduate School helped to prepare you for the work you do? What did you take away from your time here that still serves you today?

Chandra: I think that being part of the pioneer cohort (C1) helped me learn the value of collaboration as a pathway to vision in a way I hadn’t known before. I’d gotten teamwork earlier through sports and playing in an orchestra, but PGS got me to align process, numbers, and strategy while holding people at the center in working toward a goal. The work put sustainability into real-world terms and made me comfortable being a whole person. I learned that my spiritual self, my mind, and my intuitive self were all valuable for getting to lasting outcomes. Today, I talk about (and engage with larger dialogues about) personal transformation in service to social justice. For me, that was at the heart of my PGS education in and beyond the classes. While I learned many things in my classes that gave me solid CEO skills, it’s the support of like-minded people, and deep connections, that I carry into my work today. My professors and peers helped me to value authentic leadership enough to work harder at getting out of my own way. I’m profoundly grateful.

MR: Thank you for sharing these insights. Speaking of lasting outcomes, how do you measure impact? What are some of the key outcomes you’ve achieved?

Chandra: At Community Action Marin, we measure impact at three levels: family, agency, and community. People of low income are partners with us in generating pathways to self-sufficiency for themselves and their families—and we serve over 5,000 households each year. Our approach means that people can receive help along the continuum anywhere from crisis to thriving. Recent successes include getting over $2.5M in rent and cash assistance to people in urgent need these past six months. The pandemic has had us on our toes, and we were first out of the gate to provide pop-up child care to emergency medical workers. We’ve continued to set pace for delivery of high-quality child care services to essential low-wage workers. Right now, we’re at half our usual enrollment due to COVID-19 precautions, but still meeting the needs of over 550 preschool children daily and providing school-age care to our own teachers and community. I’m proud that we’ve also expanded services in mental health to include offerings such as warm line emotional support seven days a week and peer-led groups in English and Spanish. Other programs have gone remote (or continue to meet people where they are, like our homeless outreach) but continue to help our community family to make ends meet, keep the lights on, and increase stability.

Advocacy now is focused on community-level change; it’s about pressing for social change with key collaborators, recognizing that we’ve got to help get people what they need to be safe and well, but that the work is going to be for the long haul. I’d like to see Marin’s affluence and the will of white allies provide the impetus for transformation such that we become a proof point for what’s possible for racial equity in our country.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share that a notable achievement is being selected as a 2020 California Nonprofit of the Year this month by Assemblymember Marc Levine. So proud of our team!

MR: Congratulations! That’s a huge accomplishment. What advice would you give to people working in sustainability or social justice today or who might be looking to follow your example?

Chandra: My advice is to take risks, learn everything you can, speak your truth, and always endeavor to be kind. Kindness and empathy are often overlooked in doing the hard work, but they go a long way to creating better outcomes for everyone. My final suggestion is to make self-discovery part of your commitment to getting things done. Changing yourself changes the world.

MR: Well said. Thanks so much for spending some time with us and sharing your experiences. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Chandra: My pleasure! Yes, I’m always open to a conversation. If you’re so inspired, please connect with me at [email protected] or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/chandraalexandre/.