David Peña Jr. was only 8 years old as he trailed his parents and grandparents through fields, hauling corn, cleaning grain, picking cotton and helping to cull melon crops in the Texas summer heat.
Every few years, he said, they would migrate to work in different fields. He, his parents and three siblings lived in a small house in rural Texas with three other families as they worked on farms throughout West and North Texas.
“We worked in the field as a family,” Peña said. “We kept an eye out for when the landowner would be coming in the distance and all the kids would get off the field.”
When he looked out at those fields, Peña couldn’t imagine a future beyond them. He never had a conversation with his parents about attending college or even considered it as an option — until he was helping his high school counselor move furniture and spotted a paper that rerouted his life.
A brochure for first-generation migrant farmworkers was the catalyst that pulled him out of the generational cycle of working fields. Peña now leads the largest journalism organization for Latinos in the United States after taking on the job of executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in February.
He stepped into the role at a time of upheaval — the organization was furnishing a strategic plan to guide them into the future as the journalism industry continues to morph. The previous executive director stepped down abruptly and, according to board members, left the organization in disarray.
Peña, 53, has committed to steering the nonprofit in a new direction and restoring members’ faith after years of controversies, including a nearly-cancelled election, a sexual misconduct investigation and accusations from members that NAHJ was not transparent enough about its dealings or finances.
It’s a high-pressure job, but Peña said it pales in comparison to what his family has endured.
Sitting in a conference room this week at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas strip, wearing a suit and tie, Peña reflected on his childhood.
“A couple of weeks ago, I went home to visit my parents,” he said, “and the air conditioner in my parents house was broken. And I was like, ‘my God, it is so hot,’ and my mom tells me in Spanish, ‘Que tan pronto se le olvida.’ ”
A renewed push for greater transparency
When Peña saw journalism — and journalists — being attacked across the country, he decided he wanted to help.
“I’m not a journalist,” Peña said. “But I believe in what journalists do.”
NAHJ President Nora Lopez described Peña as a “breath of fresh air” for the organization.
NAHJ leadership, she said, has been working to streamline workflow and reorganize the nonprofit. Working journalists who make up the board of directors and membership have spent the last several years covering nonstop breaking news — from a deadly, and ongoing, pandemic to protests against racial injustice to increasingly polarized politics.
“The world is exploding for us as working journalists,” Lopez said. But Peña, she added, is unruffled by the chaos of overseeing a journalism organization.
The board hopes to establish and maintain an internal filing system to ensure easy access to internal documents and a smoother transition for future leaders. Lopez likes to tell people that she is working on “cleaning the house” and “shoring up” the organization.
When the previous executive director, Alberto Mendoza, resigned, Lopez said, the board was left in chaos.
“Previously, I’m not lying, we were sending emails, like, ‘Hey, anybody knows where this is,’ ” Lopez said. “So, we’re really happy that we are going to get David, who had that vast experience as an executive director.”
Mendoza, who stepped down from his role at NAHJ in May 2021 to join the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship program at Stanford University, wrote in an email this week that he is “confident the board selected a new Executive Director that will continue to take NAHJ to new levels of success.”
Mendoza declined to address accusations of disorganization or the state in which he left the nonprofit’s internal systems.
Robert Hernandez, a former board member, said, however, he thought Mendoza restored the organization’s reputation and “brought a certain swagger and energy to NAHJ.” He defended the board’s decision to make changes to the election.
“The board which I was a part of, had a debate early in the pandemic,” Hernandez said. “They didn’t know what to do, so they opted to postpone the election. They used the word cancel which was not a great choice. But yeah, I mean it’s in the past. So much so that we’re at our next presidential election.”
The board also made a recent move to place spending limits on Peña — and any future executive directors — following criticism that the former board allowed Mendoza to overspend on travel, Lopez said.
Starting this year, Lopez said, the executive director would have to receive approval for any spending that exceeds $5,000.
“I think the pandemic has taught us that we don’t have to be there physically at everything,” Lopez said. “There are some things that are best done in person, but not everything has to be done.”
Rebuilding trust with a growing membership
One of the unique features of leading NAHJ, compared to other nonprofits, is the organization’s constituency. Journalists are naturally skeptical of people in positions of power and demand transparency and accountability from outside entities as well as those of which they are members.
Peña hopes to restore members’ confidence in the organization and its management by committing to being open, transparent and communicative with NAHJ members.
“We have a legacy of great executive directors and I welcome David Peña to the family, and we’ll see how he does,” Hernandez said.
In 2020, as the pandemic shut down the world and forced the NAHJ board of directors to move the annual conference into a virtual space, the organization made the unprecedented move of suspending its elections — prompting outrage and backlash from members.
Although the organization quickly reversed course, some prominent members criticized Mendoza, who was at the helm of NAHJ at this time, and then-board president Hugo Balta for undermining the democratic process.
Lopez said this incident led to ongoing tensions between the board and some members.
“It was the first year that we were having a virtual conference, and there was concern about how [the board was] going to do it. And I think they felt that they didn’t have time to deal with the election. And that’s why [Mendoza] made the recommendation,” Lopez said. “At the end of the day, he ran everything by the board and by the president. And they said, ‘go for it.’ I think what’s important now is that David comes from a total different point of view.”
Some members also criticized previous boards for their lack of transparency in various decisions and in accounting for spending and other financial dealings. Lopez said that under previous administrations, updated 990 forms — tax documents that nonprofits are required to make public — were not available on the NAHJ website.
“We had a couple of them posted on our website, but they weren’t up to date,” Lopez said. “That was one of the first things that my board did in 2020 when I came in as president — we want these posted.”
Peña said he came into NAHJ with a mission to continue to promote transparency in his own work and any board decisions.
He added that he has sought to assure members that NAHJ is taking significant steps to be more accountable, including by opening up the organization to evaluations from outside entities like GuideStar, which awarded NAHJ a gold-level Seal of Transparency. That means, according to the independent nonprofit tracking group, NAHJ submitted an audited financial statement, including revenue, expenses, assets and liabilities, among other things, and a full list of board chairs and leadership demographics.
The NAHJ budget is also on its website and Peña has said he encourages members to email him directly if they have any questions.
Over the last four months, Peña added, NAHJ completed a financial audit, a legal-exposure audit, and logged equipment inventory.
He declined to make these reports available to the public and to be reviewed by The Latino Reporter until the audit is complete.
NAHJ has recently received grants from the MacArthur Foundation, Google News Lab and Techmate, Peña said, adding up to more than $200,000 in new grants.
“In the past four months, we’ve done some amazing things,” Peña said.
Ensuring a solid foundation
Late last year, the NAHJ board of directors began to develop a strategic plan — a guiding document meant to establish plans for future programs, fundraising and outreach.
Lopez said that the document outlines new ways to engage members and provide additional training to early career journalists.
NAHJ Financial Officer Keldy Ortiz said one priority of the plan was to ensure that the organization is on good enough financial footing to not exclusively rely on the annual convention for its revenue.
Lopez said that the board has also asked Peña to review the NAHJ budget and determine how to hire another staffer or two. Other nonprofits of comparable size have double the number of staffers, she said.
“Our group is just growing by leaps and bounds, we’re over 4,000 people,” Lopez said, referring to membership numbers that have ballooned over the last two years. “But we remain with a staff of three employees and one part-time or on contract.”
Peña is exploring the possibility of hiring a deputy who, in theory, would be well-versed enough in the day-to-day operations of NAHJ to take over should Peña leave his post. Lopez said having an additional person would prevent the organization from “floundering,” as happened when Mendoza resigned.
‘You create your own opportunity’
Peña draws from 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector.
He has served as executive director for the National Hispanic Business Association and the Hispanic Dental Association, president of the college and universities program at the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, and president of the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce.
Peña is a first-generation college graduate from St. Edward’s University in Austin — a school that has one of the oldest programs meant to assist migrant farmworkers attend college. He graduated with a degree in political science.
Daniel Villao, a former colleague of Peña’s who worked with him at the National Hispanic Business Association in Austin, said Peña’s work ethic and enthusiasm is contagious.
“That was kind of the foundation to our friendship,” he said.
This week, as the joint conference of the National Association of Black Journalists and NAHJ gets underway, Peña will be walking the halls of Ceasars Palace. He’ll be wearing dress shoes in an air-conditioned building. It’s nothing like the fields of his youth.
But, he said, his drive to work hard remains the same.
Peña credits his mother, who knows how to hustle.
“She’s been an Avon lady. She’s been a Tupperware lady. She’s been a Stanley lady. She’s been a tiara lady. She’s sold every[thing] conceivable,” he said. “She is one of those individuals that for me the work ethic of, like, if the opportunity isn’t there, you create your own opportunity.”
Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect the timeline of publication of the audits.
Nayeli Jaramillo-Plata is a first-generation student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the vice president of the NAHJ chapter at UNC, and has worked as a staffer at the independently run student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. Reach her at njaramilloplata [at] gmail [dot] com and on Twitter @njarap17.