Making A Great Impact | Malea Chavez

Malea Chavez


Malea Chavez, CEO of Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, has always been motivated by innovation and creative new ways of problem-solving. As a Staff Attorney, she was limited to the number of people she could assist. Still, when Malea learned about the impact of being a leader and shaping policy on the whole community, she was inspired to move into a leadership role. By becoming a managing attorney, Malea created new legal clinics that met people in their communities in welcoming environments less intimidating than the courthouse. “This was when I first made the clear connection between food insecurity and policy work; all of my legal clinics coincided with a food pantry or food bank distribution,” she explains. “I found that people made very different decisions when they came in right after picking up their groceries. I had a higher level of paperwork completion and court filings as well as a higher rate of follow-up appointments from clients that worked with us at the legal clinics.”

Malea established new training programs for undergraduate students and paralegals, which served as pipelines for those interested in law school. She even worked with the Small Claims Court to create a Mediation program that became part of the dispute resolution department. When leaving the court to return to the nonprofit sector, Malea was motivated to integrate policy and advocacy into the transformative work that outstanding social and community health workers did daily.

“I hope that being a strong leader will enable me to assist more people and make a greater impact in the community,” she adds. “Holistic services and a commitment to treating others with dignity and respect are essential for me as a leader.” Malea’s goal is to work collaboratively and to support the whole team. During her year and a half at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, she has shifted the culture to an inclusive and holistic approach to address the ever-growing need for food security today and work on long-term systems change to the root causes of hunger.

Inspiration & Leadership

Malea’s mother was a social worker in Tucson for decades, and Malea’s first experience with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona was when her mother would pick up the emergency food boxes for those in need and she would drive along with her mother to drop them off on the weekend or after school. Later, when her mother and stepfather divorced, Malea and her mother benefited from the emergency food boxes. Knowing firsthand what a huge difference the food bank can make in people’s lives motivates her passion for this work. “It is an honor to lead the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and come full circle; all of the learning and experience I have gained over the years helps me face this challenging work to strengthen the community and raise awareness around the critical issue of food insecurity,” she elucidates. “I am a strengths-based leader, believing that everyone brings unique skills and their own lived experience into the workplace. I aspire to support our team by encouraging others to share their ideas and to pursue their interests.”

Continuous learning is something that Malea highly encourages. Over the past 15 years of senior leadership, she has prioritized implementing individual learning plans and education stipends for all staff members. Taking the time to ensure that others are heard and valued is critical to her leadership style. This can be something other than what male leaders traditionally valued in the past, and it continues to be a different way of leading compared to many of her male counterparts. However, one person made a significant impact on Malea’s life in valuing and encouraging her to become someone who could serve a great cause.

Malea’s first Managing Attorney supervisor, Cristina Llop, was and is a true inspiration to her. She taught her what it was to lead in new and daring ways. “No idea was too much of a stretch so long as I could produce a plan, a budget, and show an impact. She encouraged me to pursue alternative dispute resolution programs such as mediation, and we worked in collaboration with community-based organizations to form partnerships and clinics, including unbundling of legal services, which was very new and cutting edge at the time,” says Malea. “She was kind and believed in others while still managing to teach the hard lessons. She allowed others to try and sometimes fail. I learned these skills from her, and I have carried them with me throughout my career.”

Working For a Cause

According to Malea, there are myriad reasons for the growing need for food banks – the high cost of food, inflation, increased transportation costs, and the rising cost of housing coupled with job losses – to name a few. The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona is combating food insecurity in many ways, including teaching people how to grow their food and making fresh produce and local food accessible at the local farmer’s markets, where SNAP recipients can “double-up” their benefits. This year, they have spent more money purchasing food to provide consistent proteins throughout their five-county region and expand the child nutrition programs.

The pioneering leader’s most significant achievements have been the people who go on to do amazing things and later let her know that her leadership made a difference in their lives. For instance, a former intern who is now in law school or is now a practicing attorney, a community health worker who started as an apprentice and is now a manager, or a mother who was out of the workforce for over a decade who returned to work in a whole different field and grew into a successful leader in her own right. Volunteers who later started their own nonprofits or former staff members whom Malea now considers close friends.”Treating people with respect and still getting the work done in new and different ways, does not seem revolutionary, but it can be in traditional systems that were not designed by people with varied life experiences who have been on the receiving end of the services,” she adds.

Malea is constantly looking for opportunities to grow and learn from others. In her current role at the Community Food Bank, her personal learning goal this year is to become a certified forklift operator. She has three more months to complete this goal. “I joke that I am always trying to work my way out of a job. By this, I mean that I am hoping to mentor and train others to take over the role I occupy,” she says. “If people are interested in growing and learning, I want to be a support. Next year I have two goals for additional growth at work: launching a mentorship program for staff and starting a pipeline leadership program for staff members moving into management or supervisory roles.”

Malea and her team are about to embark on a yearlong strategic planning process that will set the course for their organization for three years. This will be a time of growth, learning, and planning. She is excited to see where the collective decision-making will lead them and hopes to participate in BIPOC or women’s leadership training to keep building a network and gaining new insights. building a network and gaining new insights.

" I am a strengths-based leader, believing that everyone brings unique skills and their own lived experience into the workplace. I aspire to support our team by encouraging others to share their ideas and to pursue their interests. "

Malea Chavez


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