Karen Borja is a warm, open person who seems genuinely glad to meet you. It’s a personality that explains Borja’s success as a community organizer—helping people learn how to help themselves by changing what isn’t working in their environment.
Borja, 30, and her husband, Blaz Gutierrez, are residents of Indio. She was born and raised in Coachella along with a younger brother. Like many of her contemporaries in that community, she is the child of farmworker immigrants, who learned from her parents that hard work leads to what she refers to as “generational wealth”—the ability to build on each generation’s skills and experiences.
“For me, it was realizing what policies helped my family move from the bracero program,” she says.
The bracero program was initiated in August 1942 between the U.S. and Mexico, and lasted, with amendments, until 1964. It was named based on the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer.”
“As a result of my grandfather’s participation in the bracero program, they were able to get green cards and continue to live here,” Borja says. “My mom is from Mexico. Her father was a bracero. She is a very hard-working woman who ran a day-care facility for over 22 years, helping generations of kids. She was licensed by the county of Riverside, and took care of the children of farmworkers.
“My dad was from El Salvador. During his early teens, the revolution was going on there, so his parents sent him, along with a cousin, to Mexico. He later went to Mexicali, then crossed the border and became a farmworker. Unfortunately, he died when I was only 14.”
Borja attended a women’s Catholic college in Notre Dame, Ind., called St. Mary’s College.
“It was real culture shock,” she says. “There were less than 50 women of color out of over 1,600 students. It was the first time I had been in a ‘minority’ situation. It was a real challenge. I was so homesick, I would cry every day. I had previously traveled to Europe, to Mexico and all through California with my parents, but this was the first time I was by myself. I found it was easy to make friends and get involved, because I needed to make sure I had a group to support me.”
Borja got her first taste of community organizing when she was about 16.
“There were youth groups in the local churches, and there was a local park that had gangs and drugs, where parents wouldn’t let us go by ourselves,” she says. “We were asked if we wanted to come to a meeting about the park, and I think about 500 people showed up. I didn’t really understand everything the adults were talking about, but we were asked, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ So we started listing the things we were concerned about. I got really engaged and involved. We learned there was city money dedicated to parks. By my senior year of high school, when I was 17, we won the park victory. When I came back during my first year of college, they had really done things: It was cleaner and safer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow! The politicians actually followed through.’”
Borja also helped create a park in Oasis, the first in the area, at the site of an abandoned elementary school.
“It had gotten in terrible shape,” she says, “and had become a danger for kids. It took three years and getting both the school district to agree to sell the 15 acres and the park district to buy it. The park district built a soccer field, and it became a place people were able to run laps.”
During her sophomore year in college, Borja got the chance to travel to South Africa to attend school for a semester.
“I remember thinking, ’What am I doing in Africa? Who do I think I am? I’m just a little girl from Coachella,’” she says. “I had a friend who was a nurse, and a group of African women showed up asking her to vote for their candidate for president. I was so moved by their conviction. Their candidate won the town’s vote because of those African women getting people involved. That flipped a switch in my head. I suddenly realized the park project wasn’t because of the politicians. We won the park victory because mobilizing the grassroots community does actually work. The impact that left on me is why I do what I do.”
Her time in Africa led to another life lesson for Borja: She got pregnant and chose to have an abortion. Then during her senior year in college, Borja met an LGBTQ woman with whom she was able to identify based on the feeling of not being accepted—of feeling “less than.”
“As a Catholic Latina,” she says, “I found I believed that LGBTQ rights and abortion rights are part of our community and need to be respected. A couple years later, there was a group of nine of us—not just from our campus, but also from Holy Cross and Notre Dame—who showed the example of young Catholics being open and affirming and accepting, and creating safe spaces, to show that all students deserve to be seen and feel safe. In my senior year, we had the first transgender speaker on campus. It was standing room only!
“In the summer between my junior and senior years, after I had become president of a campus gay/straight alliance club, I actually went to a ‘gay’ camp for students and LGBTQ leaders. I was chosen to go by my school as one of the ‘straight’ students,” she says with a laugh. “I came to realize how brave they were to be out. They were empowered to be themselves and to help their campuses toward inclusion.”
In addition to her degree in political science, Borja later received certification in nonprofit management from University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus. She recently received the sixth annual Community Justice Award given by Bloom in the Desert Ministries in recognition of her dedication and hard work.
Borja worked for seven years with Inland Congregations United for Change, focused on helping residents of the eastern Coachella Valley access education and transportation. She has now been with Planned Parenthood for the past two years, currently serving as the director of community affairs for Riverside County. “My current job is to make sure we have political and community support to keep the doors open,” she says. “I’m so proud of how much access our patients get to care and information. Last year we began providing hormonal therapy for transgender patients.
“My family taught me that leadership is important. This work has allowed me to be a Catholic Latina who believes in women’s rights, is pro-choice, supports LGBTQ rights, and is from Indio, California.”
Karen Borja’s warmth and open nature comes through clearly—and she makes a difference in her community. That is the fulfillment of her legacy of her definition of “generational wealth.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.