Community advocate and organizational development
expert Marta Nieves, 81, nearly always finds the silver
“I’m a visionary. I can envision so many positive things,”
The bilingual Nieves has family roots in Cuba. Born in
Tampa, Florida, she grew up in New York City, where she
learned life lessons from her grandmother, Theresa.
“Her philosophy has really impacted me,” Nieves said.
“She was very open and thought everybody is worthy of
being treated with dignity if they are honest and respectful.
The word spread to anybody coming from Cuba, ‘Go to
Theresa’s house and she will give you a good meal and be
Nieves comes from a strong line of women.
“The women in my family were brilliant but they didn’t get
far in school. If they had the opportunities I had, they’d be
in the history books. I said, ‘It’s not going to be that way for
me or for my kids.’ I was the first one in my family to go to
college. I’ve been a determined person my whole life and
I’m not going to change now.”
Her family moved from Tampa to escape discrimination.
NYC’s melting pot shaped her life.
“I’m very grateful I grew up in a multicultural environment.
That diversity’s helped me to get along with many different
kinds of people. I’ve developed a natural trust of people.
That belief has held me in very good stead my entire life. I
make a choice to set aside any preconceived notions.”
Before pursuing higher ed, she used her hand-arts skills.
“I went through the Central Needle Trades High School in
New York. I got placed in one of the better (fashion)
houses when I graduated, but then I got married and
moved to Washington, D.C. I’ve always been a doer, so I
went to work at a milliner shop in Maryland.”
She moved with her career U.S. Air Force husband from
station to station, including Ankara, Turkey, the Philippines
and Great Falls, Montana. When they moved to Bellevue
in 1969 for his final post at SAC headquarters, the couple
had four kids. Upon his retirement, they made Nebraska
Through all her travels and experiences, she’s never
wavered from core beliefs.
“I care about what happens to people. I have an
undergraduate in psychology and a master’s in social
work. I chose social work specifically because it gives me
many avenues to work on the positive side of things. A lot
of social workers try to fix problems. My philosophy is you
need to do prevention so the problem doesn’t arise in the
first place. The different organizations I have worked with
all have prevention in mind.
“If I can make the world a better place for others, it’s
making it a better place for me and my family.”
Though she’s mostly worked with nonprofits, she enjoyed
an 11-year career at United Healthcare, for which she
guided “culture change.”
“I still run into people who tell me they never found another
work environment like we had there.”
For the national Girl Scouts council, she helped develop
programs that allowed Latino employees to increase their
educational attainment and get promoted. One program
enabled her to finish college and become local girl scouts
She’s taught cultural competency, change management,
conflict resolution and team work for many groups. She
facilitates enhanced interpersonal relationships within
organizations. Clients learn to identify biases and negative
attitudes and to adopt positive mindsets.
“A big part of the work I’ve done in all these organizations
is build self-awareness. The decision-making is up to the
person. but the self-awareness has to be there or nothing
“I’m a systems person. If I have a vision and can gather
people around me to share that vision, it’s amazing what
can happen. You can’t tell me something can’t be done
because I’ve done things people said couldn’t be done. I’m
She balanced her consulting work with Nebraska
Democratic Party politics. She helped form and chaired
the state party’s Latinx Caucus. At the last state
convention, she passed the torch to others.
“I’m so proud of the new Latinx Caucus team,” Nieves
said. “They are a dynamite group.”
She’s paved the way for more Latino involvement in the
party as volunteers, voters and candidates.
But these are hard times for her party.
“We’re battling two things: The fatigue people feel because
of this president and the tremendous divide.”
Nieves wants people to know their voices matter and they
can make the change they want by voting.
She mentors young Latinos she views as future leaders
through Latinas Unidas and other groups.
“We have so much talent in the Latino community. Lots get
recognized but not enough. They don’t always have the
connections. The key thing is that you see the opportunity.
Latino people are very humble people as a rule, and that
sometimes makes it difficult to navigate this competitive
environment and fight for what you want.
“It’s important emerging leaders get on track, meet the
right people, so they can blossom to their full potential,”
she said. “I’m always keeping my eyes open for
possibilities to enhance other people’s lives. That’s my
Her children and grandchildren are also her legacy. The
opportunities given her have benefited her family.
“It’s a true gift. I feel we have been given so much I have a
responsibility to contribute, so I want to pay it forward.
That’s the story of my life. I want to see people happy and
fulfilled. It’s such a joy when that happens.”
Her human relations and civic engagement work netted
her many honors and awards.
The energetic Nieves vows, “I will continue to mentor,
support, empower and encourage. It’s a passion.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.