Excellence in Action

Karen Baker ’83

Photo of Karen Baker

Karen Baker ’83 currently serves as California’s Chief Service Officer for Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. She leads CaliforniaVolunteers, the State Service Commission charged with administering the nation’s largest state AmeriCorps portfolio. Initially appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in January 2006, Karen was named the Secretary of Service and Volunteering. Karen’s 20-plus year career began with a year of service as a Jesuit Volunteer Corps member, working with at-risk youth. Her creative community solutions began while serving as the Executive Director of Chrysalis, a Los Angeles- based homeless nonprofit. She was then appointed by the Clinton administration as the Deputy Director of AmeriCorps*VISTA serving at the Corporation for National and Community Service. While there, she was appointed the Director of Special Projects for CEO, Harris Wofford. Her interest in addressing poverty issues led her to Share Our Strength, where as the Director of Innovation, she led “Taste of the Nation,” a fundraising platform in 50 states and Canada. She returned to Sacramento as the Managing Partner of Valley Vision, an “action tank” that addresses regional economic, environmental, and social issues, and then began her state service with CaliforniaVolunteers. Karen holds her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from UCLA. 

Interviewed by Stephen Mendoza • December 8, 2017

Describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.

After graduating, what mattered to me most was getting some time to travel! So after spending a year at home saving money, I went backpacking through Europe. I was interested in doing a year of service, so I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to work with runaway youth. I then moved to Portland, Oregon where I was a grassroots organizer, then to Washington, D.C. to work for a Congressman. It was through these experiences that I realized I would have a career that intersected my love for politics and non-profits. I have had jobs ranging from Executive Director of Chrysalis – a homeless agency in Los Angeles that helps women and men to get jobs – to the position I’m in now as the Chief Service Officer of the State of California in CaliforniaVolunteers. In my current position, I promote and encourage the growth of volunteerism and service in our communities.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

Personally, I was galvanized by my brothers and sisters who have also pursued service oriented paths. Many of them did a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. My parents have always been really active in the community – serving on non-profit, school, and church boards – that inspired me to get involved in service. I was honored to have been recruited by the Clinton Administration in the early 1990s, to be a part of the team that helped roll out the newly created AmeriCorps program. I’ve worked in the national service field ever since.

How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?

When I was at UCLA, I really dove in and began getting involved with community service. I worked with what was called at the time, Project Mac, which was working as a tutor for youths in the juvenile justice system. I worked every summer as a UniCamp counselor which served underprivileged kids from Watts with a camping experience. Influenced by my family’s background in service, UCLA gave me the opportunity to carry on that tradition of making a difference.

In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?

I secured the position as the Executive Director of Chrysalis – a homeless agency in LA – after being recruited by an alumnus named John Wasley. As a board member, he was influential in shepherding my candidacy for that job.  I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, so were it not for this connection and suport, I would have never had this amazing, life-changing opportunity.

What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

In my work, I focus on helping communities address challenging issues with the resources of AmeriCorps. These issues range from education, the environment, health and human needs. The specific kinds of problems that I’m faced with are the public-private partnerships that have to be built in order to apply for the funding. They’re delicate partnerships where someone has to come up with a match, someone has to be the legal applicant managing the AmeriCorps program and the members, and you need all of those pieces to fall together. I’ve put together many of these partnerships; when a deal either falls apart or expectations change and you have to change gears, it can be very challenging.  

What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your industry?

It’s simple: serve, and serve in AmeriCorps. Take a year of your life and give it back to your community or a community that you’re interested in exploring. You can serve in California, or throughout the U.S. in places like Hawaii, or New York. You can be 18 years old or you can be 100 years old and be an AmeriCorps member. What matters is that you get connected to an issue that you care about in a community, and in exchange, you get a living stipend, child care, health benefits, and loan forgiveness during your year of service. At the end of your year, you get $6,000 to pay back student loans or for future education that you’re interested in. So the benefits are actually really fantastic. It’s a great way to explore either a field that you think you want to work in by taking that kind of initial step or deciding to just take a year and give back. The application process is really simple. You can apply with a local program, or you can go to our website at https://californiavolunteers.ca.gov and there you’ll see how you can connect to the California-based opportunities. You can also go to the national level and view opportunities for AmeriCorps nationwide at cns.gov. There are over 70,000 opportunities to choose from. So it’s just a great experience and it will help you figure out what’s next for your life.

How do you support and participate in the UCLA community now?

I recently got reconnected by working with the Sociology Department at UCLA, and I was just so impressed by the department Chair and by the professors. I’ve been guest lecturing in Political Sociology and I think that’s been a great opportunity to get to know the students and have them understand how sociology has real world implications.

What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?

Well I think all Bruins are people that are out there trying to serve and make their communities better and stronger. So what makes me proud is that I’m hoping to follow in that lineage. UCLA is the number one public university in the country and that’s very outstanding. I’m very proud of the university for all that it’s done in that regard.

What’s next?

I’m still serving in Governor Brown’s administration and we’re looking at doing some really innovative work in the climate arena. Specifically, we’re hoping to plant a significant number of trees with the help of volunteers and people out in the community. As far as career, it’s the big unknown. I’ve never known where I’m heading. With politics you just never know, but for now, I’m just focusing on the work and the year ahead.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Stephen Mendoza earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from UCLA in 2018. Prior to joining the Partnership UCLA / Alumni Career Programs team as a student staff member, Stephen had successfully completed internships with Ernst & Young, J.P. Morgan, and Disney. Through the Excellence in Action alumni spotlight series, Stephen expanded his network, met successful business professionals, and shared their advice and life experiences with the greater UCLA community. Stephen is now building his career as a Financial Analyst with Wells Fargo Corporate Banking.

Interested in learning more about UCLA alumni who are creating lasting impressions and impact in their industries? Visit Excellence in Action for the full collection of interviews.