LAFF Society


Sara Rios: “Passion for the Under-served”


Sara Rios, a former director of the Foundation’s Human Rights, Equality and Justice unit, died September 10 at her home in Toledo, Ohio, from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known also as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 62.
She became president of the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich., after leaving the Foundation in 2012, but returned to Toledo the following year as the disease progressed.  
Ms. Rios was described in an earlier posting on the website ZoomInfo as having a “great passion for the rights and opportunities of under-served people and a track record of working with disenfranchised communities. She is committed to inclusivity and grassroots work. She has traveled widely and worked across many cultures and ethnic groups, and she embraces the role of philanthropy as a vehicle for social change.”
Ms. Rios was born in Toledo to migrant laborers and was the oldest of eight children. Her commitment to civil and human rights was manifest in her early years, and after she graduated from high school she went to work for the recently founded Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union for migrant workers in the midwest and North Carolina. She became a member of its leadership council and vice president of the union for 10 years, advocating particularly for women to receive equitable representation.
She received her law degree from the University of Toledo College of Law and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1986.
She worked as a civil rights litigator before becoming the legal director of the LatinoJusticePRLDEF (Puerto Rico Legal Defense and Education Fund). In a statement on her death, the fund said that “Few of us can exhibit the kind of courage Sarita displayed as she was nearing the end of a committed and memorable journey on this earth. It is a testament to her family and her warrior spirit.”
She joined the Ford Foundation in 2002 as a program officer in the human rights unit and was named its acting deputy director in 2004. After a brief return to being a program officer she was named director of the unit in 2005, where she oversaw the work of 19 grantees in 11 countries.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said that “As a foundation family we cherish Sara’s memory and are grateful for her passionate service to the ideals of justice and equality.”
Ruth Mott is a community foundation whose mission is to “advocate, stimulate and support community vitality through grants.” A statement from the foundation at the time of her appointment noted that Ms. Rios was hired because she “has the range of working both at the grassroots levels and the higher levels.”
“She brought hope to people’s struggles and she shed a light on those struggles,” said her sister, Anita Rios, president of the Ohio National Organization for Women. Indicative of her range of commitment was her ability to make friends with people in the lowest-level positions, her sister added, such as custodians, security guards and landscaping crews. 



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