Two community leaders born and raised in Southern California, Kimmy Maniquis, LA Executive Director, and LaDawn Best, Head of Sites, share a lot of love for Los Angeles and decades of experience serving its young folx. Chief Operating Officer Robin Rich sat down with them both earlier this month to discuss the first 90 days in their new roles, and their shared vision in ushering in a new era for Los Angeles. [This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
I’m really excited, it’s a special privilege to have you both in this conversation today.
Kimmy, so much of your personal history is intertwined with different parts of community. When you look back, why do you think you said yes to this role?
I was born and raised here in Southern California broadly. My parents actually met in LA, married, started to raise a family and headed east, which is a pattern that a lot of immigrant Filipino families followed. Over the years,—having left for a while to live in Orange County, the the Bay Area and coming back to settle in Long Beach—it feels like a combination of familiarity and home, and also so much to uncover and learn!
I’m excited to get to explore the nuances of different communities throughout Southern California through this work. When I look back though, being able to continue to serve youth and to have a really focused approach toward equity issues were central to my decision to take on the Executive Director role. Through CCEJ, I was doing more broad social justice and equity education with young folx. With Peer Health Exchange, it’s great to be able to connect to a program that has a very specific approach, proven to be successful and with the potential for extended reach.
LaDawn you first joined us as LA’s Program Director. You then served as LA’s Executive Director before joining our national executive leadership team as Head of Sites. But you’ve also, spent years in leadership roles throughout the area. Tell us a little bit about why you love Los Angeles, for you specifically Long Beach, and what made you want to come to Peer Health Exchange back when you first applied for Program Director?
I made the conscious choice to move to Long Beach when I was 19 years old because I wanted to live in a place that would embrace my whole self. Long Beach really was that place for me 25 years ago, and that’s why I still love this city. It’s very diverse and welcoming in a lot of ways, both racially and with the large and vibrant LGBTQ community. I really feel our values in Peer Health Exchange are very similar to the values that I see here in Long Beach.
I’ve always had a passion for working with young people and specifically LGBTQ young people of color. Prior to working as a Peer Health Exchange, I was up at the LA LGBT Center for almost a decade. I was just wrapping up my Master’s in Education and knew that I didn’t want to be in the classroom as a teacher, but I wanted to be able to be in youth space and affect change. I think Peer Health Exchange really meshes my passion for working with young people without being a classroom teacher.
For me, why I continue to passionately do this work has to do with our core values of agency, youth leadership, and development but also visibility. Growing up, I never had a teacher that looked like me until I reached college. As a black, queer, masculine-presenting person, when I step into a classroom as an educator, I see the difference my presence makes in certain students in that moment. And so for me, it’s important to just be there because I think visibility really matters.
You and Kimmy had worked together and known each other in the community for some time before Kimmy came to Peer Health Exchange. What was the most exciting thing about hiring her as the next LA Executive Director?
To me, Kimmy has just been a pillar in this community for a really long time. We had the opportunity to serve on the city’s Human Relations Commission together for a couple of years and it was really seeing Kimmy’s leadership, being a voice for the most marginalized in our communities month after month in those meetings, that I knew she would be absolutely perfect for Peer Health Exchange. I wouldn’t have left the ED position had we not had a strong leader to come in and really take Los Angeles to the next level.
Kimmy, when you think about leading the Los Angeles site, what’s your big dream for LA?
Long Beach has a special place in my heart, but I feel like there are so many reasons why Long Beach makes sense for where we move next. We have a health department here that’s part of the city as well as a really strong university devoted to health equity in the community. So that’s the goal for two years down the line.
Beyond that, I like the idea of partnering with the college affiliate model to do some work around the Inland Empire. Even areas further north, like Antelope Valley, that are kind of on the outskirts of LA and have tremendous need but are sometimes forgotten. I think these are really exciting things that I would love to explore in the future.
Thinking out toward the future of our Los Angeles site, what’s one big hope you each have for young folx in LA?
The piece around agency is so key. I really hope that young people use their voices to their fullest potential to advocate for themselves and also for their communities.
I feel like so often we’re focused so much on health and education that we forget the baseline necessity for people, especially young people, to just experience joy on a day to day basis. So my wish for the young people in Long Beach and LA is joy—to enjoy childhood and to enjoy life.