Women of color have always been the beating heart of the fight for social justice in Seattle, but there have been times when their role as leaders in the movement have been overlooked, receiving little of the historical recognition given the men they worked alongside.
But today, women of color are proudly positioned at the forefront of the fight for a more just Seattle, heading up some of the region’s most prominent Community Action Agencies working to solve poverty and empower our neighbors. They include innovative and legendary leaders like Estela Ortega, Executive Director of El Centro de la Raza; Andrea Caupain Sanderson, CEO of Byrd Barr Place; Janice Deguchi, Executive Director of Neighborhood House; and Solid Ground’s own CEO, Shalimar Gonzales.
At our latest Social Justice Salon, Women of Color Leading Change, these four inspiring leaders came together for a conversation about how they’ve each built strength within their communities, where they find the resilience to sustain their work, the challenges they’ve overcome along the way, and the ways in which they hope to grow.
The conversation was moderated by TraeAnna Holiday, a community organizer and media professional who hosts the daily talk show The Day with Trae on Converge Media. Here’s a little of what we learned.
Born to do the work
These four leaders have followed starkly different life paths, but each described how their families and childhood – including experiences with poverty, oppression, and generational trauma – helped shape their understanding of poverty and the way they approach solving it today.
Estela, who helped found El Centro de la Raza in the Central District just over 50 years ago, said her understanding came from growing up in an “extremely poor” family and working in the fields outside her tiny Texas town.
“This work is very personal because I know what that feels like, and how people look at you and make you feel less than because you’re poor,” she said. “And then on top of it, here I was a brown person. I was working, picking cotton and vegetables and this and that, to help the family make ends meet.”
Janice, on the other hand, grew up in Seattle with parents who had been incarcerated because of their Japanese heritage during WWII – an experience they never talked about when she was a child. When Janice finally learned about what her parents had been through, she decided to join the Japanese American Citizens League, which successfully fought for reparations for Japanese American families forced to leave property and businesses behind during the war.
“I got to meet some of the legends of this activism in my community, and they really inspired me,” Janice said. “And even though the fight for reparations was completed by the time I joined, there was still a lot more work to do, and we were able to get some money to do public education so it wouldn’t happen again.”
Andrea was born in the Caribbean nation of Guyana and was heavily influenced by her grandmother, who traveled the globe with the Associated Country Women of the World to help women in impoverished communities become self-sufficient.
“She was doing it in a time when women’s [liberation] was not the thing to talk about in those poor nations, so I also watched her step into her courage – but also this conviction about what I have to do for those who I feel are less fortunate than me,” she said.
Shalimar said social justice work is something she was born into as the daughter of two parents active in the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers in the Bay Area.
“When my mom tells people what I do for a job, she usually says two things: ‘She fundraises,’ and ‘She tries to make the world a better place,’” Shalimar says. “And that is always what I’ve tried to do. I’ve always been a nonprofit professional in my career, and that’s been my choice because that’s my passion.”
Buildings support community
The women also talked about the importance of community assets in sustaining social justice movements, whether in the form of physical buildings, or new organizations and programs that can adapt to the needs of evolving communities.
That was the idea behind the founding of El Centro de la Raza, which was created a half century ago when community activists occupied the abandoned Beacon Hill School building and demanded that it be turned over to the Central District community as a gathering place and resource for people of all races. The city eventually agreed to lease the building to the group for $1 a year, and later sold it to them in 1997.
“I need a building that says you belong here. I need a building that says we harbor the legacy and tradition of Black people. And that’s what you’ll see when you come to Byrd Barr Place.” ~Andrea Caupain Sanderson
More recently, El Centro was able to respond to the gentrification of the neighborhood by developing more than 110 affordable housing units on part of its property facing the new Beacon Hill light rail station. The $45 million project was completed in 2016.
“The more that we create assets in our community, the stronger our community becomes, and the stronger we become as organizations,” Estela said, “because the fight is yet to come.”
Byrd Barr also recently reinforced its place in the community by raising $12.8 million to renovate the 117-year-old firehouse that’s been its home since 1968.
“We need space, and we need colors on the walls that speak to us, that support us,” Andrea said, recalling a conversation with the architects who designed the renovated space. “I need a building that says you belong here. I need a building that says we harbor the legacy and tradition of Black people. And that’s what you’ll see when you come to Byrd Barr Place. … It’s a beautifully renovated building, brand new, that says, ‘You belong here.’”
At Neighborhood House, Janice said her team is invested in dismantling the silos that exist within many nonprofits, so that anyone who comes to the agency is connected with any services they need – regardless of what brought them through the door in the first place.
“We’re breaking that down. We’re centering the family, we’re centering the client, and we’re designing our systems so that they better meet our community’s needs,” Janice said. “We have a lot of work to do even though we’ve been around for a long time.”
‘Rest is liberation.’
Despite their commitment and passion for the work, most of the panel acknowledged that it can be difficult and draining.
“This work is something that fuels me. It also makes me exhausted,” Shalimar said. “Let’s be clear: I also get very tired as well, because it’s unrelenting and it never stops. But that ‘unrelenting-ness’ is the thing that allows me to continue to move forward in a way that I feel like is how I want to be in the world. I can’t imagine not doing social justice work.”
The four leaders all said they rely on their staff, board members, and volunteers to sustain their work, but they also said the role can be isolating. “It’s lonely as an executive director,” Janice said. “It’s lonely as a person of color.”
It’s at those moments, the women said, that they turn to each other.
“It helps create a very familiar place, to be able to reach out and call them and say, ‘Can you help me?’ or ‘I’m overwhelmed, can you support me?’” Andrea said. “And the answer to that call has always been ‘Yes!’ And it’s engendering this idea of reciprocity, because it’s mutually symbiotic. When they call me, it’s ‘Yes.’ Shalimar called, I was ‘Yes’ right away. I don’t care what I got going on.”
They also said the demands on the leader of a Community Action Agency can be overwhelming and exhausting, making it difficult to balance work and the other demands of life. Estela, the longest serving of the four leaders, admitted that she still works six days a week and has accumulated more than 1,400 hours of vacation time.
“I mean, the way that I have worked for the last 50 years, I don’t know why I don’t get tired,” she said. “I really don’t.”
Andrea, who is stepping down as CEO after nearly 20 years at Byrd Barr Place, said she’s still searching for balance in her life. And she plans to find it over the next six months as she takes a break before re-emerging in social justice work.
“For me, it’s about understanding how we live into the justice of the Estelas of the world. The Estelas may not have been able to rest, so that she has 1,000 vacation hours, because there was a world that told Estela and our elders and our ancestors that rest was not an option, that rest is for when you have time,” Andrea said. “And so we get to live into the justice that she fought for, sacrificed for, and our ancestors died for, which is we know that rest is part of the work. Rest is liberation.”
Andrea said that just being on that stage, with the three other leaders, gives her hope.
“We’re in a time where there’s a lot of negative experiences out in the world today coming at us, but really this is also a hopeful time,” she said. “As I sit here as a Black-bodied person, it means a lot to me to sit on this stage and to talk about Black liberation, to talk about my people and our hopes and visions for our future, and not leave this room and feel like my life is being threatened because I’m talking about that. So yes, we have come a long way, and there’s a lot to be hopeful for.”
Save the date for…
Friday, August 11, 2023, 4-8pm
Magnuson Park Hangar 30
For the first time since 2019, we’re bringing back the Food Truck Roundup!
Join us on August 11 at Hangar 30 in Magnuson Park from 4-8pm for a night of music, games, and fun! We’ll have over 10 local craft vendors, a beer garden, and delicious food from more than 7 local food trucks! In collaboration with Northwest Marketplaces, we’re excited to bring together partners, donors, supporters, community members, and more for this fun, community event.