Tamara Khachatryan, left, from Syria, shares her recipe with Laura Penny during the Dishes & Stories program, which trains refugee and immigrant women in the culinary arts. Penny is an advocate for women’s rights.


Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star 2013

When Laura Penny got the chance to head up a local foundation that helps women, she didn’t flinch.

“I had been a feminist since I was 15,” she says.

It was 2004 and the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona hired Penny as its director. The foundation, which was created in 1991, had failed to gain traction in finding money to give to nonprofit groups in support of women.

That changed after Penny got on board.

In the fiscal year before Penny joined the foundation, it had distributed $72,000 in grants.

In this fiscal year, which ends June 30, the foundation will have given $330,000 to various groups that support and empower women in literacy, refugee resettlement, legal assistance, housing, financial education, reproductive health care, sexual violence treatment and prevention, and student engagement in school.

It’s an achievement Penny and the foundation’s board of directors are rightly proud of. The organization has seen plenty of other accomplishments in the decade that Penny, a former adult counselor, has led the organization.

Now, though, Penny has decided to step down and allow someone new to take the foundation to the next level.

“Fresh leadership is a good thing,” Penny said Friday in an interview from her small office in the East Broadway building of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.

Her decision was not easy to make, and it was hard for the board to accept, wrote Mary Keane, president of the board of directors for the Women’s Foundation.

“It came as a big surprise to me when she told me about her plans earlier this week, and I am saddened by the news. The good news, however, is that Laura will be leaving a very healthy organization that is well-positioned for continued success,” Keane wrote in a letter to the Arizona Daily Star announcing Penny’s decision.

Penny, 56, not only increased the financial viability of the foundation in creating a $2 million endowment, she also helped restore community confidence in the foundation. She helped reshape it, making it a stronger and more visible advocate for women. She also resurrected a foundation program to train young women in leadership and grant-writing skills.

“A lot of that has been at her hand, at her leadership,” said Tucson attorney M. Roxanne Veliz, a partner with the law firm Snell & Wilmer and a four-year member of the foundation’s board.

Penny focused in recent years on efforts to bring attention to poverty and violence affecting women, and the lack of early education opportunities for children.

Earlier this year the foundation released a study it commissioned highlighting the depth of poverty among single mothers in Arizona.

“But women are not just victims of poverty. Women are an important part of the solution. Global and national research shows a clear correlation between the economic empowerment of women and increased economic and social benefits to children, families and the wider community. In other words, when women earn income that gives them real spending power, they invest it in ways that have a multiplier effect,” wrote Penny and Kelly Fryer, executive director of the YWCA Tucson, in an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star earlier this year.

Penny is especially proud of the development of Unidas, a program that has trained about 150 young women to work toward social change.

Dené Rankin, 26, participated in Unidas for two years while attending Sabino High School, and a third year while studying at the University of Arizona. She and the other participants learned to interact with professional adults, engage in their communities and make positive changes.

“It gave me the confidence to go out and achieve whatever I wanted,” said Rankin, who after graduating from the UA with a degree in communications works as the director of scholarships and development at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School.

The foundation’s board will begin a search for a new director, Keane said, and Penny will remain for as long as six months.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at netopjr@azstarnet.com or at 573-4187.