A Latina born into an immigrant family, Michelle Vilchez was raised with an attitude of gratitude. She grew up serving her community, and as executive director of the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center (PCRC), she positively impacts countless lives. PCRC facilitates communication between diverse communities in order to solve complex issues like community policing and the far-reaching effects of the pandemic. Michelle’s leadership strength lies in her ability to forge meaningful relationships with other organizations and creating strategic partnerships with them. She helped shape the strategic plan for San Mateo County First 5 — formerly Children & Families First Commission, launched a violence prevention network and supported the creation of the Fatherhood Collaborative in San Mateo County. She is currently a W.K. Kellogg fellow working with other exceptional leaders to find ways to address our nation’s biggest challenges. In 2016, Michelle was named Woman of the Year by the California State Assembly for her dedication to creating better communities for all.

What’s your first memory of giving back to the community when you were growing up?

My parents were farmworkers. My father tells me stories of implicit racism that he experienced as an immigrant in the South or other places. There were signs saying “No Mexicans and No Dogs Allowed.” He talks about when he was in school and if they were caught speaking Spanish, they were spanked by school officials. They were not allowed to use the restrooms in the school facility and had to go outside in bushes. It was just really hard growing up. 

This attitude of gratitude for what we have and the sacrifices that were made are such a critical part of my growing up. After my father’s family finally settled in California, he decided to go into ministry. He felt giving to his community, especially those coming from Latin American countries, was about connecting resources and faith to those families. He backed that with acts of service and acts of giving food and shelter and employment. He continues to this day at the age of 75. My mom has since passed away. The two of them really dedicated their lives to constantly giving to the community. 

How did your upbringing influence your career path in community service?

My father was constantly giving anything we had to someone else. When you’re a teenager, it’s difficult, but later on, you understand those are the values your parents are training you with to understand that this doesn’t only belong to me. It’s what can I do for my community, and how can I be in service to it? Growing up, I knew I was going to work in community service somehow, so I studied psychology and cross-cultural education, understanding my connection to my community. 

Early on, I was certain I would be working with young people in particular. And some of my earlier positions were about assisting pregnant teens. I then began working for the health department, and I’ll just be honest with you, I could not see myself working long term in any type of government organization. It didn’t allow for the flexibility of meeting the need with service the way I understood it was needed. I went back into nonprofit and decided it was less about just serving one given population. How could I really be of service to all community? I never imagined that I was going to be an executive director or leader of a nonprofit.

What does being a successful leader mean to you?

Recently success has been about the ability to stay humble and understand where my failures are and learn from them. I want to be able to fail and learn from it and decide, yeah, I’m not going to do that again. I’ve been an executive director now for over a decade, and I think back to my early years, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I made the most stupidest decisions ever in my life. Why did I do that?” I’ll tell you, I certainly have learned from them. I learned how to build consensus and buy-in around particular issues. 

For me, a successful leader is someone who really leads by example and is quick to acknowledge when they’ve been wrong and is humble enough to say help me through this because I can’t do it alone, or I don’t know how to do this. I think a successful leader means that you surround yourself with talented, brilliant individuals, and then you utilize them. I’m just as strong as the phenomenal individuals that I’ve surrounded myself with and have chosen to be really close and at the helm to lead with me.

When did you first feel like you met your definition of being a leader?

I’ve been with PCRC for 20 years now and have been the executive director for 11 of those. Before that, I was serving as the managing director and associate director over programs and services. It’s interesting because I really felt like at that point I was a leader working together to build the leadership of others. 

Everyday I ask myself the question, how can I be a better leader today? Everyday I strive to be better because the organization deserves it.

When I was accepted to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Center for Creative Leadership fellowship, that’s when I really felt like a leader. I looked around at 79 other leaders from across the nation who do powerful work, and I asked myself, “Do I even belong here?” In recognizing my surroundings, I was so honored to identify, “Wow, I guess I do.” 

As a Latina leader, how does your background help you create change within the community?

In my leadership progression, I didn’t have a whole lot of Latina elders around me. I think that has impacted me greatly because I don’t want that to be the case for other Latina leaders. I want to do all that I can to support them and others in their trajectory of leadership. I want to share my bumps and bruises and how I got them. I want to be a sounding board more than anything. Being at the helm of an organization is a very lonely place to be. It’s very stressful, and then being a person of color makes you feel more isolated. 

Leaders of color represent less than 6% of the 4,000 plus nonprofits in San Mateo County. We show up in a room of nonprofit leaders and there might be one or two of us in a room of 200. Layer that on the fact that we already feel alone or marginalized, because we’re not the staff that we’re responsible for, and we’re not the board, we’re in this middle ground. I want to help in any way I can to ensure others have a different type of experience, one that is surrounded with support, appreciation, and is a safe environment to share and be vulnerable.

What does the Peninsula Conflict and Resolution Center (PCRC) do?

We are an alternative dispute resolution organization focused on conflict and communication. We believe we can advance equity through good process. We’re not aligned with any given topic. We engage those who need to be engaged, those who are going to be impacted by a particular decision being made and ensure good, equitable process that feels welcoming.

What is PCRC’s approach to dealing with conflict?

Conflict is everywhere, and it’s inevitable. Clearly, all we need to do is turn on the news and open social media, and we see that conflict is all around. That means PCRC is applicable anywhere conflict is. PCRC’s approach to conflict is about identifying the issues behind what is being shown. It’s about communication. When you think about community violence and what’s happening even today, the need for racial reconciliation, or the need for reconciliation amongst community and law enforcement, what are the issues behind that?

We believe our approach to dealing with conflict is meeting the parties where they’re at, ensuring the right individuals who need to be involved in the process are engaged and that the process is an equitable one.

How can violence be addressed safely in the community?

Violence is often what we see as a result of conflict. Violence takes on so many forms in the community and relationships between municipalities and in the community themselves, neighbors. If we can address the conflict, we are going to be able to mitigate the violence. 

Unfortunately, we’re not all given the ability to learn how to de-escalate and still address the conflict in a healthy nonviolent way. That’s why conflict resolution needs to be taught in schools. We need to teach our kindergarteners to utilize words and understand the impact of actions and take responsibility. 

What have some of PCRC’s biggest highlights been under your leadership?

A few years ago, there was a deputy-involved shooting in a coastal community Pescadero, CA. There was a deputy who responded to a 9-1-1 call. As a result, a young immigrant woman with special needs lost her life. The community was in outrage, rightly so. The Sheriff’s Office, city officials, and other nonprofit leaders called PCRC to facilitate a series of community conversations and dialogues around allowing the community to vent.

The best part about it was they trusted us with the process. We brought the community together in a number of conversations. The result at the end of the day was the district attorney decided not to press charges on the deputy. As you can imagine, that was even more difficult to be able to engage and hear the stories. It didn’t make for easy or comfortable conversations, but it was important. The role we had to play was critical. No one else could have done it the way we did to come into a place of vulnerability and such despair and fear and be able to work through it, not find a solution for it, but work through it. 

In what ways has PCRC been able to help the community during the pandemic and recent calls for racial justice?

After the shelter-in-place orders, we held webinars on COVID-19 and engaged thousands of individuals across the internet. We’ve been adaptable, nimble and flexible. As the pandemic hit, we jumped into action, and we figured out how we can tailor what we’re doing to the circumstances. An emergency happens, and we tailor what we do.

The work we’re doing right now around racial reconciliation, racial justice is standing true to the process and engaging the public. We’re working with countless cities, and we’re engaging the public on this issue and hearing from them. When you’re involved in a high-conflict situation, the first thing you want to do is be heard. You want to feel validated that your experience is valuable to hear and that your perspective is being honored and not negated. This is not always easy, but it’s important for us to do.

How is PCRC able to support change in community policing on the Peninsula?

If we don’t address it now together collaboratively, it’s going to resurface again. We’re not advocating for particular policing changes. We want to hear from the community so those who are responsible can make informed decisions and not decisions in isolation. It’s engaging the public who are ultimately impacted and especially those who are traditionally not involved in these types of processes. Certain segments of the community feel like their documentation status and their lack of understanding of how to navigate city council public comment sessions can be a barrier to their engagement. Or, they’ve been engaged in the past, and nothing happened as a result. That’s also another way where the community starts to feel hesitant to continue to talk out.

Congratulations on being honored as Woman of the Year in 2016 by the California State Assembly. What work were you being honored for and how did it feel to receive the award?

Assemblymember Kevin Mullin and I have known each other for many years. In 2010, at the time he was being sworn in as the mayor of the city of South San Francisco, there were a number of shootings that took place and five young people lost their lives to gang violence. He brought PCRC in, and we conducted a huge strategic planning process with the community and developed a South San Francisco strategic plan to mitigate youth violence. We engaged over 50 organizations and the school district law enforcement and, of course, city council. I didn’t know it was such a big deal until I found myself at the California State Assembly. I downplay it because it makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but I’m very grateful and very honored to have been selected amongst so many individuals across California who were honored. 

As a fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Center for Creative Leadership, what initiatives are you working on and how is the fellowship helping you grow as a leader?

We are focusing our attention right now on how to utilize relationship building and dialogue to heal communities who are experiencing racial tension.  Everything I’m learning fits perfectly within my own work at PCRC. I am with powerful individuals from different states as part of my cohort. I couldn’t be happier given what’s happening right now. What an opportunity for learning.

What has it been like for you to juggle family and lead PCRC during the pandemic?

The problem with working at home is that your days start to extend and blur into each other. My husband and I have four children, and my husband is in community engagement as well. He worked from home already so we’ve completely invaded his space. I think that self-care is a big issue I need to address because I’m constantly meeting the needs of others within my family, the organization, or the community.

I’m very grateful to the organization for their understanding of the needs of my family. I think it’s one of the values that we’ve tried to share with our employees is that your family does matter and does come first. 

Do you have any advice for our youth who are adapting to virtual schooling and other unexpected changes during these times?

Tell somebody if you’re struggling. Talk to somebody. During the spring, there was one day my youngest just couldn’t be on Zoom anymore. She was outside, and she broke down. She was crying and was like, “I’m so done with this.” She is immune-compromised. So we’re very mindful of who she’s around. We don’t want our young people to struggle in silence. 

What positives have you seen come out of the pandemic shut down?

I have heard stories from other nonprofits who were forced to be innovative in a state of emergency. It gives us the opportunity to grow and see things from a different perspective. Had we not been adaptive we would have just conducted business as usual and then we would lose out on that innovation and creativity. The team has stepped up completely. 

What is your self-care routine and why is it important?

The biggest thing is my faith. That’s where I get my hope from. It’s not about hope in myself or in what my abilities are. It’s understanding there’s a greater purpose in mind. That’s what has kept me in this work for 20 plus years, an understanding of it’s for a bigger goal. But my faith is what holds me and what continues to be my northern star through all of what we are enduring together.

By Eva Barrows