Scattered amongst the office shelves and corners of Daniela Pineda’s desk are a bevy of notebooks in all shapes, sizes and colors. Enough, in fact, to give one pause for reflection:
What does she do with all those notebooks?
“Those are journals for my reflections,” Daniela said, smiling warmly at a writer’s curiosity.
In them, she records her day-to-day thoughts, inspirations and learnings. These include reflections from her personal and work life at First 5 LA where, fittingly, this avid learner has taken the helm as Vice President of the agency’s new Integration and Learning Division.
Daniela’s passion for learning came, in part, from an early love of reading. Growing up in Mexico, one of the first books she read during her elementary school years was “Little Women”, which she picked out because the cover had girls on it. As a reward for good behavior, Daniela’s aunt would provide more books to read from her collection. By the time she was 8, Daniela was diving into tomes like “Pride and Prejudice”.
“In Mexico, I was always reading, all the time,” Daniela recalled. “I think my obsession with reading books and consuming information goes back to feeling that people that have information can do more things. This may seem so vague but neither of my parents had a chance to go to school because they lived in rural areas and had to take care of younger siblings. So my parents really sacrificed so much so we could have time to go to school that it always elevated school to being a fun and privileged activity.”
Daniela carried this love of learning from Mexico - where she excelled in school - to East Los Angeles, where she moved into a converted garage at the age of 9 with her family. The move brought sadness to the young girl – not just for being separated from her friends and school, but because the books she loved to read were now in an unknown language: English.
“I didn’t realize we were a super poor family until I went to college”-Daniela Pineda
But Daniela was a quick study. While the world was reading newspapers about the collapse of the Soviet Union, Daniela was learning English in part by reading books about the Soviet Union’s ethnic subgroups. Indeed, she was always more curious about other cultures than she was about physically risky things like riding a bike, swimming or roller coasters.
Daniela’s passion for learning took her to the top of her class at Montebello High School. She began her university studies at Pomona College, where she received a lesson in another area that would become a lifelong passion – the issue of inequity.
“I didn’t realize we were a super poor family until I went to college,” said Daniela, who recalled one fellow student who grew up with servants.
This kind of disparity – and the accessibility of a good college education for those without privilege – prompted Daniela to take action on behalf of her younger brother, Alejandro. She wanted to help him enroll in a private academy for K-12, one with a nurturing environment that exposed him to other cultures and provided an education that could help further his university pursuits. But the academy’s cost was over $25,000 a year.
Fortunately, she found a champion for children: a counselor named Troy at Southwestern Academy in San Marino.
“Troy became a champion by not letting money become an issue,” Daniela recalled. “He encouraged me; coaching me through the process, walking me through the application, the meeting with the headmaster and my parents – where I translated - and helping my brother receive a scholarship.”
The experience at Southwestern Academy was a good fit for her brother – who excelled in sports and academics, became a resident advisor to other students and went on to study at the University of California at San Diego. And it had an impact on Daniela, who started her early career in education after earning a Bachelor’s degree from Pomona College and later a doctorate in Public Policy and Sociology and an M.A. from the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor.
“I wanted to understand how to bring more equity for children who do not have life handed to them on a silver platter,” she said.
This passion for understanding – and solving problems for the benefit of others – led Daniela to applied research work such as fellowships with Mathematica Policy Research, the National Poverty Center, the National Science Foundation, and the Association for Institutional Research, among others. She went on to become the first Strategic Data Officer for the Postsecondary Success team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she managed evaluation and research investments that focused on surfacing actionable data to inform strategy and decision-making. Prior to joining First 5 LA, she served as the Associate Director of Evaluation and Impact at Living Cities in Washington, D.C. In this role, Daniela defined the strategic direction for all of Living Cities’ measurement, learning, and evaluation investments.
Throughout her career, Daniela has exceled at translating evaluation and research findings into actionable information for diverse audiences.
“The value of the information business is the ability to understand what people need, translate that across different points of view, do things in a collaborative way, and to present information in a way that helps people make informed decisions,” she said.
“As a researcher, Daniela is well regarded for the rigor she brings to her work,” said Ed Smith-Lewis, Career Pathways Initiative Director at UNCF and Daniela’s former colleague. “However, it is her efforts as a champion and advocate for young children and families that demonstrate her value in the field. Her ability to contextualize data, understand nuances, and identify opportunities is indispensable. Daniela is a passionate, data-driven change agent. She is constantly seeking opportunities to improve the outcomes of those around her – especially those without the means to support themselves.”
“As a researcher, Daniela is well regarded for the rigor she brings to her work” -Ed Smith-Lewis
In her new role as Vice President of Integration and Learning, Daniela will oversee the development of the learning and evaluation framework for all First 5 LA programs and grants, and is responsible for creating and championing an organizational culture of continuous learning and ongoing improvement. Pineda also is responsible for ensuring First 5 LA is supported by best practices in evaluation and performance measurement methodologies and robust data analysis to capture learnings to improve organizational effectiveness, program performance and impact.
“At First 5 LA, one of the things I can do is look at the way First 5 LA shares information and the ways we communicate internally and externally,” Daniela said. “The most basic definition of a learning organization is one that is able to adapt. If you stay doing the things you were doing, that’s not good enough in this day and age. I learn by asking a lot of questions and digging into details. I experiment. I’m really good at taking things apart and looking at what we need to do to move things forward.”
Looking ahead, Daniela said, what we learn at First 5 LA can help educate other stakeholders, child advocates, decision makers and the public about the important issues facing young children and their families. Not just in Los Angeles County, but beyond.
“In the U.S., there should be urgency about what is going on in the lives of children,” she said. “I think we should look at knowledge as a public good. There is not an agency like ours that is a public entity trying to do the things we are at the scale we are doing. We have such a great platform. The county and state are listening. We need to think more broadly about the learning we have done and get it out there in the public.”
Now that’s a thought to reflect on.