Accept the fact that not all people will understand your vision when you are blazing your own trail — The greatest advice I can give to a visionary who is leading an organization, or a cause is to learn to have patience. In my role as the executive director, who happens to be a visionary, it is difficult because you expect for others to see what you see.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard L. Zaldivar, Executive Director and Founder of The Wall las Memorias Project.
Richard L. Zaldivar is a nationally renowned and well-respected leader in both the Latino and LGBTQ communities. Based in Los Angeles, California, he is often sought for his expertise, leadership and strategic thinking in the topics of community engagement, empowerment, HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, mental health, LGBTQ issues, faith and community politics.
For over 40 years, he has been a mover and shaker in uplifting marginalized communities, recognized with awards from numerous elected officials, philanthropic institutions, community organizations and national media.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a newcomer to Alcoholics Anonymous, I came out of the closet in 1989 to learn that my best friend David had just tested positive for HIV. It was devastating news. In those days, HIV and AIDS was somewhat of a death sentence. Having been a gay closeted Latino man myself, I fully understood the challenges of being open about my sexuality. Gay men often faced denial and fell victim to tremendous stigma around HIV and AIDS. It was a subject that you did not talk about at the dinner table with family or with your faith minister for fear of condemnation and exclusion.
I had spent my entire career working in the public sector and I knew the challenging issues that our Latino community faced. And so, I launched my dream to construct an AIDS monument to breakdown the stigma around human sexuality and its correlation to the AIDS epidemic. On December 1st, 1993, I founded The Wall Las Memorias to construct the monument and to create culturally sensitive education for our people. The monument was dedicated in 2004 in front of 1,500 people and from that lesson of building a monument, we learned to build a community in providing health prevention services to the LGBTQ, Latinx and other underserved communities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
As we started to seek approval from the City of Los Angeles, myself along with my staff were threatened with death threats from homophobic people because we were constructing an AIDS monument in a public park. We stayed focused and spoke truth to our message. We walked through difficult times until the monument was completed and dedicated.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the earlier stages of the organization, I tried to get the support of Latinx movie celebrities. Now, I really like to consider myself creative in many ways but most important of all is in developing strategies. So, when I received an invite to a Hollywood premiere of a movie, I immediately got my staff and board members invited too but with one condition. They would work with me to get in the face of the celebrities at the event. So once at the theatre, we had a meeting in the lobby, and I gave them assignments. At the end of the movie screening I had key staff along with board members positioned at each door so that when the audience came through the doors at the conclusion of the movie we were strategically positioned to wait for the likes of Edward James Olmos, Rachel Welch, Jimmy Smits and Benjamin Bratt. We got a chance to meet them and their managers and so many others. At the end of the night, we were the last to leave and we just laughed so hard. It was funny because they allowed me to dictate the floor operation with no reluctance. We got many contacts that night and most importantly they learned that anything is possible when you have a good team and a strategy.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Because of our original effort to construct an AIDS monument, The Wall Las Memorias has become a change maker in our community. We provided the foundation to make HIV/AIDS and human sexuality more relevant to the Latinx community in Los Angeles. We have changed attitudes, groomed and mentored fine young leaders many who went on to key leadership roles in social justice and health organizations.
We have also created a more compassionate and tolerant community through our community members and institutions. Utilizing The Wall Las Memorias AIDS Monument as a tool of discussion, we conducted outreach to over 1,000 Latinx faith-based institutions and provided educational training to many of them. Today, The Wall Las Memorias provides innovative grassroots programs and services in the areas of men’s health, transgender/non-binary health, mental health for transitional age youth, substance abuse prevention, HPV prevention, and healthcare advocacy.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
In the second year of building The Wall Las Memorias AIDS Monument, I recruited a young man who at the time was 21 years old. He had just completed his studies at a university and was also a night club promoter. I saw in him a passion for justice, equality, and a need to educate our community about HIV and other health problems. I took him under my wing and mentored him. He was my only employee for the first several years. I did not teach him, but I mentored him and helped develop him into an amazing leader in our community. Civics, health, politics, equity and equality were the principles that I advocated for and it became his mantel too. He was with me for eight years until he left the organization to start his own in addressing Latinx LGBTQ. Last year I had the privilege of swearing him in as the first openly gay Councilman in Huntington Park, California and whenever he gets the chance, he introduces me as his mentor who taught him about being a voice for his community.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
It is important for society, politicians and the business community to create a seat at the table so that members of the LGBTQ community of color can contribute their expertise. LGBTQ members can serve on high level board of directors, government commissions, political, health campaign consultants.
- LGBTQ of color are a huge representation in the overall population. Creating a seat at the table where the decisions that impact our community are made is important. They deserve to have a voice.
- LGBTQ of color need access to equitable funding and resources. Usually funding and resources are not available to our community. Most all of the resources that target the LGBTQ community go to white populations. People of color organizations know their community and often their leaders inspire the change needed to alter the nation’s political and civic landscape.
- We need to build capacity for the younger generation to address the challenges that face our community in health, politics, health and good government
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the ability to tap into your intuition to respond/speak up on concerns and challenges. It means raising your voice to improve systems or to create change. A person can greatly impact a society when they are mentally and spiritually connected for the greater good of a community.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Understand the concept of starting an organization — I wish those who encouraged me to start the organization would have told me how to initially raise funds for the organization. It is easy to hear encouragement and excitement from supporters and followers, but it is a different story to go home late at night alone with only your pencil and your dream.
- Clearly define the mission of your organization — It could have been so helpful to listen to guidance as to how to develop your mission for the organization. The mission statement gets you into the door. Over the past 27 years, we have had three versions of our mission statement and in each generation, they become a bit more crystal clear. The mission of our organization today is “The Wall Las Memorias is a community health and wellness organization dedicated to serving the Latino, LGBTQ and other underserved populations through advocacy, education and building the next generation of leadership.”
- Inclusion of a finance’s expert to your board of director that understands nonprofit organizations — It is so important to recruit a member of the board who has an in-depth experience with non-profit organizations. Non-profits are very different in the realm of business when managing finances. Understanding the non-profit sector and managing the funds can be a bit tricky for someone who may not understand the industry. I have found that having a good sound treasure can help engage other board members in helping to develop a financial and fundraising plan for the organization.
- Accept the fact that not all people will understand your vision when you are blazing your own trail — The greatest advice I can give to a visionary who is leading an organization, or a cause is to learn to have patience. In my role as the executive director, who happens to be a visionary, it is difficult because you expect for others to see what you see.
- Not everybody can share your vision so do not fault those who can’t see it. It is not easy. It is important not to fault yourself if others do not understand or buy into your vision. It is not your fault but it is an opportunity to teach others if you expect them to join you in your work. Then there are those who will never see. Maybe it is not meant to be seen? It took me many years to accept that fact. Once you can reach that point it will help you imagine your next role in life and that is to share how you can help others in finding and living their own dreams.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
For people to have a greater knowledge about how our democracy works and help increase that knowledge so that all people can have equal access to it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My dream as a young man was to utilize my opportunity on earth to improve the health and welfare of society and to create a better quality of life for others. My favorite lesson quote, “Fulfill your dreams and know your purpose in life so that when you die, you will know that you fulfilled your mission on earth.”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Pope Francis. He is my spiritual leader. He is also a transformative leader for many in this world. I would like to personally thank him for being more inclusive of the LGBTQ community and let him know that every time he speaks about unconditional love that he is speaking to my community. Doing that helps save lives and re-instills faith in many of God’s children.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can find my personal account on Facebook at Richard L Zaldivar, or follow on Instagram @RichardZaldivar and Twitter @RichardZaldivar
For the The Wall Las Memorias readers can find us on on Facebook at Thewalllasmemorias, or follow on Instagram @the_wall_las_memorias and Twitter at @TheWallMemorias
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!