In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re featuring nonprofit leaders of Hispanic heritage and talking to them about their work and the importance of having representation in leadership positions. Today we speak to Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen (he/him), Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).
About the National Center for Transgender Equality
Rodrigo is the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) executive director. NCTE works to make it easier and safer to be transgender in the United States. NCTE was founded in 2003 and advocates changing policies and society to increase understanding and acceptance of transgender people. The organization focuses on federal and state policies, including laws and rules surrounding healthcare, workplace equality, and the ability to update identity documents that display authentic names and gender.
Rodrigo grew up in a civic-minded and multi-generational household. His father is white and was born in the United States. His mother came to the US from Cuba as a child. Rodrigo grew up in Miami with his sister, parents, and maternal grandparents. Because his mother’s family fled a government that wasn’t a democracy, it meant a lot to them to be in a country where elections happened, and your vote counted. As Rodrigo says, “Our democracy in the US isn’t perfect, but it exists.”
Rodrigo credits his experience interacting with his peers and teachers at school and the rich culture of his Cuban American upbringing with his ability to see things from a different perspective and interact with multiple groups. He and his sister often translated both language and nuances of American culture for his grandparents. Rodrigo’s socialization helped him appreciate that not everyone has the same information and experience.
Rodrigo describes his career journey as mission-driven but unconventional. Throughout his professional journey, Rodrigo gravitated towards work and organizations that had a positive impact on society. Rodrigo has held a variety of roles in nonprofits, including database administration and communications. He says, “if I can see the purpose of the job, I’m motivated.” He believes this non-traditional career path has set him up well for the role of Executive Director because he understands various facets of nonprofit work. “I know a little of everything, and I see value in everything. Sometimes leaders come from one angle and don’t know what they don’t know.” Rodrigo believes that his experience working in various aspects of the LGBTQ movement has helped to shape his view of what leadership means and how vital his charge is.
Hispanic Representation and Nonprofits
Rodrigo believes it’s essential to see a variety of people in nonprofit leadership, not only individuals of Hispanic descent but also other races. As he says, “nonprofit leadership should reflect the country. We haven’t fulfilled democracy if there is only one race of people in charge.” Unfortunately, Hispanic representation is traditionally confined to Hispanic organizations and immigration rights groups. Rodrigo believes there is a tremendous burden placed on the Hispanic population in the US to lead Hispanic-focused and or immigration rights organizations, which can feel prescriptive to citizens of Hispanic descent. Being assumed to be the voice of an immigration-focused organization can be unfair for an individual committed to the cause but whose family has been in the US for several generations.
Rodrigo felt this lack of representation and leadership as a young gay, transgender man. He did not have access to culturally specific resources and visibility for a gay and transgender Hispanic man along his career journey. Rodrigo feels that this lack of resources made it harder to see “himself” in all spaces, which can be daunting to an emerging leader. Rodrigo says if he could tell his younger self one thing, it would be to “Take the plunge and be your authentic self. It’s worth it.”