Putting People First: Meet Gaby

Gaby poses with their arms up and diagonal while on a hike. They are standing on rocks in a riverbed with trees behind them and a blue sky.

The Minerva Strategies team is beyond thrilled to announce that we’ve grown by one more! Meet Gaby España – systems thinker, former educator and researcher, community engager, board game-lover, and our newest senior associate.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Gaby to chat about their experiences working with diverse communities, how to make messages more accessible, what it means to make time for yourself, and the missing love language of food. I also learned that we share the same personal dream future.

I know I can confidently speak for the entire team when I say how incredibly excited we are to work with and learn from Gaby. Welcome to the team!

Where are you from and where are you living currently? What’s the Gaby story?

I’m originally from New York. I grew up on the border of Yonkers and the Bronx near the Hudson River, and now I live in Chicago where I’m next to a lake. No matter where I go, I’m going to be next to a body of water. 

It was a job that brought me to Chicago. I went to school in Massachusetts – I was the first of my family to make such a big move. Once I was in Massachusetts, I realized I really liked traveling, and I liked the independence that came with being on my own. Of course, I was homesick all the time, and when I went back home, I immediately wanted to hug my mom. But there was something magical about being somewhere else. So, when an opportunity presented itself in Chicago to work at a nonprofit college access program, I went!

The view from the library in Elgin, Illinois shows a lake and trees. The rest of the building is visible on the right.
The view from a library in Elgin, Illinois. “If there’s a book and a view, I’m there.” -Gaby

In your bio on the Minerva website, you say you “put people first.” What do you mean by that?

I am a systems thinker. I studied sociology, so I’m always thinking: “What are the forces enacting on us on any given day that encourage certain behaviors or deter us from others?” Having worked in education for quite a long time and in research – specifically with communities of color, young people, and working class or poor communities – it is very clear to me that these systems were not made to benefit all people.

One of the ways we keep systems powerful and continuing to disenfranchise is by not giving people the whole story or all of the information they need to make an informed choice about what is best for them. Maybe I can’t change policy, but I can tell those who are affected by that policy everything it says in a way that they’ll understand so they can decide: “I will not in engage in that, or I will.” I have found my power – my sword – to be accessible communication and language.

As a senior associate, I’m thinking in the same ways we are working with clients that represent organizations that put people first. I am going to communicate their efforts in a way that is transparent and true to their mission and to the people they aim to serve or work alongside.

Why Minerva? What drew you into applying for the senior associate position?

That’s a two-fold question for me. First, given the populations I’ve worked with and the various subjects – which include college access, academic education, maternal health care, child development – the opportunity to connect with people while giving them clear information about jargony topics excites me. There is a framework I like called “Plain Language,” and I’ve used their best practices in the work that I do in both verbal and written forms. Through those experiences, I realized that I like the iterative process of taking all the information we want to give to someone, breaking it down, and creating programming that is more digestible.

Second, there is something fun and creative about finding the right words that connect with people. Knowing that words can solve problems when they’re used correctly gets me going. In my previous roles, that was always a secondary or extra thing I would do. When I saw the senior associate position at Minerva, I was like, “Wait a minute… people get paid to do this? And you can have your whole role dedicated to thinking very deeply about this?” I’m in.

Gaby poses with their arms up and diagonal while on a hike. They are standing on rocks in a riverbed with trees behind them and a blue sky.
Gaby on a walk with friends at a nature reserve in the suburbs of Chicago.

What was a strategic communication “Aha!” moment from your past work experiences?

As I mentioned, I used to work in a nonprofit college access program, and since the focus was higher education, it had always prioritized students – the young people. However, we had never done any recon or targeted work with the parents of those young people.

I dug into the available data to answer the question: “Who are the parents?” I come to find out that 35% of parents had at most a high school- or GED-level education or less. That was meaningful, because everyone currently writing our communications were college educated people – some were former English teachers or held a master’s in education. They were very good at writing towards other highly educated people. So, when it came to explaining to parents that we were going to take their children away on a trip for a week, where they would look at 10 different colleges, knowing many students had never traveled without them or left Chicago, our communications were missing the mark.

When I started learning about the demographics of the parents of these students, it became more obvious that we had not accounted for these things in our communication. And that was enough for me and my former boss to go to leadership and say, “something is not clicking in the way we think it is, and we can’t keep working in the way we have been.” So, I ended up being the first full-time staff member of a new family engagement department, which is still a department at that organization today.

Minerva recently published a set of principles that guide our work. Which principle stands out to you most?

One Minerva principle that stands out to me is “Make time for yourself.” Some people put their whole soul into their careers or into being busy and always doing something for other people. I find that a little overwhelming, and I have never been part of an organization that also thought about that. I come to work – I do that work for seven to eight hours a day – but that is not my whole person. That is not all there is about me. The thought of having other team members who understand that makes me feel understood. I know people who don’t take sick days because they can’t imagine how their work would respond if they needed rest, and I don’t ever want to occupy a space like that.

What do you do for fun?

I love cooking. I am a person who goes to the grocery store, and if I come across a random ingredient I’ve never seen before, I’ll get out my phone and figure out what to make with it and make that. I enjoy cooking for myself, but it’s also something I really enjoy doing for other people. It isn’t a love language, but it is a way that I like to love and be loved.

I also love to walk – I walk everywhere. If it’s within at least like two miles, I’ll go. On days I’ve been sitting for hours, I’ll tell my partner and dogs, “I’ll be back! I just need to go move my body for a little bit.” In the times before the pandemic, I loved going to Zumba and game nights.

Gaby's two dogs sleep on top of each other. Freddy, a pug, lays on top of Stonecold, a larger dog.
“The reason I love working from home. My boys Stonecold (brown guy) and Freddie (fawn boy).” -Gaby

If you could make anything happen in your own personal future, what would it be?

I will preface by saying that this is one of those things I struggle with, because I recognize that the world is not set up in a way to make this dream likely to come true. I take very seriously my chosen family – the people whom I have chosen to be in my circle. It would make me so very happy to have access to big land somewhere, and there would be two or three homes, and all my friends are there, and we’re all living in community together. Their kids are my kids – I would love to be a foster parent in this future – and my kids would be my friends’ kids. Every morning we would wake up, go for a walk, have a little food, tend to the animals, play games, cook for each other, and live our best lives together.

About The Author

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla has a strong affection for storytelling and an aptitude for translating complex topics into sharp messaging. While her career began more than a decade ago in strategic communications, an insatiable interest in everything health inspired her to return to school to study disparities research and behavior theory. Learn more about Kayla.