Community Foundation’s Erik Estrada Finds Home in South Jersey

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

CAMDEN – As community manager of the Community Foundation of South Jersey, Erik Estrada said while he sees the value of the grantmaking side of his work, he missed the hands-on experience that people they give the grant to produce.

That’s why the California native says one of the best part of his job is working with the Woodbury and Downe communities as a Heart & Soul coach.

“Even though I’ve been able to stay on the program development side of things, I felt like for the most part, our job is to facilitate a process more so than anything else,” the former school teacher and afterschool administrator said. “We have to make sure the money gets to the groups doing the work, but they do the work. I miss the piece with teaching and afterschool programing where I was doing the work. This role allows me to do a bit of both.”

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The Community Foundation of South Jersey helps residents in the region harness the power of philanthropy to transform their community and the issues they care about the most.

Valued

Estrada grew up in an environment where the Latino community was not valued and children like him where rarely heard positive things about them or their futures. As a professional starting his career as a teacher in California, he wanted to make sure those children learned of their true value and worth.

Photo of Erik Estrada, of the Community Foundation of South Jersey. Photo courtesy of Erik Estrada

“I wanted to make sure they were proud of who they were and where they came from, that it held value, which is something we didn’t hear in the ways our community was described or talked about,” Estrada told Front Runner New Jersey. “Not only was I passionate about this because it was my community, but many of my students were the little brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and cousins of the same friends and neighbors I grew up with.”

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Now, as one of the highest-ranking Latinos in the philanthropy field in South Jersey, Estrada said his heritage – his father is from Peru and mother from Finland – makes him think about his impact as a role model.

Different Picture

“My name, if ever fully written out is Erik Juan Jose Estrada. If folks see that in writing before they meet me, they have a different picture in their head of who is going to show up,” Estrada said. “When we talk about Latinos, I think many of us have this incorrect notion of what it means. We have this inaccurate idea of a monolithic community. That’s not unique to Latinos.

“Other POC groups get swept into broad generalizations too, but with Latinos often being considered a race when they’re not, it’s just an extra layer that gets mixed up. So whether it’s other folks with mixed backgrounds, or folks who connect with one of the either pieces of my identity, if they see a little bit of myself in them, I take the notion that I might be a role model to them very seriously. I hope folks see what I’ve been blessed to be able to do, and see that it’s something that isn’t special. That it isn’t the exception. I hope they see it and just think, naw, that’s just what we do,” he said.

At Home

Estrada has lived on the East Coast since 2009, where he met his future wife Tonia Meredith Estrada of Camden and purchased their first home a short distance from where she grew up. He admitted that he there is a tug to be with family in the San Francisco Bay Area, New Jersey has grown on him.

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“I can definitely do the same work there, will be closer to family, and will not have to think about snow or humidity again,” Estrada said. “But at the same time, this really has become home for me. I can’t imagine leaving. I also like the fact that I’m the uncle, friend, etc. that’s on the other side of the country.

Erik and Tonia Estrada at wedding. Photo courtesy of Erik Estrada

“It gives folks (family and friends included) a reason to expand their world beyond the community we grew up in. I don’t want them to want to leave it, but to just know it’s an option. I want to be the reason my nephew and nieces leave the Bay Area for the first time, much earlier than I or their parents did,” he said.

Inspirations

Estrada said his parents, Miguel Gilberto Estrada and Ulla Marja Savolienen, remain his biggest inspirations. They both left their own countries before they were 21, meeting and settling in Pittsburg, Calif. in the East Bay, raising Erik and two other children.

“I don’t think I ever understood just how much they sacrificed day xin and out to give us all they did,” Estrada said. “When my Pops died, I realized I couldn’t take them for granted like I was, so since then I’ve become much closer with my family in general, but I’m grateful I’ve been able to learn so much more of their stories in talking with my mom, my dad’s brother (who actually played a big role in my life when I was a child), and his family (wife and two cousins, which are the only extended family I’ve ever really known).

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“I really just couldn’t fathom being about 19-21, leaving your home and family to move to a place where not only do you now know anyone, but don’t speak the language. While neither of them planned on staying in the United States, after meeting and starting a family, that became the priority,” he said.

Estrada and Meredith married in 2018. He has become close to her sister Tiffany and our 7-year old niece Ahzaria, in their extended family.

Erik Estrada with wife Tonia and niece Ahzaria Meredith. Photo courtesy of Erik Estrada

“We watch her quite a bit, but Ahzaria’s my buddy,” Estrada said. “We go on adventures, make up elaborate plots to get the bad guys (who for some reason is the Hip Hop artist, Drake), and for some reason, she still calls me Eebee, a nickname she came up with when she was just learning how to talk. After Tonia and I got married though, it became Uncle Eebee.”

Estrada, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, said he has met “some amazing mentors and friends” over the years, something that was critical growing up.

“I come from a community where we’re told we’re nothing, will never be nothing, etc., so maybe even subconsciously I’ve come to believe it at times, but there have been a number of people that have pushed me beyond that,” Estrada said. “At Cal, it was Professor Julie Guthman, who taught a class of about 300 students, but went to some lengths to figure out who I was, so she could let me know she appreciated my comments/perspective in class. That was the first time I felt I belonged or even deserved to be at Cal.

“At City Year New York, it was Anthony Shaw, who knew it’d be a mistake if I went straight home after the 10-month AmeriCorps program, pushing me to go to grad school. At NJHI, it was co-directors Gretchen Hartling and Calvin Bland, who from day, one believed in me and gave me the opportunity to shape the way we carried out our work. And at Forward Promise, it was Dr. Howard Stevenson, who not only gave me the chance to bounce back from a brief professional experience in NYC that just didn’t work out for a few reasons, but also showed me what it meant to bring your full authentic self to your work from day one.

Robert Forcadilla  was someone that has inspired me and pushed me through the years. Because I wasn’t too close with my family growing up, my friends have had tremendous influences on me and how I see the world. Rob though, without probably ever knowing it, has pushed me to look at things differently in so many ways. Only a year or two older than me, he’s kept me focused on what’s important and has always believed in my ability to do whatever it is I was trying to do,” Estrada said.

‘Better than Me’

In 2010, Erik Estrada, serves as a project officer for New Jersey Health Initiatives, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation project and received a National Urban Fellowship. The NUF is a highly selective leadership development program for talented people of color and women interested in public service, social justice and equity.

Erik Estrada and wife Tonia. Photo courtesy of Erik Estrada

Along with his bachelor’s at Cal, he received his master’s degree from Baruch College and has done work toward his doctorate degree in philosophy in the field of public affairs and community development at Rutgers University-Camden.

Before joining the Community Foundation, he was the program manager at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of education for three years along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Forward Promise and program director of the Andrus Family Fund.

“I don’t really see myself as a role model, but I have set out on this whole journey in hopes of being an example to my community and youth of what we could be,” Estrada said. “Also, I’d be foolish to think folks aren’t paying attention. As much of a sponge my little niece Ahzaria is, I know I need to be mindful of what I do and how I carry myself. She sees and hears everything! But there have also been a few times in my life I know I had a direct impact/impression on folks.

“[A role model] is something I take seriously though, because I have a lot of shortcomings. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I really don’t want anyone to aspire to be like me, rather, better than me,” he said.

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