Sara Pena, director of the Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development. Photo courtesy of Sara Pena.

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

NEWARKSara Peña never gave in to the forces around her growing up in a system she said was set up to see her and other Latinos fail and with resources limited.

As director of the Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development with the State of New Jersey, Peña now plays an active role in correcting many of the problems she saw growing up in Newark. As a board member of the LUPE Fund, Inc., she and other Latinas in leadership positions hope to inspire other women leaders.

“I vowed to myself at a very young age, that one day I would be that beacon of hope for those who had encountered barriers, such as language, wage gap, fear of deportation, quality education and the list goes on,” Peña told Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa. “There were very limited resources for those who did not speak English and the resources that were available during that time were very limited.

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“All of these things angered me at an early stage of my youth but in addition to all of this trying to grow up in an environment that was already set up for you to fail became my biggest challenge of which fueled my passion,” she continued.

A Career of Addressing Needs

Throughout her career, Peña developed extensive experience in developing and promoting services while addressing the needs of the community. Before she started work with the State of New Jersey, she worked in the public affairs department at Newark’s University Hospital. There, she managed the hospital’s overall community outreach program ranging from partnerships with local government agencies, educational institutions, faith based, law enforcement and municipal alliances.

Sara Peña speaks at a recent news conference. Photo courtesy of Sara Peña.

Among her numerous awards and recognitions, Woman in Media-Newark (WIM-N) honored Peña at their 11th annual Women’s History Month Film Festival in March because of her outstanding community work. Also this year, Peña received the Girls; Live, Love, Laugh Incorporated Outstanding Leadership Award for her leadership to improve the lives of families in urban communities.

In 2019, Peña received the Women’s History Month’s Trailblazer Award from Newark City Council President Mildred Crump. Twice she was recognized as Insider NJ’s top 100 policymakers in the state.

A Mentor and an Inspiration

Peña said it was Crump that helped set her on a path to inspiring others.

Sara Peña (R) with mentor, Newark City Council President Mildred Crump. Photo courtesy of Sara Peña.

“[Crump] became one of my mentors and I her daughter,” Peña said. “She believed and saw something special in me and gave me opportunities. You see, walking into City Hall represented something. It was where my parents got married, where we would sit outside as a family and watch the annual Puerto Rican Day parade march down on Broad Street.

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“It was this beautiful building with high ceilings and everything was so shiny but what it represented to me was more than I could ever explain. My eyes filled with tears as I walked into this dome and thought, ‘My dad would be proud of the woman I am becoming.’ It was where I received my oath as Commissioner on the Status of Women and other great recognitions for the work I had done in my community.”

Making a Difference in New Jersey

As director for the Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development, Peña works on addressing the needs of the Hispanic community. The center seeks to empower, provide financial support and technical assistance to primarily Hispanic community-based organizations throughout New Jersey.

It promotes a new model of community development that is focused on making real impacts in people’s lives while helping community-based organizations achieve greater self-sufficiency. The center’s Governor’s Hispanic Fellows Program addresses leadership as well, in an eight-week summer program for Hispanic college students geared toward leadership and professional development.

“To know I was making a difference with my volunteerism was only the beginning of a journey that has gotten me to the position I have today,” Peña said. “There was nothing greater than knowing God was preparing me all along for this next chapter. I was no longer going to be working to improve the quality of life of the residents of Newark but now it would be statewide.”

Lifting Latinas

That work has also extended in helping Latinas in LUPE, Latinas United for Political Empowerment. Peña serves on the board and is a former president. The organization strives to educate, empower, and engage Latinas to promote leadership and civic service. It also works with other women’s and children’s organizations on common issues like as health and education, in order to advance the Latino community. 

“We want to see more Latinas elected to office and appointed to boards,” Peña said. “The numbers speak volumes. We have made some strides but there is still much work to do on both local and state levels. We work extremely hard to provide training programs, scholarships and advocate on the issues affecting women to ensure we are part of the solution.

“This organization gave me an opportunity to meet prominent Latinas who were experts and successful in their fields of which many became mentors. I continue to stay involved because our voices matter,” she said.

Boys to Leaders

Another organization Peña is involved with hits close to home. For nearly a decade ago, Peña created the Boys to Leaders Foundation, inspired by her son Anthony who she raised as a single mother in Newark. She said she had concerns about the lack of programs that reinforce leadership skills and wanted to expose him to resources that will strengthen him in becoming a positive and successful man.

When she couldn’t find what she needed for him, she created her own in Boys to Leadership.

Sara Peña speaks at Boys to Leaders event. Photo courtesy of Sara Peña.

“In response to my commitment to my community, and most importantly my son, I decided to create an organization that will benefit young men, giving them a strong sense of direction to enhance their achievement,” Peña said. “We host an annual youth leadership conference, now in its eighth year, in partnership with Rutgers University Office of Community and University Partnership in Newark.

“The purpose of it is to train young men on how to lead and succeed in their endeavors by providing educational workshops and connecting them with powerful and prominent community leaders who offer hope, inspiration and guidance,” she added.

The conference is geared towards promoting a culture of leadership and communication skills that are fundamental to achieving personal and professional success. Peña said Boys to Leaders aims to address and possibly offer solutions to ongoing and emerging cultural issues that are impacting the young men in such communities.

“Most importantly, they step foot on a college campus and learn about the opportunities that are available to them while meeting successful leaders that look like them,” Peña said.

‘You Got This Mom’

Peña earned her bachelor’s degree in management from Kean University in 1996 and while at Kean became a sister of Mu Sigma Upsilon Sorority, Incorporated. In May 2014, Ms. Peña received her master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University in Newark, and was inducted into the National Honor Society for Public Affairs and Administration, Pi Alpha Alpha.

Those were not easy days, working and raising a son while trying to earn an advanced degree. Peña said that’s where her son came to the rescue again.

“It was not easy after being out of school for two decades, but I took the challenge on because I wanted a better life and at this point I had seen other women who I considered mentors doing amazing things and who, too, went back to school,” Peña said.

“I wanted to show my son that you never stop dreaming and this had been something I wanted to do after undergraduate studies but due to my circumstances, at the time, I was unable to. One day he turned to me, while I was doing homework and having one of my mini meltdowns, and gave me a hug and said, ‘You got this mom.’ This meant he believed in me and I needed to do the same. After that day, I never looked back,” Peña said.

The Rest of the Story

Peña discussed other topics with Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa.

FRNJ-La Prensa: Tell me about your family. Just whatever you’d like to share. I understand you were born and raised in Newark.

Sara Pena: Yes, born, raised, went to public school and raised my son as a single mother in my beautiful city of Newark. My mother is from Ecuador and my father from the Dominican Republic. What a combination but where else but this beautiful melting pot of a country would their lives have ever crossed? I was always the dreamer in the family. I dreamed of a better life; a life without food insecurities, financial hardship, addiction and a room of my own. I have one sibling who is a year younger, Janet, who is the apple of my eye. She is my best friend and my number one fan in everything I do. My family has been my foundation and because of my struggles, I am who I am today a much stronger, resilient and empowered woman.

Sara Peña walking near the State Capitol in Trenton. Photo by Edwin Torres.

FRNJ-La Prensa: What did you enjoy about your job at University Hospital in Newark?

Sara Peña: I was at University Hospital for almost three years. I created their community outreach program that is still very relevant today. It was our passion and commitment to ensuring we provided the best care to our residents but most importantly educating them on their health is the reason for it being a huge success. I was able to form relationships that had never been formed and strengthen those that had been formed over the years. What I enjoyed most was being out in the community and listening to what the needs were. How may I be of service to you? How can we best educate our community on prioritizing their health? How can we give quality care? I truly enjoyed seeing this program grow and how supportive the executive leadership was of all the initiatives I put into place.

FRNJ-La Prensa: FRNJ works to present role models to the community. How seriously do you take your role as a role model? Why?

Sara Peña: My role models were my parents; they taught me how the fruits of hard work and perseverance pays off. They didn’t say much but it was what they did that would inspire me to keep dreaming and perhaps one day I would have a career or inspire someone else. In 2014, I decided to go back to school and earn my master’s degree in Public Administration.

FRNJ-La Prensa: Who has and continues to inspire you?

Sara Peña: I am always inspired by those who came before me, the women, who share my passion and have paved the way so that I can be where I am today. Individuals like Lydia Munoz, Peggy Anastos, Mildred Crump, Margarita Muniz, Tiffany Williams, Michelle Obama, Justice Sotomayor, Delores Huerta,  and so many more. They are not only trailblazers but continue to give back to their communities in a variety of different ways. They are not afraid of hard work and making sacrifices in order to make an impact.

I am very intentional about making time to hear or read about their journey and the lessons they learned along the way. My father always said you can learn something from anyone; everyone has a story. What I am most grateful for is the opportunity the Lord has given me to inspire others, especially our youth. I am inspired by the young men and women I meet every day and how resilient they are. They remind me of why the work that I do is so important and how I must continue to advocate for their future through my work at the State and my nonprofit.

FRNJ-La Prensa: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Sara Peña: Grow spiritually and professionally, where I can continue to break down barriers, stereotypes and impact lives on a national level. Michelle Obama once said: “For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”

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