‘We Not Me’: The Story Of Inspiring Latina Nonprofit Leader Leonor Marquez

By Sharon Grigsby
The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Sharon Grigsby introduces us to Leonor Marquez, the CEO of the “Los Barrios Unidos Community Clinic network.” The nonprofits’ four clinics provide primary care, from prenatal to geriatrics, to as many as 400 clients daily. 

The Dallas Morning News

I quickly found out this week that the best way — maybe the only way — to get to know Leonor Marquez is through understanding her work.

Marquez runs a Dallas nonprofit that operates on a $25 million annual budget, serves 30,000 patients yearly and employs several hundred people.

In her 14 years as CEO of the Los Barrios Unidos Community Clinic network, Marquez has grown this longtime fixture of West Dallas’ Latino neighborhoods into a consequential player in accessible, affordable care for people throughout North Texas.

The clinic’s name, “Neighborhoods United,” reflects a sweet story: Ordinary folks in La Bajada and Los Altos, two then-rival neighborhoods just west of downtown, came together 48 years ago to bring health care to their neglected part of the city.

Today the nonprofits’ four clinics provide primary care, from prenatal to geriatrics, to as many as 400 clients daily. Almost all of those patients are moderate- or low-income; this year, 59 percent were uninsured.

The nonprofit just won another competitive federal grant that will allow it to open a fifth clinic in 2020: Los Barrios Unidos South in the Red Bird neighborhood.

If the conversation is about her clinics or health care in general, Marquez talks with the greatest of ease — a blend of precision and passion that reflects her training as both a social worker and a numbers-centric administrator.

But asked to talk about herself, the 55-year-old El Paso native initially is at a loss for words. Self-promotion is not in her DNA, which is why you may never have heard her name.

When word arrived in the Singleton Boulevard clinic that the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will recognize Marquez as this year’s Latina Nonprofit Leader, the CEO scrolled right past the email. When a staff member burst in to share the news, Marquez’s only reaction was shock — and a little embarrassment.

She told me this week that her aversion to tooting her own horn comes from growing up in a family that insists on a “we not me” culture. “The idea of giving back, of giving to others, is deeply rooted,” she said. “It’s not about our glory.”

The Los Barrios Unidos CEO sees that same trait in many other local Latina leaders, women whom she says go about their work quietly and diligently. “It just wouldn’t occur to us to seek out attention for ourselves.”

It didn’t take any coaxing to get other leaders in North Texas health care to offer their opinion on Marquez. The same theme emerged in every interview: She’s a savvy servant leader who runs a well-oiled machine and is dedicated to supporting a vulnerable population.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the work that Leonor and her staff do for the community,” Dr. Fred Cerise, Parkland Memorial Hospital CEO, told me Tuesday.
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He pointed out that Los Barrios Unidos’ reputation for compassionate care mirrors Marquez’s personality and philosophy.

“Her concern is first and foremost for the patients she serves, and she has been a great partner to us at Parkland in providing that care,” he said.

Charles Wiltraut, CEO of Mission East Dallas, said he is a better leader of his own community health center because of Marquez’s influence.

“Every person who enters Los Barrios Unidos is welcomed unconditionally and they leave with a renewed sense of hope,” Wiltraut said. “The same could be said about anyone who encounters Leonor.”

Marquez’s West Dallas-based health-care operation has been a bright light for almost a half-century in a neighborhood that has battled discrimination and neglect. Los Barrios Unidos’ first clinic opened in 1971 in two small trailers parked on a dirt road, and now the network logs more than 90,000 patient visits yearly.

“We have employees here whom LBU saw as kids,” Marquez told me. “One of our registered nurses is the daughter of a woman who got her prenatal care here.”

When pressed to share details about herself, Marquez said it’s her parents’ journey, not hers, that merits attention. Both of them, from working-class families, persevered to get college educations while raising seven children in El Paso and later in Tempe, Arizona.

Her father, Albert, earned an engineering degree when Marquez was a young child. Her mother, Susana, waited until the kids were older to get her degree in social work.

“My parents gave me my work ethic, my values, the encouragement to give back and to go into a helping profession,” Marquez said.

Initially set on a career in counseling, Marquez graduated from Arizona State University then did her graduate work at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. But she found her real calling when she was asked to also direct staff and manage programs at a large community health center after graduation.

“I was an OK counselor, but I was a better administrator so I went back to school,” she laughed. With an MBA in hand, she left San Antonio, her home for 16 years, and headed to Dallas to oversee Parkland’s school campus-based youth and family clinics.
Just a few years later, Los Barrios Unidos recruited her to become its next CEO, only the third in its history.

Two-thirds of the revenue required to keep the network’s clinics running comes from bill-paying patients — either through insurance or sliding-scale fees. Federal and philanthropic grants fill the remaining gap.

Half of the clients come from West Dallas, Oak Cliff and north Grand Prairie. But almost as many travel much farther, from Waxahachie, Plano and Fort Worth. Some formerly lived in the surrounding neighborhood; some have heard about the clinics’ compassionate care.

“We are lucky to have had decades of trust in the community,” Marquez said. “Even if they move out of the neighborhood, this is where they will come.”

The CEO also is proud of the fact that Los Unidos Barrios has become the medical home for many of the hotel and restaurant workers employed in Trinity Groves and other growing entertainment zones.

“When Leonor says she’s going to do something, take it to the bank,” said Kessler Park resident and philanthropist Giles Davidson, who has served for several years with Marquez on the Anita N Martinez Ballet Folklorico board.

Davidson told me, “She is committed to giving of herself — whether that’s to provide high-quality healthcare or exposing underserved communities to the arts.”

Words like those once again make Marquez itchy. She laughed that her mother — who will travel to Dallas for Friday’s awards luncheon — “is more excited about this than I am.”

But the CEO knows that young Latinas need role models so she is trying to become more comfortable in the limelight. Marquez recalled a recent panel discussion in which Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso said, “it kills her to hear women like me say it’s difficult to talk about myself.”

“Escobar is right,” Marquez acknowledged. “Latina leaders have got to be more vocal, we’ve got to be more out there.”
I only hope that Marquez is one of those women leading the way.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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