In 2016, when Natasha Lopez-Rodriguez ran the financial education program at the YWCA of Metropolitan Phoenix, she received a call from an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer on behalf of the YWCA in Mankato who was researching the program Lopez-Rodriguez helped to spearhead.
“They were doing research for Barb Dorn — the previous executive director — about the program,” Lopez-Rodriguez said. “What are the odds that I would end up as an employee here?”
It was only three years later that Lopez-Rodriguez accepted the offer to take over the reins as the Mankato YWCA executive director after Dorn resigned in 2018.
Born in Massachusetts, Lopez-Rodriguez spent the bulk of her childhood in Puerto Rico where she graduated high school, returning to the U.S. mainland to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. That experience stuck with her, even after she transferred to Arizona State University to finish her communications degree to be closer to her parents, who had since moved there from Puerto Rico.
Lopez-Rodriguez worked for several Phoenix nonprofits before joining the YWCA in Phoenix. She said her family’s experience in Puerto Rico had a strong impact on her and played a role in her becoming an advocate for free financial planning classes, a program she hopes to implement in Mankato. She said life in Puerto Rico didn’t turn out the way her parents had expected — jobs were scarce even for the well-educated, and wages were significantly lower.
“They never made it back to that financial status that they had before,” Lopez-Rodriguez said. “It was a leap of faith. Just from their struggles, I learned that you’ve got to be really careful in how to manage your finances.”
As director of financial education at the Phoenix YWCA, Lopez-Rodriguez taught financial literacy to people of all ages, at no cost. Classes ranged from budgeting and savings to understanding the stock market and home ownership. She envisions the potential for a similar program in Mankato.
“It’s something that can totally be done and a lot of the funding sources for these types of programs are already built through the banks,” Lopez-Rodriguez said. “They have what is known as community resource dollars, that’s the funding that supported the program (in Phoenix). That could be piloted with a small class to see if it’s feasible.”
Since starting as executive director of the Mankato YWCA in late August, Lopez-Rodriguez has hit the ground running, getting to know local volunteers, donors and potential partners. As she and her staff prepare for the 2020 budget, she hopes to strengthen the partnerships the YWCA has with other Mankato-area nonprofits, and to build on the Mankato YWCA’s mission of empowering women and girls and ending racism.
Laura Stevens, who is in charge of donor relations at the Mankato YWCA and served as interim executive director, said Lopez-Rodriguez has no shortage of innovative ideas on expanding the nonprofit’s reach in the community.
“She had a lot of really good ideas right off the bat,” Stevens said. “She’s interested in collaborating with other organizations in town — what can we do to partner with others that are doing similar work. Together we can make a bigger impact. We’re excited to have a woman of color in the leadership position as the executive director of the Mankato YWCA.”
Lopez-Rodriguez said each YWCA has a unique mission. While the YWCA in Phoenix focused on seniors and financial education, Mankato’s YWCA is devoted to working with immigrants and refugees, and runs programs for girls of multiple age groups. As she and her staff set the budget for 2020, they have a number of signature events already on the calendar.
Some of those events include forums and discussions about race in February. The Women of Distinction Ceremony, which recognizes local women for their leadership roles and positive impacts on the community, is already scheduled for April. The Girls on the Run 5k takes place in May, and the next Women’s Leadership Conference is scheduled for November 2020.
One program Lopez-Rodriguez is immersing herself in is the Elizabeth Kearney Women’s Leadership Program, a 10-month gender-specific course that covers everything from identifying personal strengths to community building.
“I’m currently going through the class with the participants so I can learn what’s being offered in the community,” Lopez-Rodriguez said. “This past month was all about civic engagement — so running for city council, and learning about the government system to starting an advocacy group.”
Along with working with immigrant and refugee families to prepare young children for kindergarten, Lopez-Rodriguez said the YWCA is looking toward integrating its racial justice mission with the other programs offered.
“We want to embed it into the girls programming, New American Families and our women’s leadership programs,” she said.
Stevens said she’s been impressed with Lopez-Rodriguez’s positive, solution-based approach to leading the Mankato YWCA since she arrived in Mankato, and her ability to take challenges in stride.
“The mission of the YWCA is not easy work,” Stevens said. “We have a lot of supporters and the community is behind us, but it’s a still tough mission. I’m impressed with Natasha’s ability to handle things. It feels good to have her on staff. The YWCA is in a good place.”