Cecilia Zavala


Born and raised in Southwest Detroit, Cecilia Zavala has over 25 years of executive and nonprofit leadership experience. Her background includes working at Latino Family Services, where she facilitated HIV education and testing for high-risk individuals. This work was incredibly important at the time, as HIV education and testing were not accessible within Southwest Detroit during the height of the pandemic. These efforts led her to become the Manager of the Prevention Department at Latino Family Services before moving on to becoming the Director of Programming at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation. She spent 13 years successfully implementing preventative and interventive programming for at-risk youth and their families. This included after-school programs, substance abuse treatments, the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, GEDs, and ESL classes.

Quickly rising through the ranks of Detroit’s Hispanic-focused nonprofits, Cecilia founded her own organization, Esperanza Detroit. Then, she lost it all in one of the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable. Just as her nonprofit had won the right to take their pilot program statewide, Zavala found herself accused of financial wrongdoing. Worse, the evidence she wanted to use to clear her name was declared unusable by a judge. In the end, she took a plea deal that kept her out of prison, but that left her reputation and her career in tatters.

Building her life back up took grit and determination. It also strengthened her ability to empathize with others and clarified her values and goals in life. The injustice she saw in the legal system—not only what she experienced, but how she saw others treated—made her want to work for criminal justice reform. Now, Zavala is putting her career’s worth of talent and experience to work as Safe & Just Michigan’s grants manager.

In some ways, it seems Zavala was destined for this sort of work. She grew up as the oldest of four siblings in southwestern Detroit in a family headed by a mother who worked for a nonprofit and a father who was a firefighter. Public service was not only taught as a value, it was demonstrated daily. She is the mother of four daughters, all of whom now work in the nonprofit sector. She resides in Metro Detroit, Michigan.