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‘Justice for Communities of Color’: Amber Gonzales-Vargas ’15 on Inspiring Change

March 1, 2021

The November 2020 election season is not one that anyone will forget. It was an exhausting period that brought many first-time voters and more people paying attention to the voting process. Berkeley alum Amber Gonzales-Vargas ’15 was meant for this.

Gonzales-Vargas is the senior program manager for the Latino Community Foundation, the largest donor network in the country. She oversees the Latino Giving Circle Network, which—with more than 500 members—is the largest philanthropic movement in California led by Latinos. “It’s about tapping into our own cultural strengths and utilizing them to not only invest in Latino-led nonprofits, but also learn what it means to provide change and not charity.”

“I’m helping my family—that’s what it feels like.”

As a high schooler in Stockton, she wanted to be an agent for change and jumped at any opportunity to serve her community. She was a Rotary International member, volunteered to register people to vote in 2008, and helped raise funds for her high school. Additionally, she helped people through the entire voting process in 2020, working to highlight Latinx diversity and dispel the myth that Latinx people are single-issue voters.

Gonzales-Vargas applied to several schools, including University of the Pacific, the local university in Stockton. Ultimately, she chose Cal for the challenge of building a network from scratch. She worked with UC Berkeley’s LEAD (Leadership, Engagement, Advising, and Development) Center, taking action for social and racial justice, and double majored in political economy and French with a minor in global poverty and practice. Then in 2014, a Black Lives Matter protest took place at Cal. “I remember, in the middle of [the protest], texting my boss [at the LEAD Center], ‘We have to do something.’” Gonzales-Vargas saw the protest turn from peaceful to something unsettling. Tanks, SWAT vehicles, and police in riot gear descended on campus, and mayhem broke out. The events of that day forced her to look at her own life.

The Latino Community Foundation team at the annual Latino Giving Circle Network Retreat, hosted on campus at International House. Courtesy of Amber Gonzales-Vargas.
She has always been civically inclined, and considers helping her grandmother learn English for her US citizenship test as a five-year-old as her first civic duty. She is a first-generation Peruvian American whose parents came to the US in the early 1990s. Her parents, while learning to navigate the school system, advocated for her enrollment in the school’s Gifted and Talented Education program and fought against redistricting plans that would impact the quality of her education.

After graduating from Cal, Gonzales-Vargas started working at the Latino Community Foundation. “The thing that guided me forward then is the same thing guiding me forward now—the pursuit of justice for communities of color,” she reflects. The future of California depends on investing in Latinx youth: “54 percent of schoolchildren in California are Latinx,” she explains. “If we’re not investing in these young people and their families, we’re doing a disservice to all Californians. I’m helping my family—that’s what it feels like.”