ASU alum's varied, accomplished public service career focuses on community health care
'I never worked to make anyone money … I’ve always worked on issues I’m passionate about'
Janey Pearl Starks describes what she chose to do in her public service career and how she went about it with confidence and satisfaction.
“One thing I’m most proud of is that I’ve never worked to make anyone money,” said the 2004 graduate from what is now the ASU School of Community Resources and Development. “My entire career has either been in the nonprofit sector or working in city, state or federal government. I’ve always worked on issues I’m passionate about or for elected officials who were addressing those issues.”
Since 2020, she has been serving as director of equity, diversity and engagement for Mountain Park Health Center, where she has worked for seven years in various capacities. Recently, she was interviewed in a November 2021 PBS NewsHour story about the center’s efforts to get Maryvale residents vaccinated. She handles most of her organization’s media duties in both English and Spanish.
While a student working toward her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a nonprofit management certificate, Pearl Starks was enrolled in the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance program. She then left Arizona to obtain her master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, completing half of her coursework at the Kennedy School of Government. After a long career of public service that included serving a U.S. representative, an Arizona attorney general and a Phoenix mayor, she returned to ASU in 2018–19 to participate in the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation’s American Express Leadership Academy.
Then she became only one of 15 people in the world selected to attend 2022’s American Express Leadership Academy 2.0 at the Aspen Institute: A Fellowship for Emerging Nonprofit Leaders. The 15 are picked from among alumni of American Express Leadership Academies, such as the Lodestar Center’s.
Read on to find out about the work Pearl Starks is doing and the road she took throughout her varied career, where she accomplished a great deal despite having “never worked to make anyone money.”
Question: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
Answer: I’m originally from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. I came to the U.S. when I was in the third grade. After a few months of living in Vacaville, California, we moved to Mesa, Arizona, where I attended Mesa Public Schools until I went to ASU.
I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for graduate school, but my love for Arizona and the desert brought me back, and I’ve been living in central Phoenix ever since.
Q: What does your work in the Maryvale community mean to you?
A: Mountain Park Health Center has clinics around the Valley, but our work in Maryvale throughout the pandemic has been especially meaningful. The Maryvale community was one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 in Arizona, and at one point, the entire country. When others had the luxury of working from home, many in Maryvale had to keep going to their jobs, further exposing them to the virus. We have been providing COVID-19 vaccines since they first became available and just received a $1 million grant to do vaccine outreach door-to-door. Getting the team of 10 set up and seeing the results we are having has probably been the most rewarding work I’ve done so far. Knowing we are providing lifesaving vaccines to a community that has faced so much definitely makes me feel we are doing work that matters.
Q: How did your time at Watts College prepare you for life after college?
A: I’ve worked for a variety of organizations in a range of positions, but I don’t think a day has gone by where I haven’t used something I learned through the Lodestar Center’s Nonprofit Leadership Alliance programming.
Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
A: From the time I was in third grade until my sophomore year at ASU, I wanted to be a bilingual elementary school teacher. I never forgot the impact my third grade teacher had on me when I came to the U.S. and wanted to have that same impact on others.
In 2000, my plans changed after the “English Only” law passed in Arizona, and I quickly went looking for another major. I was already a part of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance program (formerly American Humanics) through the Lodestar Center, but needed an actual major. I had — and continue to have — many interests, so the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree program appealed to me. While I was in the office waiting for the academic adviser to bring back the paperwork for me to finalize the change, I saw a sign for the organizational studies program, which would allow for me to get credit for many of the courses I had already taken — so technically I changed my majors twice in one day!
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: My family brought me to the U.S. with the intention of getting a good education, but at the time, that just meant finishing high school. College became a reality for me thanks to ASU’s Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program and Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute. These two programs introduced me to amazing people — many who are still part of my life — gave me the confidence to even dream about college and made me believe that if I worked hard enough, I could find the scholarships to pay for it – and they were right.
Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? Are you still in touch with him/her/them?
A: I had many great professors at ASU, but the people who taught me the most important lessons were those I met through the programs I was involved with. Staff and volunteers with the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, the Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute and the Intergroup Relations Center, among others, were with me throughout my time at ASU and were there to help me as I figured out what I would do next. I’m still in touch with many of them. ASU Educational Outreach and Student Services Director Anita Verdugo Tarango, who was my boss when I worked at ASU’s Community Service Program, spent many hours guiding, pushing and consoling me as a student and continues to play an important role in my life.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: The entire college experience changed my perspective. I think that’s what college is supposed to do. My time at ASU exposed me to a variety of thoughts, ideas, people and causes. Some I agreed with or connected to more than others, but I appreciated all of them for helping me grow.
Q: If you had college to experience all over again, what would you do differently? The same?
A: I believe I got the most I could from my college experience. While at ASU, I worked part time, was active in several student organizations, practiced capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art) four to five times a week and had to maintain a high GPA in order to keep my scholarships. During breaks, when possible, I would go to Guadalajara to visit my family.
My one regret was not doing a study abroad program. When my mentee started her ASU journey, I shared this regret with her. She ended up doing a study abroad trip to Costa Rica, which was also her first time on a plane. Just last month, I attended the Watts College fall 2021 convocation and saw her become the first in her family to walk across the stage and receive a college diploma! Her brother is now also enrolled at ASU.
Q: What is your favorite sports team?
A: The first sports team I ever fell in love with, and which still has my heart, is the Phoenix Suns. I started playing basketball in the sixth grade. I was obsessed with all things basketball, especially Charles Barkley, since I was always the smallest forward (but felt much bigger). When I turned 13, my mom wanted to make my birthday special, but didn’t have a lot of money to spend. Somehow, she got Charles Barkley to call me for my birthday. She even had a tape recorder ready, so I had proof when nobody believed me at school. It was awesome, especially since that was the year (1993) when they went to the NBA Finals. I love the current team and that they are very generous and involved in the community. Last year’s run was a thrill. Hopefully they can do it again – but win the championship.
Q: If you were given a $40 million grant to spend on solving a problem facing the world, what problem would it be and why?
A: For the past two years, I’ve been focused on trying to keep people from getting COVID-19. Despite being as careful as possible, I got it at the end of December 2020 and spent most of last year still dealing with the effects. Although many cases are mild, others aren’t. Arizona just recorded its 25,000th COVID-19-related death impacting families, livelihoods and overall well-being for generations to come. I see the results we are having with the $1 million grant, so $40 million would expand it to a much larger scale and focus on fighting some of the misinformation, building trust and making it easier to get a vaccine.
Q: What is your life motto in one sentence?
A: This one stumped me. I guess, “Help someone.” It’s been my license plate for the past 15 years. I believe that everyone – regardless of how much or how little they have – can help someone else, in ways big and small, and that it all makes a difference.