Camila Rivera-Tinsley, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

During two decades as an environmental educator with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia, Camila Rivera-Tinsley was a devoted advocate for plants and animals. 

In her new role as chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh-based Women and Girls Foundation, she wants to be a voice for women as they try to achieve gender equity in education, the workplace and public policy issues.

“I used to advocate for parks. Now I’m advocating for the people using those parks,” says Rivera-Tinsley, 44. 

She became CEO in September, succeeding Heather Arnet, who left the foundation earlier this year to become chief executive at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York. Arnet was the first CEO of the foundation and held the post for 18 years. 

Among the initiatives developed during Arnet’s tenure are GirlGov, a program that engages high school girls in public service and government; TRAIL (Training Regional Advocates to Influence Leadership), a statewide legislative advocacy program for people with disabilities; and a campaign for paid family and medical leave.

The foundation is a partner in Single Mom Defined, a support network that provides babysitting, meal delivery and other resources to local women. It also collaborated with the Black Women’s Policy Center and YWCA Greater Pittsburgh on Level Up, a program that promotes pay equity — especially for women of color. 

According to the Black Women’s Policy Center, Black female workers nationwide on average earn 63 cents for every dollar earned by white men. In Pittsburgh, Black women earn only 53 cents for every dollar earned by white men.

As a Black woman, Rivera-Tinsley says she has “lived experience” on wage and racial equity. “Having my voice and perspective at the table just makes sense,” she says.

Camila Rivera-Tinsley took over as CEO of the Women & Girls Foundation in September. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

During an interview in her Lawrenceville office — a space featuring whitewashed brick walls and filled with natural light — she said the foundation is undertaking a new strategic plan and will seek community input. 

One of her goals is to provide microgrants to individual women who are “working to make their voices heard” for social change. The foundation already makes grants to small nonprofits; Rivera-Tinsley envisions expanding its investments to female entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses. 

“I see the foundation as a conduit for financial good,” she says. 

The nonprofit has a current annual budget of about $1 million, says Rivera-Tinsley.  Its 2019 federal tax filing — the most recent available — showed revenues of about $864,000 and assets totaling about $566,000. Besides the CEO, the foundation employs three people.

A Washington, D.C. native, Rivera-Tinsley grew up in Connecticut and Long Island, New York, where she was raised by an aunt and uncle.

A self-described “rough and tumble tomboy,” she loved spending time outdoors with her uncle while he gardened and “found solace in green spaces,” she says. Her high school offered a horticulture course and its greenhouse became her refuge when she cut other classes. 

The family didn’t have much money, so when Penn State recruiters came to her high school and provided free applications, she filled one out, checked off horticulture as a desired major, and was accepted to the University Park campus. 

She found her niche among a predominantly white student body by joining an organization for minorities in the horticulture department. 

After graduation, Rivera-Tinsley landed a position as naturalist educator at the Schuylkill Center

“It was a dream job that touched a lot of individuals — both youth and other educators who I trained,” she says.

Camila Rivera-Tinsley’s first job in the city was at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

But as a single mother supporting a daughter, now 17, Rivera-Tinsley needed to grow her income. “At a green nonprofit, you don’t get paid much.”

At the same time, she was finding her voice as a Black woman and the only person of color working at the Schuylkill Center. She became active in professional organizations including the Climate & Urban Systems Partnership and the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators, whose members were keen to diversify environmental education programs. 

Through those groups, she connected with peers in Pittsburgh who recommended her for a director of education position at the Parks Conservancy. She was hired in 2016 and soon added the title of education director for the Frick Environmental Center. 

“The conservancy brought me here because I was a woman of color so I worked with leadership on how to make systemic changes,” she says. 

Her efforts included expanding programming with a focus on “racial justice within environmental education … to make sure it was being made accessible to everyone across the city.”

In her first few years on the job, Rivera-Tinsley considered herself to be “a small, persistent voice” about racial equity in conservancy education. 

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, “I felt it was my duty and job to uplift others and I became really vocal … about DEIJ (diversity, equity, inclusion, justice) issues.”

For example, she helped to launch the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition, which works with organizations statewide to broaden outdoor recreation experiences and job opportunities for diverse and marginalized communities. 

Her focus on racial justice will continue at the foundation, she says, because “racial justice and women’s justice are intertwined and intersectional.” 

“Camila is a natural choice to take [the foundation] into the next 20 years with a focus on intersectional justice,” Suzan Lami, Women and Girls Foundation board president, said in a statement. “[Her] leadership will have a direct impact on improving the lives of girls, women and gender-expansive individuals in our region.” 

A 2019 study by the city’s Gender Equity Commission that found poor health and lifestyle conditions in Pittsburgh for Black residents, particularly Black women, prompted past foundation leadership to reach out to communities of color, Rivera-Tinsley says. 

“My job is to continue those conversations,” she says. “I’m excited about that. If we can improve the outcomes for women of color, it will lift all people in Pittsburgh.”

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.