By M. Zulayka Santiago
I come from a long lineage of strong and resilient Dominican women. I was born on the island of Puerto Rico, but have been raised on the ‘mainland.’ I identify as a proud queer Latina, with strong ties to the US South. We arrived in Louisiana from Puerto Rico when I was six years old. At that young age, I was able to quickly acquire the English language and with that came tremendous responsibility. Not only to my mother and our immediate family members, but anyone in the community who required the services of a young, but capable, cultural liaison.
It came easy to me….this dance of acculturation and bridge-building. Indeed, this is the first recollection I have of standing in my power. Being able to navigate a new place, a new culture, and new people, sometimes even better than the adults that surrounded me. As a young girl my intelligence and ability to quickly adapt felt like tremendous strengths and vehicles for expanding power.
Of course, as quickly as I learned this, I also learned that feeling powerful for me is something that fluctuates…ebbs and flows. Sometimes a fleeting feeling that disappears for months, other times a strong marker of identity that lingers. And this has been what continues to be true for me in this journey….recognizing that sometimes I stand firmly in my own power, others I am barely held up by the mere memory or reflections of my inner strength. This does not in any way negate my authenticity, resilience or magnificence. It is just a good and humbling reminder that every journey has peaks, plateaus and valleys.
Like many who have dedicated their lives to social justice, I too have been greatly shaped by the nonprofit sector. At times I have been a powerful change agent, at others I have felt like a defeated hamster trying desperately to jump off that damn wheel. Truth is, I entered this work trying to heal others’ wounds and quickly realized I had not dealt with my own. It took me a while to realize that my wounds are completely interconnected with others’. Now, I strive to look at myself more clearly. Being present to my own healing…recognizing that this is the only way I could ever help others.
There was a time when I believed that most effective form of power was the loudest, the kind that stood out front, made the most headlines, gathered the largest masses. I’m not so sure anymore. I am in a much more quiet phase in my career and in my life. Remembering the type of power and change that happens on a much more personal and interpersonal level. Recognizing that it takes all of these, all of us, to bring about any significant change. Trying hard to practice non-judgment and expansive love in all that I do.
Over the years I have tried to ‘decolonize my imagination’ searching desperately for alternative leadership models that welcomed wholeness and truly supported liberation. Models that appreciated my unique and powerful contributions in this lifetime, were not threatened by them, and wholly embraced me and my quirky ways. A network of strong women of color such as Standing in Our Power is the womanifestation of that dream. To have the opportunity to continue and deepen these conversations with other strong, powerful, and magnificent women feels like an act of great resistance, resilience and love-building. Undoubtedly this will strengthen and clarify my own leadership. UNDOUBTEDLY, the impact of this work will be felt in the larger social justice sector. It has to, and it already does.