Ofelia* has been visiting the office of Entre Hermanos, a Pride Foundation grantee, on a regular basis for two months now, utilizing one of their computers to apply for jobs and health insurance.
Ofelia recently relocated to Seattle from out of state, and she is trying to establish roots in her new home and connect with the community. While she is not quite ready to participate in any formal activities or events at Entre Hermanos, Ofelia has slowly begun to open up to the Women’s Program Coordinator, Christie Santos-Livengood. The relationship gives Ofelia a safe outlet to discuss her financial struggles and the stress caused by her lack of familial support.
“We’ve had some amazing conversations about health options, how to make healthy choices in relationships, and the range of things that are important to leading a healthy life,” explained Christie. “It’s been really special to watch Ofelia blossom over time and begin to build a relationship with our organization. Now when I see her, she asks me to tell her more about the Women’s Program, upcoming workshops, and what’s going on in the community.”
For Christie, this ability to connect with people is one of the main reasons she loves her job.
“In my role I get to build and form authentic relationships,” Christie said. “Whether we have 20 people show up, or two, each individual matters. Because we’re a small grassroots nonprofit, we have the unique ability to really value and invest in every person that comes through our doors.”
Christie hopes that, with time, Ofelia will come around and begin participating in the Women’s Program at Entre Hermanos. Called Mujeres Diversas, the near decade-long program serves as a resource and unique space for LBTQ Latinas across the greater Seattle area. Through workshops, social gatherings, and community-building activities, Mujeres Diversas provides a welcoming and culturally-accepting environment for young Latinas, ages 18-24, to share their challenges and resiliencies with one another.
Christie’s philosophy on measuring the program’s impact is very community-focused. “My main goal is to facilitate what the community needs,” she said. “That allows us to be flexible and adaptive based on the current landscape and what the women in the group are looking for.”
That can mean a lot of different things—from offering trainings on applying for Medicaid, to transgender rights workshops, and beyond. There are currently 15 women regularly participating in the program, and Christie hopes it will continue to grow as women like Ofelia feel more comfortable joining their group.
Queer Latinas face many unique challenges—including disproportionately high rates of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use—that have been attributed to the discrimination and victimization that is felt among LGBTQ people of color. Further there are not enough outlets for people of color to embrace their sexual orientation and gender identity. These realities made it clear that instead of focusing all their efforts on ensuring queer Latinas feel comfortable within the white LGBTQ community, it was also important to organize and create spaces for the women to be themselves.
“We have a unique opportunity to make a space where people feel welcomed and culturally accepted and valued,” Christie said. “Our office is thoughtfully decorated with art from Latino artists, and posters with information about our community. It’s a way to be proud of who we are and where we’ve come from.”
“When you come to our program you know that your language will be spoken and that people will look like you,” Christie reflected. “People will understand your experiences and be able to relate to you. That is something really valuable that we provide.”
When possible, Christie finds opportunities to highlight the intersectionality between the experiences of being an immigrant and being LGBTQ. She notes that their workshop on the legal rights of transgender people in Washington is more intimately felt and hits close to home because many people are undocumented. There is a lot of knowledge around identity documents among immigrants that many other people don’t really think about, she said.
Another essential component of Mujeres Diversas is leadership development.
“When people are marginalized, ostracized, and oppressed in a community, it is really hard to realize what your power is and what the possibilities for change are,” Christie said.
Despite that, the LBTQ Latinas of Mujeres Diversas are constantly expanding their leadership potential and finding new ways to empower themselves. They recently started a book club to support ending stigma in reproductive health. After reading a series of personal stories around sexuality and love, the group will then go through a reproductive justice curriculum (developed by Western States Center) focused on communities of color before determining next steps.
Christie’s strategy is to bring people together around issues which are often stigmatized. “We want to use that experience to strategically move forward to create change in our community,” she said.
While Christie continues to build the leadership skills of the queer Latinas with whom she works, she understands the importance of building partnerships more broadly with other organizations supporting people of color. She hopes to use current events like the grand jury decision in Ferguson and the 43 Mexican students who were recently murdered in Mexico to raise awareness, increase consciousness, and ultimately organize for long-term change.
*A pseudonym was used to protect the individual’s identity
Zachary Pullin is Pride Foundation’s Communications Manager. Email Zachary.