The girl was sitting on the floor of a Phoenix homeless overflow shelter in the late evening when Anna Maria Chávez met her. Her name was Andrea. When their paths crossed, Chávez was deputy chief of staff for urban relations and community development for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Funding for homeless services and shelters were under her purview, and Chávez wanted to find out about the people who used these services. She accompanied Phoenix police officers on the city’s annual homeless count, a one-night accounting of the people in a community experiencing homelessness. “We went to shelters, under bridges, vacant lots,” she says. “We interviewed homeless people on the streets.”
On this night, Chávez encountered Andrea, a girl staying in the overflow shelter with her mother and little brother. Andrea told Chávez she was scared, but not about her safety. She was scared that she wouldn’t be able to go to school the next day and do her schoolwork. Her mother, Chávez found out, faced addiction issues. The family had been in and out of shelters, and Andrea had attended many different schools and districts.
Chávez left the shelter that night angry and upset, worried about the future of Andrea and children like her.
The memory of the young girl in a homeless shelter who wanted to go to school stuck with Chávez. During her tenure as Gov. Napolitano’s deputy chief of staff, “I accumulated all the state agencies that dealt with the safety net."
Advocating to bring equal opportunities to children and others propelled Chávez throughout her career and brought her to the National School Boards Association (NSBA).
Chávez became NSBA’s executive director and CEO in May. She follows Thomas J. Gentzel, who retired after more than 40 years of service on behalf of school boards. Gentzel led NSBA for the past seven and a half years. Chávez is NSBA’s sixth leader in its 80-year history.
“Anna’s distinguished public service and nonprofit leadership career bring a wealth of experience in organizational transformation and working with state organizations, making her the perfect choice to lead NSBA at this stage in our history,” said Charlie Wilson, NSBA President. “We’re very excited to welcome Anna aboard."
Chávez grew up in a rural community in southern Arizona. Her father was a migrant farmworker, and her mother ran a large farm in the area. Public service was a guiding force in her family. It wasn’t uncommon, Chávez says, to be woken up by neighbors knocking on the door, asking for advice and assistance from her parents.
Her parents were leaders in the community. Volunteering and service were not choices—they were required, Chávez says. Her mother ran for school board in a time when it was unusual for women, especially Latina women, to seek elected office. Chávez was her mother’s campaign manager and frequently attended board and community meetings with her. Later, she encouraged her mother to run for a seat on a community college board. She won, becoming the first woman to serve on that board.
Education also was a priority in her family. “My best memories were of librarians and teachers,” Chávez says. “That’s where I decided to become a lawyer and advocate on behalf of other people.”
Her family eventually moved to Phoenix, where she and her siblings attended high school. She was offered a full scholarship to Yale University. She was the first woman in her family to attend college and the first person from her high school to attend Yale. When the time came to leave for Yale, she made the 3,000-mile trip to Connecticut by herself. During her college years, she worked two jobs to pay for personal expenses. After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in U.S. history, she went to law school at the University of Arizona, where, as a speaker of three languages, she focused on international law.
When she graduated, she’d planned to work for a private law firm in Phoenix, but she was pulled instead into public service. She entered the Federal Government Attorney Honors Program and worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation. After the program, she stayed in Washington, serving in several positions in the Clinton administration, including as a senior policy adviser to U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.
After her work in Washington, she returned to Arizona, where she served in the administrations of two Arizona governors, Jane Hull and Janet Napolitano.
When Napolitano left Arizona to serve as President Obama’s secretary of homeland security, Chávez decided not to go with her. She wanted to work with children and nonprofits. She was hired as the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas, which took her to San Antonio. “It was an amazing opportunity to work with schools and school superintendents and programing at the schools,” she says.
In San Antonio, Chávez grew membership and raised money for the organization. Her successes caught the attention of the national Girl Scouts of the USA. In 2011, she became the first woman of color to lead the Girl Scouts.
During her tenure, the national organization shifted focus to integrating STEM and financial literacy into the curriculum. Girl Scout cookie sales went digital. With Sheryl Sandberg, Chávez founded the “Ban Bossy” campaign to discourage the use of the word as a pejorative way to describe girls and women who are leaders.
Most recently, Chávez was the chief growth officer and executive vice president at the National Council on Aging.
“I spend a lot of time listening,” she says of her leadership style. “I don’t assume I know everything. I like feedback.”
She takes the reins of NSBA at a tumultuous time in society and in public education. School leaders across the country face the daunting task of reopening schools safely this fall after closing at the start of the pandemic. The nationwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis brought long-simmering racial tensions to the foreground again. Assisting NSBA’s state association members with these crises is at the top of her agenda.
Chávez was named one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders for 2016 by Fortune magazine. She received the 2013 Law College Association Award from the University of Arizona. She is the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Community Service award from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the 2013 Graciela Olivarez La Raza Award from the National Council of La Raza. In 2014, she was number 22 on Fast Company’s annual list of the most creative people in business. She has been recognized as one of the 100 Women Leaders in STEM by STEMconnector.
Chávez’s regular column will start in ASBJ’s October issue.