Maria Guillen: A Lifetime of Service
“I want you to have a life,” Maria Guillen’s mother Helen told her when she was young. The elder Guillen knew that Maria, the eldest of 7 in a family living paycheck to paycheck in Los Angeles, could be held back by the challenges of her youth. So, Helen encouraged her daughter to spread her wings and fly. That Maria did.
With assistance from the Upward Bound Program, a result of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Maria was the first in her family to attend college, beginning her studies at Chico State. Concerned that most writings, studies, and analyses on LatinX culture were written by Caucasians, she set about ensuring that LatinX voices were heard. When not studying, she tutored many immigrant Spanish-speaking children at local schools. She also protested the conditions of farm workers alongside the United Farm Workers – it was not uncommon to see Maria picketing local Safeways to support the grape and lettuce boycotts at the time.
Maria ended up at Golden Gate University to study urban planning. She fell in love with San Francisco and would spend the rest of her professional career in the city. Initially, she worked for the Maritime Administration Civil Rights Office, then worked in the nonprofit sector, before beginning a long and committed career in local government.
In 1989, Maria took a job with the City and County of San Francisco as a Senior Information and Referral Specialist. In that role, she excelled at learning the various services and resources available to seniors and caregivers. She used her keen listening and interpersonal communication skills to help guide older residents to multiple resources and to overcome any barriers they encountered.
After nine years, the City promoted Maria to the Program Analyst position for the San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging Services (DAS). At DAS, she became an invaluable resource to the various city organizations offering services to elders and people living with disabilities. Significant components of her job included needs assessment planning, contract compliance, and technical assistance to agencies and/or community groups. Maria is proud that during her time at DAS, she assisted Senior and Disability Action and the George Davis Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Center with their presentations at National Area Association on Aging conferences, where both groups received innovative program model awards.
“What made Maria so effective at her job was her ability to form relationships built on trust, to lift up the voices of people without representation, and to bring people to consensus,” said Shireen McSpadden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Services. “Maria had the unique ability to help us all see through the lens of those often left out of conversations. She was (and is) a fierce advocate for people with disabilities, older adults, and people of color.”
Her 26 years in city government (she retired in 2015) would have been enough for many, but not Maria. While serving San Francisco seniors and people with disabilities, she found time to act as a shop steward, mentor, and executive officer for the Service Employees International Union, Local 790 (that became Local 1021) for 28 years. Maria currently represents the union on the San Francisco Labor Council but will be stepping down soon.
“When Maria started to work for the City, she became involved with a huge issue that was threatening to eliminate jobs within her department; she jumped on board, helped organize her co-workers, educating them about what was happening and reinforcing the notion that they had the power to prevent this,” said Conny Ford, Secretary Treasure of the Office and Professional Workers International Union, Local 3. “In the end, the Union won this fight, and workers were able to keep their jobs. The values of solidarity, willingness to fight for what is right, and kindness are SEIU1021 values and are also values that Maria lives by.”
Maria has served on the Boards of Senior and Disability Action, Art with Elders, Causa Justa::Just Cause, Mission Neighborhood Centers, and Mission Information Center. She’s been a member of the Long-Term Services and Support for All Task Force, and co-chair for the Latino Partnership of San Francisco. She was also a founding member of San Francisco Jobs with Justice, an organization that brings labor and community together to build lasting relationships, mutual solidarity, and greater power.
“No Justice, No Peace, Maria is a rebel when it comes to Human Rights!’ said her long-term colleague, Maria Richardson, of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco
For the past 12 years, Maria has worked with Hand in Hand: the National Domestic Employer Network, which organizes employers of domestic workers— nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers— to make homes fair, safe, and equitable workplaces. Hand in Hand also stands in solidarity with domestic workers in their fight to win legal rights and protections.
Maria sees herself as a member leader, always part of the fight. Her favorite quote – which comes from an unknown Aboriginal elder – aptly describes her beliefs: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine then let us work together.”
Maria’s father once told her, “If there were more people like you, the world would be a better place.” We can all agree. Thank you, Maria.