Elsa P. Chagolla wears a flowered black mid-length dress, black cardigan and her hair pulled back. She sits inside a cozy office off of Alvarado Street in MacArthur Park.
Chagolla has held leadership positions at several organizations but her passion for education and the community steered her back to working directly with people. She has been Inquilinos Unidos’ executive director since January 23, 2015.
Chagolla comes from a working class neighborhood in Whittier. Her mother wanted her to attend better schools so they moved to Walnut while she was in middle school.
“My mom doesn’t speak English; she’s an immigrant from Mexico. And just, sort of, seeing the way sometimes people viewed her or her own experience with the types of jobs she had and the opportunities she had. Maybe I became interested in social issues because of that.”
Because of her experience she wanted to work with the immigrant community.
“Mostly, these are groups that are marginalized and don’t have a strong, unified voice.”
Her degree in sociology from University of California, Berkeley was not enough to steer her in the right direction. At first she thought about becoming a lawyer so she interned for one.
“He was like, ‘You’re too nice! Don’t become a lawyer.”
Instead, she decided to complement her education with a Master of Science in Public Policy from the University of Southern California, which would allow her to pursue systemic changes. After graduating, Chagolla worked at the federal level for the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. but missed working directly with the community – so she moved back to Los Angeles.
Before landing at Inquilinos Unidos, Chagolla did philanthropy work for Roll Global LLC. But she knew she wanted to try being executive director at a community based organization focused on Latino issues. The Inquilinos Unidos board of directors and Chagolla saw eye-to-eye – it was a match.
“There’s no one doing organizing or supporting residents in this area and I think that’s why we’re so unique. We get about 10 to 15 people who call or come in everyday and then at our clinic we get about 20 people a week.”
They have a varied approach, something Chagolla speaks about with a smile.
“A lot of it is word-of-mouth and the door-to-door does help, especially if we’re in this community … They’ve heard of us and I think that says a lot about the organization’s integrity.”
When she thinks back on her career, Chagolla recounts it with pride.
“I’ve always followed what I’m really passionate about … that has made me happy and it’s where my passion lies and I like to come to work.”
But that’s not the end of the line.
“I think we need more people who care about trying to improve living conditions and social justice issues. There’s always so much more that can be done.”
Her plan for this year is to help Inquilinos Unidos’ staff size grow and continue to empower low-income families.