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ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: First Latina to lead United Way of Kern County says it's all about education


Mari Pérez-Dowling is the first Latina to head the United Way of Kern County.

Alumni Engagement Specialist

Mari Pérez-Dowling has been a teacher her entire adult life, including in high school classrooms, on the radio and within the guarded gates of a correctional facility for women.

And so it’s no surprise that education is at the heart of her strategy to boost fundraising and community engagement, especially with the Hispanic community, as the new interim president and CEO of the United Way of Kern County.

She wants to teach other organizations how to collaborate with the United Way, potential new corporate donors how they can give back, and first-generation Hispanics how to donate and volunteer for United Way-funded programs.

“The hearts we want to tap into are those grandpas at the house who can say (to themselves, their children and grandchildren), ‘You know what? Let’s help that organization. Because when we came to this country, they were the ones who helped us,’” Pérez-Dowling said.

Tapping the Hispanic community for support was one of the key goals laid out for Pérez-Dowling, a CSUB alumna, when she was hired as director of marketing and development at the United Way seven months ago. Then a few months into that job she was offered the interim president/CEO position from the board of directors.

Pérez-Dowling is the first Latina to hold the position.  With the oil industry cutting back financial support, many United Way Workplace-Giving campaigns going dormant and the Hispanic community long going unreached, she says, “there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Pérez-Dowling, her mother and siblings moved to Porterville from Mexicali, Baja California, México when she was 13, joining her father, who worked as a logging truck driver.  She went to Porterville High School, quickly embracing the high school spirit she saw portrayed in Hollywood movies.

“I loved wearing uniforms, I joined Marching Band, played clarinet. I loved school,” Pérez-Dowling said.

The rules at home, where she was one of seven children, were to work hard, be clean, dress decently, study and show pride.  Her family sometimes struggled financially and relied on programs that she’s sure received United Way support, but she felt rich with hope and opportunity.

“I thought, ‘We don’t have a lot of money in the bank, but we’re not poor, we are pretty wealthy!’” she remembered.

Pérez-Dowling went on to San Diego State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish language and literature in 1994, and then moved to Bakersfield.

Over the next year she got married, had a daughter, Monica, and son, Sebastian, and earned both another bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential at CSUB, launching her education career.

Pérez-Dowling taught Spanish and ESL at Wasco High and Stockdale High schools for a few years, then moved on to FIELD- Farmworker Institute for Education, a nonprofit founded by Cesar Chavez, developing curriculum for ESL classes for farmworkers and overseeing some of its education sites.

Radio Campesina Network, the voice of The Cesar Chavez Foundation, then hired her to produce and host a daily educational morning show, “Punto de Vista,” broadcast in nine stations on the West Coast. She tackled topics that included health, education, immigration, women’s issues and politics.

“I wasn’t teaching only one classroom anymore, I was teaching half a million people a day,” she said.

When the radio station moved to Phoenix, the UFW Foundation brought her on board to develop and teach English and naturalization-preparation courses for farmworkers. She estimates helping naturalize more than 200 people.

“To this day I still get calls from my old students thanking me for helping them and asking me to open new classes for their friends,” Pérez-Dowling said.

Following marketing and communications positions at Bright House Networks and Univision, she returned to teaching, this time women in their last 18 months of incarceration at the Female Community Reentry Facility in McFarland.  She taught everything from algebra to writing, and then helped them enroll in college.

She loved teaching women who really wanted to be in school.

“What an experience,” she said. “I was in tears the moment I saw them in their caps and gowns.”

Teaching in prison was stressful, and so when a friend recommended she apply for a marketing and development position at United Way, she did – and got the job.  She instantly fell in love with the organization; on her first day she wore white as if she were marrying it.

About six months later Hodson resigned and the board of directors offered Pérez-Dowling the job of interim president/ CEO.  A woman of faith, Pérez-Dowling feels she’s been divinely guided into the role.

“Somebody up there is watching me and I’m just following the signs,” she said.