That was me in fourth grade- nine little years on this planet. It was my first year at a new school that wasn’t in a predominant Asian-American immigrant neighborhood.
There was this kid, Richard Sanchez, who tormented me. He called me every Asian-related slur his ten-year-old brain could remember. I spent entire lunch recceses hiding in a stall in the girls bathroom rather than face him. I sat on the toilet, with my pants at my ankles so that it looked like I was using the potty, and just stared at the metal stall door as I waited for the end-of-lunch bell to ring. The confusion and anxiety that I held inside my small body was compounded by the fact that I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t think they could help. I was in the fourth grade, learning about fractions at school and calling utility companies to ask about billing questions at home. If my parents couldn’t settle an odd charge on our phone bill, how would they stop Richard Sanchez?
Even though the bullying hurt terribly and I was just a kid- I never questioned why I was who I was. Even though I had never felt such blind vile hate shot right at me- I knew that I was worthwhile. Even though I would watch TV sitcoms and daydreamed about how lovely it would be to live with a white suburban family- I knew that I belonged where I was. Even though I didn’t think my parents could make it better- I knew that if they survived the Vietnam war then I could survive a kid who made me cry every day.
I had a type of strength that only a child could have, the type of strength that comes from truly believing in fairy tales and the heroic deeds and historical legacies of the folks who existed before us. Fourth grade was the year that I learned about Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. and about altruism and character. I learned about how a single person can inspire social change even if they are made to feel powerless. I learned about how people build movements—one mind and one heart at a time. I learned to let Richard Sanchez get it out of his system, because he was just another kid of immigrants too, probably frustrated and confused about the two worlds he lived in.
Now, 20 years after fourth grade, I find myself working for an organization whose mission is to build a progressive movement from the ground up—with people power. Our organization, Western States Center, supports the work of other orgs and individual community organizers who fight for social justice in the region.
We have a program here called WILD (Western Institute for Leadership Development), which is a year-long intensive training for emerging community organizers. Through WILD, participants gain invaluable leadership, management and community organizing skills. They also deepen their understanding and analysis of social justice issues such as gender justice, LGBTQ equality and racial justice.
Taj Suleyman a graduate from our WILD Class of 2006-2007 said “If it’s not for WILD I would continued to feel lost and isolated in the U.S. I wouldn’t know how to advocate for my community and for what we need.”
Folks like Taj are continuing to lay the foundation for progressive change within our communities that can help to build and inspire a larger movement. Our WILD grads may not be written about in history books, but they are working toward creating history.
I think about the folks who arrived in America long before my parents walked through the LAX terminal, toward the Social Security administration office to receive their refugee status, about all of the work that community organizers had to do to create systems that offered multi-lingual and multi-cultural services to my mother and father. I think about the folks who organized and protested the war in Vietnam- to end the brutality on both sides. I think about the grassroots movements, and the people who worked tirelessly within them, that shaped policies that we take for granted- policies for inclusion and diversity. I think about how I can support the work of community organizers, to ensure that we can continue to pay it forward and forward for future generations.
I think about who I would be if I didn’t have Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. to look up to, if I didn’t have those two community organizers to ignite my own belief in myself- who would I have become?
This is why I am asking you to join me to support the upcoming WILD class of 2011-2012, which starts this fall. The work of community organizers is only as strong as the community that supports it. Folks like you, who support the progressive movement, keep the momentum going to build stronger communities where everyone can thrive. Your support is just as essential as the training that the activists receive at WILD.
Please visit my fundraising page for the next WILD class and considering supporting the work of community organizers and activists. The grassroots movement toward building a more just society is propelled by people power. Will you be one of those people?
Here’s the second story in a series I’m writing for the grassroots newspaper, Street Roots, on behalf of the organization I work for, Western States Center. The first story highlighted our work with Oregon’s immigrant-rights organization, CAUSA, through our Uniting Communities program. This story is about the statewide org that fights on behalf of LGBTQ rights in Oregon and this is a story about how they evolved to be inclusive of LGBTQ folks of color.
When Jeana Frazzini was growing up in in central Washington, her family owned the local pizza parlor. It was the type of hang-out where anyone who came through was always treated with dignity and respect.
“Folks who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere were always welcomed at my dad’s pizza place,” said Jeana. She started working around the restaurant when she was eight years old and was raised in an environment that laid the foundation for the work she would do. “I’ve just always been a person who fights for the underdog.”
After graduating from college, Jeana moved to Portland to pursue organizing and social justice work. After a number of years working on a variety of causes, in 2005, Jeana joined the staff of Basic Rights Oregon (BRO), a statewide organization that formed to fight against anti-LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) measures. The far right had been pushing for anti-LGBTQ ballot measures since 1988— and Basic Rights Oregon was an underdog pushing back against their attempts at anti-equality policies such as Measure 36.
As a board member, Jeana and the Basic Rights staff worked steadfastly to mobilize voters to vote “no” on Measure 36, a 2004 state ballot that would amend the Oregon Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Their opponents had hired an African-American woman as the spokesperson for an otherwise white-led campaign, a tactic that helped to make voters feel as though Measure 36 wasn’t discriminatory because a woman of color was speaking on behalf of it.
The pro-equality campaign scrambled to engage leaders in communities of color and LGBTQ people of color because those relationships had not been in place prior to the campaign. But it didn’t feel right. “We hadn’t done the work in advance to build strong relationships in communities of color,” said Jeana.
When the votes came in, Measure 36 passed. Basic Rights had to reevaluate how they were doing their work and with whom. And this included being thoughtful when asking themselves “How do we, as an organization, engage people of color?”
“It was humbling,” Jeana recalled. “We received feedback that our LBGTQ members of color were saying that ‘I don’t see a place for myself in this organization. You don’t prioritize the needs of my community.’ It was difficult to hear these things because I’ve always fought to include everyone in the struggle for justice and here we were leaving people behind. We were missing a whole lot of the community.”
The Basic Rights Oregon team realized that it wasn’t so much about how to get people of color to the table to discuss these issues, but how to create a table that is welcoming and inclusive. In 2006, they launched a partnership with Western States Center to integrate racial justice in its organization—starting with basic dismantling racism training. The Center provided a roadmap as to what the work would look like for an organization like Basic Rights.
“Without the help of the Center, it would have been much more of a struggle to transform our organization and begin to do work that engages LGBTQ people of color,” said Jeana. “Together, we were able to create cultural change for our organization and for our members.”
By 2007, the Center supported Basic Rights through an internal organizational transition and now the organization was ready to get their members on the same page. Within the year, they hosted a series of workshops on immigrant rights and racial justice that informed their members about why it is important for an LGBTQ organization to ally with other groups who are being attacked by the same far right organizations. The Center supported Basic Rights in deepening their relationship with organizations like CAUSA, Oregon’s immigrant rights coalition.
“Our opposition is often the same—the person who promoted a local anti-immigrant ballot measure in 2008 was the same person who had been involved in earlier anti-gay ballot measures,” said Jeana. “Most importantly, these anti immigrant ballot measures impact LGBTQ immigrants—so this is a direct issue for our members.”
Since 2009, racial justice work has become a core part of Basic Rights Oregon’s work in every aspect of their programs and they have prioritized the engagement and leadership of LGBTQ people of color.
“Nowadays, rather than saying, ‘Isn’t it interesting that we are doing this type of work.’ Now our members expect us to do this work.”
My day job is pretty rad. Most times I feel like it’s this university course about social justice that I’m being paid to attend. One of the projects that we’re working is called Uniting Communities, where we help organizations in communities of color to integrate LGBTQ issues into their work. The purpose of doing something like this is because of the understanding that oppression and discrimination never acts on a vacuum of just a single issue. All communities (based on race, gender, LGBTQ-ness, etc) must work in tandem to bring social justice for all.
For the next few months, part of my work is to write about Uniting Communities for a local grassroots paper. I have a monthly column in Street Roots where we highlight the groups we work with and support in their work to be inclusive of the LGBTQ community. This is the first story in the series!
Almost a decade ago, Christian Baeff arrived in Oregon unable to speak the most basic English. He was 21 years old, struggling to stay in college and to find work in his native Buenos Aires, Argentina. His mother had an even tougher time finding a job. Together, they decided to search for new opportunities in the U.S. They borrowed money from a family friend for plane tickets and ended up in Salem, Oregon.
It wasn’t easy settling into a new home in a new country. And for Christian, he struggled with his sexual identity on top of all the stresses that comes with building a new life in a foreign place. He came out as gay four years later and was lucky to have support from his family and friends in Oregon and Argentina.
Christian was fortunate that he could be his whole self in the communities he belonged to and he felt a desire to give back when the opportunity arose with CAUSA. CAUSA is Oregon’s statewide Latin@ immigrant rights coalition that works towards progressive policy changes by rallying their members all the way to the legislature.
CAUSA has a history of standing in solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) community as an ally to organizations fighting anti-gay ballot measures. But CAUSA felt like they could do more.
“While that was really powerful work to do,” said CAUSA organizer Aeryca Steinbauer, “it created a sense of ‘we’re the straight Latino organization supporting white gay folks’ which wasn’t how it was.”
In 2010, CAUSA joined the groundbreaking Uniting Communities, a project that supported organizations of color to have meaningful conversations about LGBTQ issues and to begin taking a stand on LGBTQ equality.
“When I was asked to volunteer for CAUSA to make the inclusion of the LGBTQ community a reality, I said YES right away,” said Christian. “I cared about the Uniting Communities project because it recognizes my multiple identities and the daily problems that I face.” Christian became the core volunteer for CAUSA and helped CAUSA to identify and address the connections between Latin@ and LGBTQ issues.
Uniting Communities, a project of Western States Center, provided the space and support for CAUSA to examine how they could fully integrate and engage LGBTQ issues into every aspect of their work and community. The Center provided training to help CAUSA become more inclusive and to connect immigration rights work to struggles faced by LGBTQ people in their community.
“Participating in the Uniting Communities project has really been about owning this work as part of who we are as an organization and community. It is our organizational values and who our leadership is,” said Aeryca. “This has been a really transformative process.”
In 2010, Uniting Communities supported six organizations based in communities of color to advance LGBTQ equality. These organizations had the opportunity to learn about and encourage each others’ work. “We were able to connect with other groups to exchange ideas,” said Christian. “We all have the same passion and having a main organization like the Center to go to for support is crucial.”
The impact of Uniting Communities found its way through all of the work that CAUSA does, including the Leadership Development Program that trains Latin@ to become leaders. Because of Uniting Communities CAUSA created an environment where their members felt safe to came out as LGBTQ and be their whole selves.
An informal group of Latin@ LBGTQ folks have started to come together. Christian attends the LGBTQ Latin@s and Friends group and said, “I have LGBTQ friends who are in need of support and that’s why we need a space to open ourselves and address our issues.”
Organizations like CAUSA offer the Latin@, immigrant and LGBTQ communities with hope in that the multiple identities of their members will always be recognized—and that they are all in the struggle and fight for justice and equality.
In the next few months, stories about Uniting Communities groups like Portland’s Black PFLAG and Indigenous Ways of Knowing will feature their journey in incorporating LGBTQ work in their communities of color. Stay tuned to learn about how your community groups are working to create social justice for all.