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What is Your Legacy and What Does it Mean? – EP 8

Episode Summary

In this episode of Room at the Table, Betsy Cerulo discusses legacy in the context of equity and inclusion with Lisa Carreno, the President and CEO of United Way of the Wine Country. They also talk about their personal journeys in finding their voices and building the confidence to speak up for themselves and others. This episode highlights the importance of understanding and recognizing each of their legacies and how it impacts the world.

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About Lisa Carreño

Lisa Carreño is an attorney and has been a non-profit and community leader on both the east and the west coasts for more than three decades. She joined United Way of the Wine Country as its President and CEO in August 2018. Lisa has led United Way through emergencies, disasters, and the pandemic to help build an aligned, integrated, and profitable foundation that serves a five-county region along the northern California coast - Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, and Sonoma Counties. United Way strives to be a philanthropic agent for equity-centered systems change and family financial stability, and Lisa’s leadership and management experiences help bring life to this goal.


Lisa is the Chair for Los Cien Sonoma County and serves on the Boards of Directors for Forget Me Not Farm Children's Services, Community Foundation Sonoma County, Sonoma County Secure Families Collaborative, and the Pepperwood Preserve Foundation.


She celebrated her 32nd anniversary with her wife, Lorene Irizary, this summer.

Episode Transcript – What is Your Legacy and What Does it Mean?

Betsy Cerulo: Welcome to Room at the Table, an opportunity for you to join me, Betsy Cerulo and my guests for conversations about creating equitable and inclusive workplaces where leaders rise above mediocrity and our teams thrive. Pull up a chair, there's always Room at the Table. 

Welcome to another meaningful conversation on Room at the Table. I am Betsy Cerulo, your host, and welcome to my guest today, Lisa Carreño, President and CEO of United Way of the Wine Country in California. Lisa is an advocate for building trusted relationships to empower and strengthen communities. She is passionate about intentional inclusion of everyone in society. Lisa is an attorney who has spent a rich career giving voice to the underserved and moving the needle of equity closer to the middle. Lisa also wrote the foreword to my book, Shake It Off Leadership. We are longtime friends since our college days at Catholic University. So today, we're talking about legacy, what it means, and why it's important. So pull up a chair, enjoy your favorite beverage, and let's get started. Well, hello, Lisa.

Lisa Carreño: Thank you for having me. This is awesome. I love the name of this podcast.

Isn't it great?

It is perfect. It's brilliant. I have a story for you, whenever you want to hear it, about why this Room at the Table means so much to me.

Actually our wonderful producer, Darek, came up with the name. Please share it because that's all part of legacy.

So, my good friend, Herman J. Hernandez, who's now about 72 years old, survived a heart attack 14-15 years ago, and he was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school as we did. And he was certain that he survived the heart attack because God had something for him to do. And he started looking around the community and just experiencing this awareness, this growing awareness that where were the Latinos in the decision making rooms at the tables where really important policy and resource allocation decisions were being made? And affecting everybody in the community, including the Latino community, there was this absence of Latino voices. And so he started inviting folks to the back room of Mary's Pizza Shack in downtown Santa Rosa, which at max, seated 20 people. And when we started, there were like six people. And by the time I joined the party, there were like 12, 16, 18. And then we were sitting all around the perimeter. We were violating the fire marshal's rules in that space, and that little group has become known now as Los Cien in Sonoma County, you can find the website, Los Cien Sonoma County. We have like 3000 people on our email list. We have over 300 people attending our meetings now, regularly, and we're taking on social, economic and race equity conversations in Sonoma County. But the thing about a place at the table, Herman's line over and over and over again, was, if we're not at the table, we're going to be on the menu.

Yeah. Yeah.

And I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I've heard Herman say that, and it resonates with everyone. And it's true. If we're not at the table, co-creating, co-designing, creating awareness about how policy, how planning, how resource allocation and execution, even how assessment affects us, because if you're not counted, you don't matter.


That's right. That's right.

To me, that's what a Room at the Table means.

Yeah. And it's really powerful, because if I look at yours and mine evolution, over the years, our voices have become louder, and I think, more eloquent, through our careers. If I think back in the 1980s when we met some of the lesbians around us, remember those women from Derwood, and I didn't quite always understand the journey back then. They were the earthy, crunchy lesbians who wore silver jewelry. They didn't go hanging out at the places I did. And over time, and I'd say, especially over the past 10 to 15 years, is when my voice got stronger because I started to feel like I was on the menu being a small business owner. And it was really time to say, no more, you can't treat me this way, or to speak up for a colleague. And I know you have done amazing work in the Latino community, and I've watched you evolve in that space over the past decades.

Yeah. Thank you. Well, I think, honestly, I began to build those muscles hanging out in Derwood, Maryland with that group of women and hanging out with my women's softball team from Lammas Bookstore in Washington, DC. Those women were incredible, Mary Farmer, Barbara Tenor, and our friend, Ellen Malcolm, who didn't play ball, but would come to the ball games and later created Emily's list. They were lifelines to me at a really vulnerable time in my life when I was figuring out both that I was lesbian, and that I was okay, no matter what. They gave me the strength to own and be myself, and I feel like that's the place where I claimed my voice and claimed myself and that aspect of my purpose first.

When I look at how legacy evolved for me, and I know, when my brother Tom died in 2011, that was a wake up call for me, because he was 59 when he died. I was 49 at the time, and I thought, life can be taken away so quickly. And I was still a little, in some ways, a little closeted in my professional life because of that fear, how would I be perceived? Something came over me, I can't tell you what or when, other than after he died, I got this voice inside of me where I just wasn't going to take it anymore. I don't always like to use the word fight because it just sounds so combative. But I was just spending more time interrupting the behaviors around me in business, and just in my sphere, that were harmful. As a woman, as a gay woman, there was always a lot of, "You're less than," and I think about all the inner work I had to do, and I know you had to do, about overcoming that and shedding it. So I found that I wanted to make it like those amazing women back then, I wanted to open up the doors for the up and coming generations, because we, for as magnificent as the world can be, we got a lot of problems here in the country. And we need the younger generation to really say, "No, no, no, no, no. You can't be that way anymore. It doesn't work."

Well, and they need us. So importantly, they need us to be out and to be strong for and with them until they can be strong for and with themselves and with one another. The power of our belief in them and the model that we provide by being true to ourselves, the power of that really cannot be understated. I can't say that more plainly. It's incredibly important for them to know us, know our stories, know our voices, know that we're still evolving, that we're still learning and we're still growing. The truer we are to ourselves, the better equipped we are to fulfill our purpose and that, genuinely, is our purpose.

What would you say is your purpose?

Just in the last few months, I've begun to think about how much this particular through line has been important to me. It is creating belonging. It's building community and creating belonging, which, in the center of that, the heart of it is about building trust and honesty and kindness. Have you seen or read The Boy, The Mole, the Fox, and The Horse?

If that's the one I'm thinking of, I think we gave that to our grandson. Didn't it just win an Academy Award?

It won the Academy Award, yeah, for Best Animation. I was given that gift, the book, for my 60th birthday by a lesbian couple who are good friends of mine and my wife. And I can't tell you how many times I've read it and just opened it up to pages for inspiration, and I love the movie on Apple TV. There are many brilliant spaces in that story. But the first, and perhaps, the most profound, the mole asked the boy, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And the boy says, "Kind." And that to me is what is at the heart of belonging and for, especially, young people and I'll say older people who haven't come out and are uncomfortable coming out, or feel they have to go back in the closet as they're seniors and more vulnerable and on their own. Creating belonging with and among and for them is life giving. And that's what I hope my legacy is.

You've always had that kind part of you that I have just always marveled at, and even standing in the face of some very difficult things there was always this kindness and strength that you gave off and was always inspiring to me ever since I've met you. And I'm so appreciative of that. And teaching people how kindness is so powerful, it's not weak, it's really powerful. My wish in my legacy is that in business and the work that I do with the Maryland LGBT Chamber and Foundation is to attract people that have other views different than mine where we can sit down and have a conversation that's giving an understanding, not a debate. I get worn out, and I kind of veer away from those kinds of conversations where it's a debate of who's right and wrong. I just want to understand why do you feel that way? Why are you choosing that direction? And for that person to hear, here's why I'm choosing, not necessarily to change their mind, although, ultimately, we always want everyone to feel the way we feel but to understand that there's a kindness and an acceptance. But the end game here is that we all find some form of happiness and joy. So how can we take our different views and get there together?

Yeah, I mean, you're talking about opening their minds and opening our own, right? And so that is a willingness to have to dance with folks. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "We can disagree without being disagreeable." And if you can be in conversation with somebody and hold that space, it creates, it's like you're breathing air into the room, you're drawing fresh air into the room to make it possible for the miracle of understanding and breaking open one's heart to connection. And I definitely have had those experiences where I've needed to be in hard conversations with people and say and do hard things and try to do it in kind and thoughtful ways. And I know as long as I'm holding that space for myself, I feel like I've shown up in that difficult moment in a way that I needed to.


You said showing up, and I'd say that that tends to be a common theme in a lot of different conversations or even presentations that I give in business. So much of what you do, so much of fulfillment, success is to show up. And I often say that sometimes doing nothing is doing something. And we all have a voice, and I do understand that sometimes it gets tiring, and my voice won't matter. And I often have this conversation with my wife. I'm in my 60s, and what's my life going to look like for the next 30 plus years? I'm saying that because my mother and my grandmother lived well into their 90s. So there's a high risk, not high risk, high chance that I'm going to live a long life. Will my voice be relevant? Or, who's going to care what I think? And then I would stop myself and say, "But you know, as I've gotten older, the manner in which I deliver it is changing." I don't necessarily have the angst that it was before because I would prefer to spend my energy doing other things than getting upset. So when you say kindness, I tend to surround myself with people that have that approach because my New Jersey Italian can come out really quick. I just find that it gives me more longevity and peace when I operate with kindness and ensure there's no strife in whatever circle I'm in.

Kedren Crosby and Sarah Colantonio who co-host The Behaviorist Podcast, in one of their recent episodes, they share a story from Anthony DeMello. And it's a parable of a wise man who lives up in the mountains, I think the wise man is an Oracle. And the people in the village, they seek out the Oracle for advice all the time. And he's given credit for being, "You're so wise, you're so kind." He says, "If you say so." And then one day, a young woman tells the village that she's pregnant, and the Oracle is the father of the child, which horrifies everybody in the village. And they go up to him, "You're a terrible person. Why did you do this? You're awful." And he just responds, "If you say so." Some time passes, and she eventually comes forward and says, "That was a lie, this other young man in the village is the father of my child." And people go to him and they apologize. And they say, "We're sorry. You're a wise and kind man." And he says, "If you say so." What I took away from hearing that story was the power of not using other people's judgments about who we are as a barometer of who we are. Instead, coming from that space inside of us that knows we're being true to ourselves and maintains that sense of, I know who I am, and I am who I am, and I am not going to be knocked off the center. And it's hard, undeniably, it's hard to stay in that space. But when we can, we're not leaking energy, right? And we have more energy to bring to whatever we're showing up for, whatever that moment is and for standing in whatever our truth is.

I love when I see the younger generations forming who they are for the future. The ones that have started a lot of the marches, the initiatives that bring legislation to the table for change, for good change. And I marvel at that. I didn't have that wisdom back then. If I think back at my earlier years, might look at someone who's in their 60s, and a lot of times, people back then, there was a noticeable difference in, I guess, how they carried themselves. Now we tend to have a very youthful approach. And I don't know, maybe it's that, but I really gravitate towards the younger generation because in their communications, they're being their legacy, they talk about possibility, they talk about dreaming and opportunity. Yet sometimes when I'm around people in my generation, there's the conversations of, "I'm done." There's nothing wrong with wanting to go play golf and do all those things. I'm sure as my career shifts over time, there's going to be things that I'm going to rediscover. I get energized when I'm around the younger generations. And I find that I'm not looked at like, "Oh, that older person over there." Because there's that bridge, there's that respect. And we're all in this together. And I think that we need to have more of that, because we can really learn from each other.

Right. I completely agree with you. I'm glad that you're having that experience of being in spaces with younger generations who look at us and marvel at what you've done and that you are still a deep well of energies, action and wisdom. And God bless her, you get it from Virginia, you get it from your mom.

Yeah, to our listeners out there, my mother who passed away in December [2022] was a force to be reckoned with. Slightly close minded. It's okay.

Also really loving when she needed to show up.

She was definitely the queen of showing up. There's no question. But I think about a lot of her wisdom shows up now. She just was so resilient. And so we would joke how my liberal and progressive ways, she was not that. I would debate with her, but there was no changing her. But we would laugh. And she would marvel at my passion about certain things and how I was using that passion for good things and that she was so proud of that. And I know that your parents feel the same about you.

Yeah, yeah, for sure. My nana and your mom were contemporaries. My nana's youngest sister would have been your mom's age when she had you. And when I think of them and that generation, and frankly, my mom's generation, as well, they just didn't have the opportunities that we have. And our long bodies, our inheritance from them and our ancestors is their tenacity, their perseverance, their stubbornness, their determination to make a life out of very little and provide a future for their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren that they could not have possibly dreamed up. Some of, certainly, my nana's bitterness, I think, is because she didn't have those opportunities, that freedom, those liberties, and I did not know her. She died years before I was born. My great grandmother, her mother, who came from Sicily, from a little village in Sicily that I got to visit with my godparents and cousins in 2019, it hasn't changed a lot in 150 years since Rutina emigrated. I can see that the lack of opportunity that was there back then remains. And so I get where their frustration comes from, and then their fear that if they get out of line, if they really stand in your truth, can you imagine if your mother really stood in her truth what she would have been like? What did she risk? Because they're growing up, if you didn't toe the line you lost it all. So they're wonderful mirrors for us. They really are.

They are. They are. I think about growing up and toeing the line. There wasn't a lot of room for negotiating, even though I tried. And I probably contribute a lot of my wins to those times because I learned how to navigate the mountain called my mother. But there wasn't a lot of give. Here were the rules. There wasn't the psychological conversation, empowering conversation between parent and child. This is the way it is. And I know that that style, it built resilience, it taught us to really stand in the face of the storm and to survive it. And I was fortunate, in terms of that toeing the line with my mother, I wasn't harmed. Do you know what I mean? I know some stories that I've heard from friends over the years, I'm grateful for the difficulties I had. But I find that some of the younger generation, they want to hear my story, which is cool, because I'm thinking, wow. Because I am an elder and we have a responsibility as an elder. When I sit and I listen to them, especially in the LGBTQ community, about the different evolutions or the different parts of the community that they claim that, even the use of the word queer. One, not my fav, because I'm still from a time when it was hurtful. But I have this feeling of pride when I sit back, and I look at the younger generation just out there being who they are, dressing, how they are. I don't care how many colors are in their hair, what they do. I just think, "Wow, look how expressive," and that's part of how I wanted to create my workplace, where people came and felt safe, feel safe in the workplace to bring who they are. And that's one of the things that I love in business, that I welcome all people.

Yeah, well, I think, Betsy, what you've created with your company is a company culture of belonging and trust. And so the guardrails are your core values. That's what's central to your strategic framework for the company, how you operate, and what you do in every moment, in every decision that you make, no matter how small, right, if you're always aligning yourself to those core values in that framework. And I think the difference between the two of us in our work now and the rigidity of the way a lot of our elders and mentors grew up, those rules about how we do business left you fearful of doing business any other way. I think a lot of what I'm doing right now in my work, actually is very intentionally interrogating why and how the structures, the systems, the processes that I inherited in my world, how they affect my team, my volunteer and staff team, our community partners, our community, and how they affect our sector in philanthropy and fundraising. And do they really serve to create belonging? Do they really serve to create social, economic and race equity? And if they don't, then we need to change it up, we need to break it open and be unafraid of exploring how we do that. And that's a lot of what is energizing to me in my work now. But I don't think that I would know that if I didn't have the wisdom of my own experiences and these role models in my life who have been a mirror of what to do and what not to do. And those are the stories that you need to be telling people.


I think we're very blessed, because some of those stories were glorious, and some of those stories were really difficult. And that's all a part of, I'm going to say, like building the Cathedral of what we're going to leave behind. I want to know that in my industry, which is staffing, which can be cutthroat and petty, and like a bunch of cats clawing for business, I never liked that model. I want it to, when the time comes that I retire from the industry, I want to be able to say, "I left the industry in a better place of possibility." So, you may not have this pounding for the numbers, but what you have is this glorious space of people doing something really meaningful, and that's finding people work.

And work that they love. Right?

Yeah. Well, sometimes people that we place on contracts, they may not love it all the time. I mean, I don't love my job every day, but you know what I mean? But it's in a space of acceptance, of care, of appreciation. And then look at your role with the United Way, when the time comes for you to retire, and I know we have a long way to go for that, on that day, what would you want to say? Like what would be your intention of what you've -- I don't even like the word left behind -- but what will you tie up in a beautiful bow for someone else?

Well, I think at the center of what I hope I pass on to my successor is an intentional organization of trust and belonging that is recognized in our region. We serve a five county region from Sonoma County, North to the Oregon border along the coastline. And from Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte County, I would want United Way to be recognized in the community, by the community, by business leaders and government leaders and philanthropy and nonprofit leaders as well as the full range of the community as an organization that has created community and belonging, contributed to creating community and belonging, and narrowing the disparity gaps that are such key indicators, such strong indicators of long-term health, economic prospects and that we did it by being true to those core values, equity building, compassion, integrity, transparency, authenticity, by being truly collaborative, and bringing everyone to the table, to go full circle with where we started.

Yep, absolutely. I know sometimes when conversation of equity is brought up, there's people that don't fully understand it. At least in the business world we look at equity as, it's not taking another piece of pie, it's just making the pie bigger for everybody to have a slice because there's plenty for everyone. And we just have to again, make Room at the Table like we did as kids when we'd squeezed people in, and we weren’t looking at color or gender. When I think about growing up, it's that we need to have that innocence again to bring people to the table and champion each other because that's really where the brilliance and the beauty of creative ideas and wealth, not just wealth in money, but wealth in ideas, wealth in health and happiness. That's where it all gets created, when we do it together.

Think about, I mean, just dissect what you just said, inviting somebody to the table when we're kids, what kind of intention that meant. I mean, imagine you're in your first grade class, probably a Catholic school just like me, and there are people who are left out of your table. First, you got to notice them. Right? You have to see them, make them visible to yourself, and then see that they're not nuclear, and then exert the energy to invite them over, and they've got to trust you. You have to have built trust, for them to trust that when you invite them into that space, they're going to be okay with you there. And then to make room for their voices to be heard, right? We could learn so much by remembering some of the things that we learned when we were in kindergarten.


Oh, yeah. When you see a movie or a show, when a young kid goes over to someone that's hanging out by the fence that's off by themselves, and they're asked to come join the game, the automatic happiness and joy. And it's like, everything else just melts away when that kid gets to join in, and everyone becomes one, and I just want to invite my listeners just to keep spreading that goodwill, that invitation, that life is just a wonderful invitation. And we all have something to give, we all have something to share to make it a better place.

Yeah, I think magic really, genuinely happens when you open yourself up to creating those experiences with others.

Yeah, absolutely.

And you said something a moment ago, I wanted to go back to it. When you were talking about your mom, and when you go toe-to-toe. You said, "I wasn't harmed." Your resilience comes from that awareness, that yeah, we were in that discipline, and no real harm came from it. So to be able to see that and know that in your psyche, your heart, and release whatever might be there, that's what forgiveness looks like. Right? And that's what we're really doing is learning in those kinds of experiences.

Absolutely. Absolutely. So, Lisa, as we bring this to a close, this has just been a rich conversation. Now, there have been many, but is there one last bite of wisdom that you would like to share for my listeners?

The first thing that comes to mind, Betsy, is be true to yourself. I don't know if you know, we probably talked about this a long, long time ago, I went to the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa, Florida from 1976 to 1980. I was part of the 99th graduating class at the Academy. You know, all girls Catholic school on the bayshore with a really incredibly rich culture of academic encouragement for the girls and the boys who are in all the classes grounding in the values of the faith and deep passionate connection to the motto of the school, which was, "Esse Quam Videri." Esse Quam Videri translates in English to, "To be, rather than to see." So when you asked me to close, what do you want to share, was there anything to share, I want to share that. To be rather than to see, be true to yourself. Because when you are, you are God's light shining forth. God is, this is from Eat, Pray, Love, God gives you the voice of you, as you, inside you. So the most faithful thing, if you are a person of faith, spiritual or connected as a spiritual person in our experience in a universe, or multiverse, is to be true to yourself. Be fully who you were meant to be. And see people who embrace that --


That person that you genuinely are, so that they can affirm you, so that they can believe in you.

Absolutely. As always, Lisa, our conversations just always leave me walking away just marveling at the lessons that I learned from you over 40 years. And I'm just appreciative of the conversation today because we're both out in our lives, we've had a really rich career, and we have a lot more to give. And we're still very relevant. And I know you and I will continue to be that for a long time. So I just want to say thank you for having this conversation today. And I really appreciate you, and I love you with all my heart.

I love you too. I mean, what a miracle that we met when we did back then. So grateful to have you in my life. Thank you so much.

Absolutely. Same here. So, thank you so much, Lisa, and to our listeners, thank you for joining us today on legacy. We wish you well and remember, there is always Room at the Table.  

Thank you for joining us. And if you enjoyed this episode, please follow Room at the Table on your favorite platform and share with a colleague or two or three. You can find the full transcripts, links and more resources to creating more equitable workplaces at

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