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Meet the 2020 Irvine Leadership Award Recipients

This is the time of year when I have the great privilege of announcing the recipients of the 2020 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award. With so many negative headlines in the news, these impressive individuals inspire us with their commitment to — and success in — improving lives and creating a better future for our state.

For more than a decade, The James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards have recognized exemplary leaders with innovative solutions to critical state challenges. This year’s seven recipients (for six awards) were selected from a highly competitive pool of nearly 500 nominees. We’ve been impressed each year with the number of leaders who apply for the award, and that just underscores even more how noteworthy the chosen recipients are (read more below).

Each demonstrated exceptional leadership — characterized by significance, innovation, effectiveness, inclusiveness, timing of the recognition, and leadership capacity — and will receive a $250,000 grant to support his or her work and to help share their effective approaches with policymakers and peers.

I hope you will take a moment to learn about the 2020 Leadership Award recipients and their groundbreaking solutions to some of California’s toughest issues: parole process reform, environmental justice, career readiness, youth development, financial services for young people, and civic engagement.

And, if you know a leader (or leaders) doing innovative work that benefits the people of California, please nominate them for a 2021 Leadership Award. Nominations open today.

Veronica Garibay and Phoebe Seaton, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability
California’s Central and Eastern Coachella Valleys are two of the world’s richest agricultural regions, yet residents in hundreds of neighborhoods have no access to safe drinking water, clean air, affordable housing, and more. Garibay and Seaton launched Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability (LCJA) to address these and other challenges, and to ensure that rural communities can influence the policy and resource decisions affecting their lives. LCJA develops and partners with grassroots community leaders to inform complex policy campaigns and navigate political processes. For example, the organization played a critical role in securing more than $30 million for West Fresno, one of the most environmentally and economically challenged neighborhoods in California, as part of the Transformative Climate Communities program, which helps local governments provide environmental, health, and economic benefits for low-income communities.

Jennifer Gilmore, Kitchens for Good
Gilmore, CEO of Kitchens for Good, recognized that two of the San Diego region’s overlooked resources — food that would typically go to waste and individuals with significant barriers to employment — could be brought together to tackle poverty and hunger. KFG’s culinary apprentice program prepares formerly incarcerated adults, youth transitioning out of the foster care system, survivors of domestic violence, and others for careers in the culinary and hospitality industries. The organization also plays a critical role in reducing hunger by turning surplus produce from farmers markets and wholesalers into meals for the community. Since 2014, 86% of KFG graduates have remained employed, and KFG is on track to prepare more than 1 million meals by 2023.

Margaret Libby, MyPath
In the United States, 20 million young people are earning their first paychecks. Many live in areas with a lack of access to financial tools, education, or quality banking institutions to help them build credit and save for the future. Libby founded MyPath to provide youth from low-income communities with the resources to achieve financial stability and economic inclusion. MyPath’s innovative programs support young people in opening bank accounts, setting financial goals, practicing saving, and developing financial decision-making skills. Under Libby’s leadership, all youth enrolled in MyPath’s programs set a personal savings goal. Most save at least 30% of their earnings, and 96% meet their savings goals.

Jacob Martinez, Digital NEST
While working in technology education, Martinez saw rural Latinx communities — such as the one he grew up in — excluded from competitive job opportunities, lacking basic access to Wi-Fi, and getting pushed out of their neighborhoods as a result of the booming tech economy. He created Digital NEST to build a stronger education-to-work pipeline for the Latinx community and people of color throughout the tech industry. Digital NEST provides a supportive community and space for career exploration, paid on-the-job training, collaboration, and access to technology. The organization has served more than 2,000 teens and young adults from working-class, mostly immigrant families in Watsonville and Salinas. Graduates of the bizzNEST job training program have increased their annual incomes by an average of $24,000.

Keith Wattley, UnCommon Law
As the nation rethinks the cost and effectiveness of its prison systems, Wattley is leading the charge to promote healing as an impact on both and as a fundamental human right. He founded UnCommon Law to advocate for people incarcerated for serious and violent crimes. The organization fills a gap in the prison system by employing counselors and attorneys to help clients develop emotional intelligence, communication skills, and coping strategies that were lacking at the time of their crimes. This approach helps individuals heal from the trauma that contributed to the crime while taking accountability for their actions. Since 2006, UnCommon Law has helped 241 clients receive parole, and 99% have remained out of prison. Taxpayers save more than $19 million each year that UnCommon Law’s clients remain out of prison.

Miya Yoshitani, Asian Pacific Environmental Network
Yoshitani leads Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) in helping hundreds of Bay Area Asian immigrants and refugees become powerful community leaders through leadership, organizing, and civic engagement. APEN is leading a movement to shift economies away from reliance on hazardous fossil fuels toward green economies that benefit everyone. Yoshitani empowers Asian immigrants and refugees to win groundbreaking policies that improve living, working, and environmental conditions for communities of color. Under Yoshitani’s leadership, APEN has grown a base of over 20,000 Asian American and Pacific Islander voters who have achieved several victories, including stopping the evictions of elderly and low-income residents in Oakland’s Chinatown and winning affordable housing in Chinatown and West Oakland.

We are grateful to these exemplary leaders for creating real change in our state and look forward to recognizing others like them in the coming years.