Thanking Ana Ventura Phares for 25 Years of Service in Santa Cruz County

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Author: Emily Rangel NPC intern California State University Monterey Bay Student CHHS program

Ana Ventura Phares recently retired as Executive Director (ED) of Catholic Charities on August 27th, 2021. Ana has dedicated over 30 years of service to the Central Coast and her story of how she came to serve the community is inspiring. Coming from a migrant family who traveled alongside her father, an agricultural worker, Ana recalls moving during different seasons up to 6th grade. Her family spent the lettuce season in the Salinas/ Watsonville area and winter seasons in the Imperial Valley. During 7th grade, her family permanently settled in Watsonville, which is her hometown. 

Driven to serve her community, Ana graduated from Santa Clara University and pursued a law degree in San Diego. Ana shared her experience of passing the California Bar Exam; she admits the difficulty she faced having to take it several times but shares her family’s role and the encouragement to not give up. Her father, always supportive, compared the Bar Exam to the Olympics and explained how it was an honor to participate in the experience. Her fathers’ attitude brought her ease and encouraged Ana to continue her studies. At the same time, Ana’s mother showed more concern about passing the Bar Exam and encouraged Ana to study at home alongside her family. Inspired by her mother, Ana returned to Watsonville to study and attend a retreat. She recalls the last day of her retreat; her parents came to join her at the retreat with her Bar exam results, revealing she had passed! Since Ana has been a speaker at many career fairs, how she passes the Bar exam tends to be students’ favorite story to hear. She encourages students to discover their talents and not give up. 

The events that follow began Ana’s approach to serve her community.  After passing the bar in 1989, she began her journey in Monterey County at California Rural Legal Assistance in Salinas as an attorney for five years. Her primary work included being an advocate for farm workers and other low-income workers. Ana explained her role as having three parts as an advocate. The first is the legal role of representing workers in hearings. The second role is an educator, educating workers of their rights in the areas of education, housing, medical care, and unemployment. The last position is the political role as an advocate for the unrepresented community, speaking on their behalf and advocating for rights and responsibilities including having a radio show in Spanish. During her time in Salinas, she also served as one of the plaintiffs in a voting rights case in Monterey County.  It is there where she learned how to become active with other civic-minded lawyers and others to promote fair representation for communities traditionally without a voice at the polls. 

In 1994, following her work as an attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance in Salinas, Ana got an analyst position for Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO). She shared that she found out about this work through the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which published an article revealing that the current EEO officer was stepping down due to the lack of diversity and fairness. Ana is passionate about diversity, equality, and being respectfully (or and)  inclusive of all people; this inspired her to apply for the position since there was an opportunity for improvement. She began her role as an analyst and moved up to the EEO officer position a year and a half later. Her role as EEO Officer included enforcing the Civil Rights act 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act and encouraging diversity. As an EEO Officer, she made sure the workplace was a respectful environment for all workers and collaborated with all the departments to develop EEO and ADA plans to enhance diversity and better serve the community.  Additionally, she ensured the groups were representative or at least aware of the communities being served and worked to create reasonable accommodations for employees and others. Ana served Santa Cruz County in this role for 21 years.  During this time, Ana also served as a poll worker and inspector in various precincts in Pajaro Valley.  

Ana also had a chance to speak on behalf of migrant education alongside MAIA Education Foundation; she highlighted the importance of migrant education and how the children had greater potential than what was expected of them during that time. Ana recognizes that this is still ongoing, and there is room for improvement in many of the fields of advocacy for migrant families, workers, and children. 

Another chapter in Ana’s life was her role in the City Council. She was the first Mexican American woman appointed to the Council in 1998. At that time, she and her husband were raising their two young children but with the support of her husband and her mom, they decided it was an important time to run.  She shares one of her main goals: to bring a diversity of people to represent the community served. Highlights include serving as the co-chair for Action Pajaro Valley for the visioning of a 30-year growth management plan, working with Pajaro Valley School District and others to advocate for the approval of  Pajaro Valley High School, and collaborating with the County to build the Watsonville Civic Plaza and Library. She explained the importance of having another high school and establishing a library that provides a study place for students. Ana values education and the library was a chance to provide resources to students. Ana was also very supportive of bringing Cabrillo to downtown Watsonville. Additionally, Ana shares excitement for the agricultural research center in the library, which was later implemented on the library’s second floor, and gathered research on the history of agriculture workers in Watsonville. Ana reflects on the good work done by the City of Watsonville staff, including the slough trails, bridges, housing, recreation center expansion, and community safety with our police and fire departments.  

While in the City Council, Ana served on many boards. Prior to the Council, Ana served on the Library and the Planning Commission. She encourages participation on boards for anyone who wants to lend their talents for a specific mission. Boards are a chance for City Council members, nonprofit members, and others including business owners to come together and collaborate to improve the quality of life for the community. Collaboration helps create new ideas and projects; a City Council member can also help support nonprofit organizations since coming together establishes a stronger voice. In addition to the City Council, Ana served on the Dominican Hospital Board for 7 years, the United Way of Santa Cruz County for 6 years, and  Catholic Charities Board for 8 years before becoming the Executive Director for 3 years before retiring at the end of August.

Ana has done a great job at serving her community for the last 30 years. Congressman Jimmy Panetta recognized her in the House of Representatives on August 25th, 2021; See attached images below to read Jimmy Panetta’s speech in honoring Ana Ventura Phares and her many years of service. This speech also recognizes all her achievements throughout the years.  

Although Ana has retired to spend time with her father, she remains active in the community; on October 7th, she will be speaking at the “Women in Leadership” event, sponsored by the  Santa Cruz County Women’s Commission and League of  Women Voters of Santa Cruz County. This event is to recruit women, specifically women of color, to “take action and ensure there are diverse women in leadership”. If you are interested in seeing her speech alongside other women who have been or are in elected office, learn more about the event HERE

While we celebrate and thank Ana for all she has done for the community, she would like to thank and recognize the support of her husband Joe. He has been supportive of her along with every career opportunity, project, and campaign while he worked full time as well. Additionally, she is thankful for his help raising two children; Ana emphasizes the importance of having a family nearby, and the strength one gets from their spirituality and support.

Thank you, Ana, for your many years of service and for taking the time to be interviewed.  

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Nonprofit Connection Santa Cruz County is a 501(c)3 corporation, Federal Tax ID# 87-2130376