The Sky's No Limit
Deni Taveras Made It in New York From Harsh Beginnings. Now She Brings Her Brand of Leadership to Prince George’s
By Maria Lopez-Bernstein
It wasn't easy for a Dominican girl from New York to make it to the County Council's office in Prince George's County, Md., but for Councilmember Deni Taveras (D-District 2), nothing came easy anyway. She was ready for the fight.
"I'm a product of my environment," says Deni. "Salsa, merengue, all that good stuff... at one point I wanted to be a ballroom dancer."
But life had other plans for the former New Yorker.
Deni Taveras' life had a difficult start. Her mother, Filomena Garcia, committed suicide when Deni was only four years old. A self-proclaimed "hyper" child, she was shuffled among family members between New York and the Dominican Republic before eventually settling with her father, Bienvenido Taveras, a taxi driver. But tragedy struck again when her father was killed while driving his cab in the Bronx. Deni was 8.
It was the 1980s and the now-orphaned child became a ward of the state. Placed under the care of her maternal grandmother, Taveras lived in a crime and drug-infested neighborhood of Harlem where crack vials littered the streets. Through the years, Deni shared that home with nearly 20 family members. "It was a revolving door of family," she says, "this is ultimate first generation."
Essentially orphaned, life kept throwing curve balls toward the young Taveras.
"Talk about the school-to-prison pipeline," Deni says of her middle school which was across the street from a juvenile detention center. Life was bleak to many young people who fell through the cracks, but Deni wouldn’t become one of those. “I became very serious after my Dad died because I felt very alone… I couldn't depend on anyone and because of that I had to grow up very fast…I knew there had to be a better quality of life."
The Value of Education and Opportunities
Deni credits her aunt Eva, a school teacher in the Dominican Republic, with instilling her value of education. Unfortunately, the rest of her family wasn’t as supportive. "My grandmother only had a first grade education. I really knew I couldn't get at home what I needed, so I always tried to get involved in afterschool activities."
Programs such as the Science and Technology Entry Program, Talent Search, Double Discovery at Columbia University, and Liberty Leads gave the young student the supplementary opportunities and extra educational push she needed. Deni set her sights on a career in theoretical physical chemistry.
Mentorship was pivotal. While a student enrolled in the HEOP program at Barnard College, "there was a lady there named Francesca Cuevas who was an amazing mentor, mother figure. She was just amazing and she ran the office at that time and she was really an anchor for all of us; for a whole generation of young women that went through the school and through the HEOP program."
To support herself, Deni took on babysitting jobs and tutored high school students. At one point, she held three jobs at the same time. Community service became more important. She involved herself in extracurricular activities and student-led initiatives, “we protested student budget cuts during the Giuliani administration in the early 2000s.” In addition, she engaged in women’s issues and volunteered for Take Back the Night events, which were organized by female student leaders. “I also supported professional associations for students of color… I was President of the local NSBE chapter, the National Society of Black Engineers,” recounted Deni Taveras. Her college years were the beginning of her sense of purpose working within the community.
A Calling To Community
But while earning a Master's in chemistry at the University of Utah, Deni says, she missed community involvement. “I felt disconnected from the community, from what I grew up with… Even while in Utah, I felt my ties to the community – I was disenfranchised on the periphery of society.” So she decided to do some informational interviewing within the Latino community. There, she noted that Latinos in Utah were living with the same issues that Latinos in New York lived with, “There was a draw to get educational opportunities for Latinos.” And she realized the field of chemistry wasn’t going to allow her to interact with the disenfranchised Latino community that she wanted to help.
A soul-searching year-long sabbatical took her to Chicago, Ill, where she figured out she could combine her two passions for science and community by working on environmental issues. The young professional went to work with the Environmental Protection Agency in New York.
She didn't know it before working for the EPA, "but politics plays a role in the environment," says Deni. She became involved with Dominicans 2000, a group of Dominican would-be leaders seeking to make community change through political action. This peer group included such notables as New York City councilman Ydanis Rodriguez; former U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Julissa Reynoso and Daisy Dominguez, now Global Head of Diversity Staffing at Google. This phenomenal group, Deni points out, "wanted to do something about moving marginalized communities forward... for them to be heard, for them to have a seat at the table... they were successful in their careers."
Coming to Maryland
A job offer from the Dominican American National Roundtable in Washington, D.C., along with what Deni calls "ideology and naive optimism" brought her to Maryland. At DANR, Deni was able to help with the passing of CAFTA-DR (Central America Free Trade Agreement). But things at DANR were not as they seemed—so her brief foray into the banking industry remained just that.
And then Hurricane Katrina happened.
Still feeling a pull to help communities, she traveled to New Orleans with FEMA to serve as a public information officer and disaster relief worker. Taveras stayed with FEMA for five years, but cominghome after working for FEMA was like coming home from a war, "you just see one disaster after the next," Deni says. So she resigned.
Unemployed when the housing crisis hit, her condominium complex in Adelphi was going under. The complex management overspent their budget by over a half million dollars. There were vacancies and foreclosures. With a lot of opposition from her very diverse neighbors, Deni took control of the condo, overseeing its management and within a couple of years, Deni reports, took it from a near-bankrupt association to a multi-million dollar organization.
Taking note of Taveras’ success with her condo, Senator Victor Ramirez tapped her for a job in his organization. Together, they helped pass the DREAM Act and passed a law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license. "Those were great milestones for him and for the state and for Latinos and so I'm proud to have been a part of that."
Wanting more, Deni set her eyes on a way to make a larger impact for her community. Winning by just six votes, Deni became the first Latina to hold a County Council seat in Prince George's.
With a passion for social justice issues, she's hoping to make a difference in her council role for all communities, but especially the Latino community that she finds especially marginalized. The council member mentions that Latino students make up one-third the public school system in Prince George's and are exponentially growing, yet among over 200 principals, only one is Latino. She wants to change this.
"I think this is an opportunity to push the agenda and ask for more so that the systems in place reflect the population they're actually serving. Not just at the highest levels of administration, but at the teacher and principal levels, these students need to see themselves there so they can see the possibilities than just becoming the janitor and the secretary."
And long-time friend Reggie Ellison feels Taveras can do anything. "[Coming from Harlem] she has a sense of toughness about her that will serve her well in a sense that she has to fight issues [that exist in the Hispanic community] that other council members are not familiar with [because they are not their constituents]," says the Senior Community Development Analyst who works for the federal government in affordable housing and lives in Deni's district. He feels Deni’s strength lies in both her toughness and her ability to listen. "Deni is one of the most caring, supportive people I know," he adds. And he should know. They met 10 years ago at a Princeton alumni event and have been friends ever since. She has been one of his go-to people for advice in his professional and personal life. "She's someone who if you're experiencing challenges, she will not only listen to you, but she will help you through the challenges... She's a good listener and she's empathetic... [this] helps her to do her job more thoroughly in the county."
Deni sees the divisions within the different ethnic groups and feels this needs to be addressed. "We can actually talk about the agenda that goes beyond the immigration question." She says she wants to provide real opportunities, be supportive and create new leaders within those communities. She says she not only wants to serve as an example, but wants to create spaces for Latinos to grow. And this, Ellison says, is important: As a Latina “who really cares about the issues and public policy… given the times we're in, we're going to need her voice." He foresees a seat for her in the State of Maryland.
But for now, ever present in the community, the new council member is proving to be an advocate for better public schools, safer streets, increased sustainable economic development, and a champion for the environment. She plans on making Prince George's County greater.
Deni knows it is all a process and that it will take a long time. Always a dedicated, hard working, high achiever, she's ready for the long haul. She's running for re-election.
"The only thing I didn't achieve was become a ballroom dancer."
Well, there's always time for that.