Woman to Watch: Clara Lopez Ortiz

If home is where the heart is, Clara Lopez Ortiz need look no further than Cascade, Iowa.

“I always seem to come back to Iowa, no matter how far away I go,” a pensive Ortiz said. “I’ve always considered myself an Iowan, even though I came from Mexico. I just always seem to find my way back home. And home for me is Iowa.”

For nearly two years, the 27-year-old has remained committed to those roots as the equity coordinator for the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. In that role, her focus is on fostering connections, offering a platform for residents of various backgrounds to come together and a vehicle to advocate for equity at the local level.

“Most of the work we do focuses on that objective, not only among our own staff but within the community,” Ortiz said. “A lot of that work happens behind-the-scenes, but our main mindset is the collective impact of bringing people together.”

She also acts as the primary pillar of support behind the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque’s equity initiative, championing the value of equity for all and coordinating diversity, equity and inclusion training, in addition to the organization’s outreach efforts through programs such as Inclusive Dubuque.

It’s a cause that is near and dear to Ortiz, who has tapped into her background and life experience as an immigrant for the role, often sharing her story with local organizations, including Leadership Dubuque, Dubuque Area Congregations United and through conference panel discussions.

Ortiz immigrated to Texas from Mexico with her immediate family when she was 6 years old, eventually settling into the humble community of Cascade when she was 15.

Despite the challenges there, a small but tightly knit Mexican community welcomed her.

“The special thing about Cascade is that in the Mexican community, we all already somehow know each other,” Ortiz said. “It’s an attractive community and a growing community.”

It also provided a safe haven for Ortiz, as she transitioned from larger schools in Texas, with diverse student populations, to her smaller Cascade high school with less diversity representation.

“But I found support,” Ortiz said. “Teachers were supportive. Of course, the Mexican community was supportive. It was a safe space for me to be, to live and to make friends.”

A first-generation college student, Ortiz completed undergraduate degrees in Spanish and international studies from the University of Iowa in 2017, after completing studies at the Ewha Summer Exchange Program at the Ewha Women’s University in South Korea.

While at the University of Iowa, she served as the public relations director for the Organization for the Active Support of International Students, promoting and organizing events.

Ortiz went on to complete her master’s degree in international business management in Kingston, United Kingdom, in 2019.

True to form, she returned to the Dubuque area — something Paul Duster is grateful for.

“Clara’s experiences add a valuable perspective to her efforts as a champion of equity for all,” said the director of community initiatives at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. “Her willingness to share her personal journey, coupled with her passion for promoting the importance of equity awareness lend credibility to her efforts. She does not shy away from tough conversations on immigration, biases, discrimination or inclusion.”

She also sets an example through her actions.

In addition to her work with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, Ortiz has volunteered with the Presentation Lantern Center, using her bilingual skills to teach English. She has assisted immigrants in the process of establishing United States citizenship. She also has supported Key City Pride and diversity events that take place throughout the Dubuque area, as well as leading the Rural Equity Cohort. The latter includes community members from across Eastern Iowa who come together to learn how to promote diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in their towns.

“Doing this work requires a focus on the long road — a journey that can take years to implement meaningful, systemic-level change,” Duster said. “She focuses on the opportunity for all to help make our community a more welcoming, inclusive place and continues to expand her impact in our community through her unwavering commitment to guiding others on their own DEI journey. She continues to help others understand their personal biases and encourages them to explore the opportunity to be more accepting and inclusive of all.”

Although relatively new in her role, Ortiz has made an impact.

She most recently helped to compile and launch a pair of diversity resources, including the Dubuque Multicultural Guide, which highlights cultural restaurants, retail outlets and places of worship; and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, a guide for employers who want to implement these concepts within their organizations.

“We’re continuing to grow,” Ortiz said of the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. “There is a need for this kind of work because many challenges remain.”

It’s also important to Ortiz to be a role model — particularly for other young Latinas.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have that, so I had to rely on myself,” she said. “What better way to be able to be that for someone else than in my role. It’s a perfect fit for me, and I take a lot of pride in being able to help the people in my community. Equity is a journey that isn’t going to be resolved in one day. We have to continue to be actionable. My position allows me to do that. There is still work to be done.”