I didn’t enter the organization with my eye towards the position I’m in. I was reluctant to be in the non-profit world to begin with and those who have read/followed me for years are familiar with my critiques of those in leadership positions in non-profits, especially in immigration non-profits. Those criticisms followed me when I accepted the interim executive position I have now been in for 8 months. I know there were (and probably still are) people who upon hearing the news or met me along the Los Angeles non-profit way who eyed me with suspicion. Most only knew me in this and other media spaces and my big, uncensored mouth. I know there are others who don’t think I have the chops for this type of work – because I wasn’t already an NPIC insider, because I wasn’t from Los Angeles, because of my (lack) of certain education credentials. My own partner has expressed his doubts and hearing these doubts hurt. Not because I don’t have my own self-doubts ( I think a little bit of self doubt within the NPIC is a good thing) but it hurts none the less.
I had heard that Executive Directing at a non-profit is a lonely job/position and I have felt that. I don’t know if being an ED at an org in NYC feels different, but the non-profit world in LA feels super cliquey and small with too much personal/professional lines crossing. Hell my own partner works at a non-profit that I engage with professionally. It’s messy messy messy and full of chisme/bochinche.
There is a special loneliness to being a woman of color Executive Director in the realm of immigrant worker rights, an area that has been dominated by men and cults of personality surrounding those men. In the immigrant worker context I’ve seen this play out in many ways. I’ve had my life choices of not always working for pay in movement spaces (i.e. working retail) used against me. I’ve heard that I’m too young (at 38), too emotional, or someone to be careful around, perhaps because I’m don’t show the appropriate amount of deference and/or because of my public critique of baptized “champions” or “leaders”.
I don’t know how long I’ll be in my current position and I’m not too concerned about career longevity. Sadly (maybe) I never have been. I don’t have that kind of ambition. Whether it is a writer, an Executive Director, or even not without a title – I’ve been outspoken against injustice, about the realities of women of color in the face of state violence and the different ways that plays out for over 20 years. I don’t imagine that ending anytime soon whether I get paid for it or not. I will make mistakes but I will also try my best in my current role. I may have many haters but I also have many supporters. My real bosses are the workers I am lucky enough to work with/for daily not whatever the current popular, fundable narrative is and those chosen to carry that message. I know this is considered not being a team player but I was never the first chosen to be on any team anyway and I’m ok with that.
Note from Mamita Mala : Maegan E. Ortiz
Last night, Sonia requested I post her statement on my blog so that she could share it. In solidarity and support of her I have done so.
My name is Sonia Guinansaca and I am a migrant queer poet activist and organizer.
I was invited to speak at TEDxCUNY talk whose theme is borders and belonging. I was one out of a few migrant speakers, formerly undocumented and queer. I was excited for this opportunity to share the resistance, resilience, and creative work of my migrant community. Problematic, oppressive, racist, misogynistic behaviors and lack of professionalism has forced me to out of this opportunity.
I was contacted about this event on very short notice and followed all protocol to ensure this talk went smoothly. My goal was to center undocumented, migrant, Trans, Black and people of color with humanizing depth. From the very first rehearsal, on the date of November 6th I performed my poem and read my suggested script. The TEDxCUNY committee was very supportive and enthusiastic, stating that I made good points. No other concerns were stated. My script was again shared in a document with the committee with no feedback received. On the second rehearsal which happened on Tuesday, Nov. 17 just three days shy of the event, I was only met by one person, a man of color, from the staff who once again approved my content and structure. An email was sent to me later that night by a white cis man who had not been present at the rehearsal, and previously touted that he was “from the suburbs,” in regards to the content of my talk and how it no longer aligned with TEDx structure. In this email, he stated the following:
After this email exchange, I made it clear that I had every intention to continue with my talk without revisions, and confirmed my presence for the dress rehearsal taking place on Thursday Nov.19 that evening. I also pointed out that there were larger concerns regarding professionalism, tone, and privilege. Throughout this whole encounter as a queer woman of color migrant, primarily a cis white man did the email exchange, which was uncomfortable and triggering. In spite of having a predominant staff of color and women, the primary contact person was a tactless white cis man. Throughout this whole endeavor, I continued to give them the benefit of the doubt only to be met by hostility, which escalated at the dress rehearsal. The dress rehearsal ran late. As soon as I got up on stage, I was met with disinterest and defensiveness from the team, which made me feel cornered and targeted. It was apparent they had no interest in hearing my talk. As soon as I finished doing one run through, the same white cis man and his team in the presence of other speakers berated me. He continued to talk at me for over 10 minutes regarding palatability of structure for TEDx audiences. He repeatedly stated that my talk was worth “1 sentence”, that there was no need to give me 15-20 minutes on stage. He described my talk as not being “innovative”, that “no one wants to hear a list about migrant artists”, that people want to hear a “heroic” story. I stated it was important and simply responded “Can any of you name ten migrant undocumented artists?” The room was uncomfortably silent. I was open to feedback but it was clear that the goal was not to uplift my speech or my talk, but rather shame and belittle my efforts, my content and the voices I wanted to center. After this excruciating exchange, where the interrogating white cis man rushed out, I was approached by one of the guest hosts, a woman of color, who acknowledged the abrasiveness of the room, stating, “Your poetry is so amazing, it would be just a loss to lose you.”
What they continued to ask of me was a bootstrapped, singular narrative that just isn’t the reality nor lived experiences of migrant communities. My intention was to center Black and people of color, Queer, Trans, migrant artists’ voices. I feel that the structure of my talk was something that highlights the work of collectiveness, demonstrates the work of undocumented and migrant qtpoc that doesn’t operate in a vacuum. I named collaborators, engaged more than one heroic story that showed a lineage of work. In an individualistic society we are taught to be ashamed of our collective, and our collaborations. Supposedly, we’re magically to escape our connections with the right accomplishments, respectability, & assimilation of our success. I’m not invested in this divisive model of scarcity and the harmful white racism disguised as diversity sessions. I was asked to either cut the entirety of my talk or to minimize my time to poetic contributions. This devalues the time I spent on this project and speaks to the larger issue of how we treat artists in society. The only options given to me were to cut a bulk of my talk or simply perform two poems. In doing so, the integrity of my work is reduced as supplemental art or as an accessory.
What is striking is that at an event housed under the concept of borders, one of the few migrant and formerly undocumented women of color would be limited in time and directed to move forward with neither her version of the story or her own strategy of self-determination that centers her community. Instead given no other option but initiatives that do not represent her work and her choices.
I wanted to make this interaction and my experience transparent and public. I would like to hold accountable the parties that are responsible and again highlight the labor of queer women of color and the total disregard of agency of migrant speakers in a migrant-themed space. The goal is not to sell an idea; the goal is to tell our stories. Our lives are not ideas that you can edit, minimize, and recycle for your social appeasement and entertainment.
Our stories are not a competition but a disruption of the rampant violence we face. This entire situation has again emphasized that my community’s perspective is central to my work and that the experiences of migrant and undocumented lives must come from the community within. I was affirmed yet again of the fragility of white american masculinity and the ongoing commodification of migrant stories in a particular, comfortable and sellable package that does not disrupt privilege, white supremacy, and misogyny. This ordeal was a razor-sharp example of this. White masculinity righteousness directed at queer femme women of color and setting examples of migrant lives is not considered brilliance or noteworthy unless we’re a heroic exception or specimens to squander & minimize. It was communicated to me that “The way that it is, the talk is just not working.” I was lectured that TEDxCUNY is “not interested in stories, but ideas.” If one wanted to say, innovate ideas, to actually transform humanity, how innovative would be to actually hold a queer women of color migrant with dignity & respect as opposed to succumbing to flagrant racist and misogynist tropes already perpetuated by American society? What about uplifting her by honoring the trauma & strategy it takes in multiple fold to give a speech such as this? What about trusting people with the experience to be the strategists & pioneers of their own embodied savvy?
Do you know what’s not new? Demeaning & pummeling (verbally, spiritually, or physically) someone living in multiple struggles as a blanket of good white intentions that’s supposedly for our benefit. Many migrant, undocumented, queer, transgender, Black, and femme community face deplorable and aggressive racism by fragile whiteness systemically and individually on a day-to-day basis. What an opportunity this could have been for TedxCUNY to rise up, set an example, and demonstrate that they could actually embrace diversity not with the obsolete single-issue approach of shame and dehumanization, but rather an honest wholeness of experience that invigorates their talks? This would be a raw mirror, one that echoes the need for collective & endeavors multiple migrant lives in wholeness, a model well deserved for our own society at large. It is not uplifting to erase the stories and agency of undocumented and migrant people of color. Who exactly does this benefit and at what cost?
When I first moved to Los Angeles the problem, according to my pareja, was that I wasn’t getting enough freelance work. I had a column charting my move from Caribbean centric single mami’hood NYC life to Mexican/Central American centric cohabitation in Los Angeles. I was writing posts for political websites and blogging for my own sites. But it wasn’t bringing enough checks and I, seemingly, wasn’t pulling my weight economically or in terms of caring for a home my pareja owns to warrant my existence with my two children. So I begrudgingly took a job in retail – selling men’s shoes and suits in a national department store chain. Something not that unusual I guess. Just last week in meeting with a freelance marketing/branding expert I learned that she had begun working the overnight shift in another national chain to pay her bills. She is a single white women with better educational credentials than me. When I was able to get out of what a young, single, childless person within the “movement” gave me passive aggressive grief about, not always “working” in “movements”, I thought that would ease the tension. A long term freelance gig working with immigrants with an org I knew meant more money. It also meant I could go back to school. But then according to my pareja, I wasn’t studying enough. I wasn’t saving enough, and I still wasn’t paying enough into the household or doing a good enough job keeping house.
Now I’m an executive at a non-profit organization. I work more than 40 hours a week. I make a decent salary and my pareja can no longer say I don’t pay my fair share. But the complaints have shifted to other areas tied to my gender. I’m not a good enough mother. I don’t take good enough care of myself. I work too much and may not even be that good at it. The house is still not clean enough and I’m the one who does the bulk of the cooking, cleaning and food shopping.
It’s too easy to think yes I’m the problem, internalize that message that no matter what I don it’s not enough and I have to do more. But deep down I know better. I know I’m trying the best that I can and that’s good enough pero igual. Duele. It hurts and it’s not the healthiest way to live/work/be.
I heard (read) about this Blog Month thing from Viva la Feminista y dije porque no.
To be honest I’ve been hesitant about blogging because:
A: There are things I would write more honestly about if I knew my pareja wouldn’t read them.
B: There are things I would write more honestly about if I knew people who want me to fail at my new gig wouldn’t read them.
And really the two go together. I don’t feel like my partner thinks I can be a good Executive Director and I know there are plenty of people who don’t want me to be. I try not to talk about my job too much to my partner who nitpicks at my word choice or will question my credentials/skills/knowledge. And I purposely am keeping space between myself/my org’s work and some other people who have a complex history with my organization.
And it’s like I have come full circle, to when I was a young single mom, deep into organizing in NYC but felt a little outside of the circle. I’m not young. I’m not really a single mother since my partner and I live together and I’m not as broke as/living from pay check to pay check. And yet I feel like there still aren’t many spaces for women of color in organizing to be honest about how race, gender, ethnicity, sex, motherhood in our day to day lives interacts with our roles/places in organizing (and especially in the messy, super competitive Los Angeles immigration non-profit world).
So I will try – this will be an attempt at thinly veiled honesty.
Never say you will never live with a man again because you will end up moving cross country and doing just that and have nights like tonight when you wonder if it was the right decision.
Never say you will never work in a nonprofit because you will end up being hired by one and by some strange twist of fate end up running one and run into someone you knew, someone who also said they would never.
“I love my new neighborhood,” but he never patronizes the local stores or street vendors. He never walks around the neighborhood. He just drives in and out of his driveway.
Next time I see him I will ask what he likes best.