Cardina Esparza


Cardina has 20 years of experience in the non-profit sector developing cross-sector initiatives that respond to the changing needs of communities—particularly youth and communities of color. As a Program Manager at Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, Cardina oversees diversity and intercultural services assisting organizations and leaders with: increasing skills in everyday cross cultural interactions, utilizing tools for successfully dealing with topics of diversity in the workplace, and facilitating planning that clarifies a vision to build inclusion and equity.

Cardina was gracious enough to meet with me after a brisk walk around Lake of the Isles in late March. She is a force of nature, full of wit, wonder and wisdom, with a healthy dose of the wild – probably present in the DNA of most of us Latinos.

Q: Let’s spotlight a typical day for you at work?
A: I don’t think I have a typical day. Inside of my workplace I am consistently looked to and requested for my skills in facilitating critical conversations and planning processes. I can move easily between facilitating a two hour strategic planning session with program leaders at Wilder, then back to my office to continue with my work in developing a new area focused on training in dimensions of diversity and intercultural competence. This work could include anything from developing curriculums, designing training or just organizing a cultural competence module for clients.

Q: Back to the strategic planning sessions, who is at the table?
A: Usually I work with cross functional teams, one or two Vice Presidents’, as well as directors of program areas, and colleagues who understand finance or operationalizing the implementation with our direct service staff who are in the trenches with people in the community.

Q: And your role as facilitator?
A: As the facilitator of a workgroup I make sure the group does their best thinking together with a process in place to capture each step or set up the conditions for cross pollinating program expertise. At the same time I think about where the human connections need to happen and where the tactical items can be inserted. So this means I think through the meeting(s) ahead of time and design the agenda accordingly.

Q: It sounds critical to possess keen communication skills in your work.
A: I may need to manage dialogue during a meeting so that both indirect and direct styles of communication are welcomed in the process. I also work really hard to help participants consider all perspectives. In the case of leadership, some perspectives can be missed around what actually makes for diverse thought, so my role includes inviting the right mix to the table. I also have to manage a balance of voices being heard, especially if we have twelve other people in the room.

Q: Do you think skills like in-tuning body language are innate or can they be learned?
A: Probably a combination of both. In my case, I’m extremely good at what I do. I’ve worked with people in a host of different settings as a facilitator and a trainer. As a trainer I do a lot of work with people around how to work across different communications styles particularly how to look for more information when something is not being said and how to be adaptive towards more emotive styles.

Q: Does gender play a role, one being better with communication skills than the other?
A: I definitely think there are differences across gender in the way in which we communicate. Having a certain role in the family may put a woman at an advantage, depending on what the roll entailed. I’ve also noted that people who have to communicate in different languages are very good at reading non-verbal cues as well as reading different dynamics between people. Maybe it’s part of a survival mechanism adapted early on, but it’s also something a person can be trained on or coached to develop.

Q: How do you help colleagues deepen their skills?
A: One approach I use is providing a framework like the Intercultural Conflict Styles Inventory that describes how culture shapes our communication styles and our ways of expressing emotion. (The Intercultural Conflict Styles Inventory ® An Innovative Tool for Resolving Conflicts Across Cultural Boundaries, After grounding a group in a tool like the ICS I have people work on exercises outside of the meeting so they are actually practicing a different form of communicating that is effective in bridging across cultural patterns of difference in communication.

Q: How is your work influenced by your values?
A: I value relationships and being in good relationships. In starting a plan or convening a new group I focus a lot of my time and energy on that aspect of the work. I also think about the value of integrity and that really influences my work. The way I approach my work, but also who I want to work with and who I want to challenge. The Wilder Foundation itself has core values and within those core values are our guiding principles.

Q: Do you think Wilder folks are always aware of the Foundation’s core values and guiding principles or do they sometimes forget?
A: I think we all, including myself, have to be reminded. While it’s good to have them etched into the side of our main building facade, along with posters throughout the Wilder center, people need reminders both visually and in small settings, like work teams. Subsequent to that, both leaders and co-workers need to be in tune with how to model and how to point out when it’s time to re-calibrate, re-center ourselves and think about what it means to be responsive, what it means to be innovative. We are getting better at providing employees more experiences where they have to reflect on “How are the Foundation’s core values showing up or not enough in our work?”.

Q: Does being a woman of color impact the way you lead?
A: I think my experience as a woman of color growing up in an urban setting within a big city has made me adaptable and resilient. I grew up in South Minneapolis in areas that could, at the time, be considered the equivalent of war zones. I think I’m also ready for a good fight, and it’s hard to reckon with that. I sometimes look for a good fight and I’m not talking about physical fighting.

Q: Elaborate on looking for the good fight.
A: I grew up believing that a true friend or ally or partner is someone who is ready to fight with me, fight for me and fight on behalf of what I believe in. The other piece I have to reckon with is my experience growing up as an urbanite in a densely populated area – South Minneapolis – with a highly mobile population and low income typically, which was also (and continues to be) an innovative community. Having to survive has made me highly adaptable and resilient, but I was also always on guard. I can be very territorial, and that’s another voice that reminds me, “Oh, okay that is a part of who I am”. You did have to fight physically, you had to hold your ground, or stand on your stoop and yell as a way to claim your space. It felt like it was about my people’s survival.

Q: We carry a lot of artifacts from childhood, do you think hanging on to them is what has helped us survive?
A: Yes. I’m in a large non-profit that has historically been run by White men. Their code of conduct is normed on White values and cultural ways of being so it can be a challenge to navigate institutional practices and behaviors that are less flexible towards who I am. Those “artifacts” can show up in many different settings.

Q: Do you draw from that deep well of strength and fire in your daily work?
A: Yes, otherwise I might become compliant and by default become associated with promoting values and behaviors that aren’t actually mine.

Q: What could our Latino community do better to support the work you are doing?
A: I think overall we need to invest more, not just in studying problems or issues, but invest more in actually following the lead of people who are on the front lines. We have to be okay with not having a high number or increasing our outcomes, rather let’s stay focused on the critical work that’s going to keep our own community thriving. If we really pay attention to the people working on the issues we’re trying to improve, we may get a lot more done. We also need to look at what has been co-created across different sectors. Sometimes people can become territorial (something I can relate to) and stake their claims too deeply as in, “this is my industry, I know my industry best”. It can be frustrating to try and convince someone to bring other people along who may work in a completely different industry, but we need people to actually listen and just take peoples length of experience into play. I’m not saying to throw out research, but I think we’ve done enough research around some of the key issues.

Q: Where are we hitting the speed bumps?
A: It’s been challenging in this current economy for funders to continue to fund the array of things that they may have funded five years ago. Their own resources have been reduced, their investments may not be where they need to be due to losses — this is what I’m hearing – just locally. When people are regularly working with fewer and fewer resources, they’ve already adapted and become very attuned as to what to focus on. So let’s listen to the people on the front lines and follow through..

Q: Do you engage in public speaking opportunities or sit on panels at conferences?
A: I do present at conferences, it’s part of what I do, but I have a specific content area. Mostly I develop workshop content and curriculums and I work with an entire team that facilitates leadership training.

For LatinoLEAD members who have not had the opportunity to meet Cardina, please seek her out at our next meeting and you’ll be charmed by her humor and wit. I want to hear more about her childhood, standing on her stoop, and yelling!