Denise Herrera found her passion years ago, but it wasn’t until recently that it created a path back home to New Mexico.
In May, the Con Alma Health Foundation, based out of Santa Fe, announced that it had hired Herrera to replace its outgoing executive director Dolores E. Roybal, who had been with the organization for 15 years. The Con Alma Health Foundation aims to level the playing field when it comes to accessing and getting quality health care.
“I really like philanthropy because it feels like something bigger than myself,” Herrera said. “I believe all people have a right to a healthful life. Health care should be for everybody.”
Herrera said she has been careful not to come in and try to change everything. Instead she wants to improve upon the work of her predecessor and use what is already in place.
“I want to let communities tell their own stories and come up with their own solutions,” she said. “That’s important.”
Herrera grew up in the South Valley, which she said made her very aware of life’s inequities. She herself came from a loving home with parents who provided for her and made sure she had access to good schools and adequate health care. She started the Herrera Internship Endowment at the National Hispanic Cultural Center to honor her parents Yolanda and Fred Herrera. The endowment provides scholarships to Hispanic female students who complete an internship at the center.
Not everyone around her had the same experience.
“My motivation comes from really not everybody had the same access to what I did,” she said. “Health care is so important. If you are not healthy, you can’t work. If you can’t work, you can’t have adequate housing.”
Herrera began her career working for the New Mexico Department of Health and went on to work for the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas-Austin before landing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey. She left that job in 2017 to work for the St. David’s Foundation before returning to New Mexico.
“One thing that brought me back to New Mexico is I’m hoping I can apply what I’ve learned in other states that are doing well,” she said.
The foundation conducted a nationwide search. Deborah Walker, chairwoman of the search committee and president of the foundation’s board of trustees, said Herrera is charismatic, bright and driven, and was the ideal candidate. She said the search committee wanted to find someone with foundation experience who would continue the work started by Roybal. They also wanted someone with a knowledge and appreciation of New Mexico.
“We didn’t want someone to use this job as a stepping stone,” Walker said. “Denise was looking for a path back.”
Greg Webb knew Herrera when she worked for the state’s health department. He said he has followed her career and knew she would eventually return home.
“I’m so glad she is back in the state,” he said. “She’s bringing a broad understanding from a national level, but she is also a native. She’s coming from a unique perspective.”
Herrera said she hopes to continue building on the relationships established by Roybal and help all New Mexicans, regardless of where they live, their background or financial situation, access quality health care.
“This is my life’s work,” Herrera said. “And I will always strive toward a healthier, more equitable and just world.”