When Helpers Harm: Racial Violence in State Coalitions, written by Devin Olivia Rojas, MS, MSW
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - October 30, 2020
I worked at a state sexual violence coalition in the northeastern part of the United States for two years. I was beyond excited at the opportunity- my mother was a first-generation college student and my grandmother was not even able to complete her elementary education. In three generations, we went from migrant worker, to administrative assistant, to nationally recognized expert employed by a state coalition. This was an opportunity to advocate for the generations of my people harmed by colonization, racism, and xenophobia. To do the work our people and communities need- to push our issues to the top of a state agenda on issues of sexual violence. I believed in this organization, one whose work I had followed when I worked the frontlines providing direct services to survivors. One that spoke boldly of intersectionality, speaking truth to power, and dismantling systems of oppression so that we can all thrive. I believed this would be a place where I could finally do the work women like me, like my mother, like my grandmother needed.
Only a few months into my employment the glittery illusion began to fade, revealing the white supremacy at the core of the gender-based violence work. I was one of two Women of Color in the organization and quickly learned the different ways we had to navigate the cultural norms. I noticed the ways in which I was watched closer than white peers, had to work harder to prove my expertise, and was held to a different standard. Initially I told myself we all go through this as a new employee. Unfortunately, as time passed I could no longer convince myself of that because of the constant and persistent reminders of the ways in which my Latinidad made me “other” in the eyes of the coalition’s leadership, and by extension, my primarily white peers.
During an in-person staff meeting and as the team sat around catching up, our Executive Director looked at me and loudly exclaimed, “You’re so dark!” The sharp sting of embarrassment rose up. All the shame and stigma colorism brings with it hit me. All the pressures I felt as a Latina to assimilate into whiteness. I laughed it off. What else could I do when the eyes of the entire team were on me? From the outside, I appeared to take it in stride. However, underneath how I saw myself in relation to this organization permanently changed. Would my ethnicity always be the first thing they noticed? Would they always be looking for markers of “other” in me? Did this mean I needed to work harder to demonstrate that I can be Latina and an expert and professional as Women of Color before me advised? I could not dwell on this in the moment; I had to find a way to shove it all aside to focus on the work ahead. I was not here for me; I was here for my mother, my grandmother, my daughter. For all the Brown women and girls impacted by sexual violence who would be silenced by advocates with the same attitude I had just experienced. I resolved to prove my worth.
The coalition had moments of solidarity. The Brett Kavanaugh hearings was one- as women and sexual violence advocates and activists we could all stand together and grieve and rage against this. The one thing we were not permitted to do though was to speak about institutions of white maleness, because our Executive Director “loved white men.” In an email, we were told we could not use “white men” in our criticism because “not all white men.” I turned to my peers for guidance and support- was my anger an overreaction? They confirmed I was right to be angry and concerned. Seeing that not one of my white colleagues would challenge this left me with no choice but to address it. When I brought it to the Executive Director, she proceeded to explain that we have a white man in management who may feel uncomfortable with our criticism. My attempts to explain how criticism of a social construct of white maleness was not the same thing as attacking white men went unheard. I had been silenced. The same organization that claimed to understand whiteness and toxic masculinity in public would not allow me to process my feelings around the institution of white masculinity.
I did not let the silencing stop me. I was here for these conversations. A few months later, a white woman on the Board of Directors, publicly criticized the #MeToo movement. I brought my concerns to our Executive Director. Specifically, concerns that a white woman would publicly criticize a movement founded for and by Black women and the way that would be perceived by Black women and Women of Color in the work. She assured me she would speak with the board member. I learned a year later that the Executive Director never did. She said she was afraid of hurting the board member’s feelings and creating conflict. Never did she say she feared Black women and girls would continue to be underserved or face racism while seeking help. By the time I learned she had not addressed it I knew I could not count on her to show up as an ally.
For two years, I advocated for Affinity groups for Staff of Color. For two years, the Executive Director claimed Affinity groups served no purpose. She expressed fears that she would not be able to rescue Staff of Color from racist employers, and worried that other advocates would see just a performance. Only when a national technical assistance provider pressured her did she agree to create Affinity groups. Then she dragged the process. I was not permitted to speak to national technical assistance staff about Affinity groups without including her in all communications. I was told the process needed to slow down, and that we needed to think about how our white colleagues would respond. Not a single reason centered the staff of color in our membership. It was only when a white ally in my agency stepped in that I suddenly had the greenlight. It was only then that I was allowed to speak with whomever I needed, and was told it had been a great idea all along.
At one point, I was told I might be considered for a management level position. Several months later, I was offered a promotion with supervising responsibilities. However, a white man with no experience in sexual violence services was brought onto our team in that same management role that had been discussed with me. He was originally hired to do policy work but was now managing programming and prevention work. I was tasked with training him. This was everything the coalition publicly stood against. I had listened as they railed against Women of Color having white men hired or promoted as supervisors that they trained, and yet here I was training my white male supervisor who had no actual sexual violence experience.
At this point, I was the only non-white supervisor and the only supervisor not on the management team. I made it work. I was determined to be a great supervisor, to demonstrate why I deserved to be on the management team. Then several months in, a colleague pointed out to me that she noticed I worked much harder than the other supervisors did. She noticed I was not given the same respect, despite the fact that I had more experience in the field and had more education than most people had on our team. I was so tired at this point. I had to do my job, I had to train my supervisor, and I had to carry the internal anti-racist work because no one else would. I was angry. I shared my concerns with my supervisor that the barriers I was continually facing were the result of racial inequity. He pressured me to speak about it with our senior leadership. I was clear I was not comfortable with this, but I trusted him and he trusted them.
After sharing my concerns with senior leadership, I was told I lacked the commitment and professionalism needed for the management team. This assessment was based on my advocacy for a healthy work-life balance for the staff member I supervised. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to practice the values the coalition espoused, my integrity was questioned. I was angry. I expressed this anger to my supervisor, and was told I was being unprofessional. Silenced again.
In the following two weeks, it would all come to a head. I was targeted by a white supremacist online. They doxxed my children and I, and filed a false complaint that I was harassing and threatening them. I was suspended with pay while coalition leadership investigated. I provided a list of almost a dozen witnesses. Not a single one was contacted. A week later, I was terminated.
I could never have imagined on my first day of work at the coalition that I would be fired two years later for the exact type of advocacy they were so vocal about. I believe most people in this work want to do the best job they can. I also know the movement is built on a foundation of white supremacy. White feminism has appropriated the work of Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color for centuries. White feminism has left us out of vital conversations that have set the direction of the movement. White feminism pats itself on the back for their work while continuing to uphold values and practices that harm Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color every day. What I do know is that we do not exist to be the workhorses for white women. We are not an afterthought. We are not a distraction from the “real” work.
I struggle with what justice and accountability would look and feel like to me. I also struggle with my personal pain and trauma around this experience. The principles of restorative justice center accountability and healing. I wonder if that is something that can happen with leaders who set policy and programming priorities and who lead life-saving conversations in our states. I think we are often forgiving of the racial harm white women commit in the name of feminism, and I worry that any conversations about accountability and healing would center forgiveness instead of the harm committed.
On the one hand, I would want to see an overhaul of the state coalition’s leadership- from the Board of Directors to the Executive Director, to the management team. Each of these levels plays a role in upholding and perpetuating white supremacy while merely performing anti-racist work. Can those who cause racial harm really be trusted to do better moving forward?
On the other hand, removing them from leadership does not guarantee they will not commit this kind of harm in other spaces. They are members of our communities, parents and caring adults, they will remain powerful and influential and simply canceling them could provide a way to avoid any accountability. A conversation about justice would need to start with an honest dialogue in which they work to understand the impact of their choices. When the people who lead our work harm advocates and activists, they harm all People of Color. When they silence the advocates and activists who fight against white supremacy, they silence all People of Color. When they tokenize advocates and activists of color, they tokenize all People of Color. That impact matters, and they have a responsibility to understand that in their hearts before they begin to work towards making amends and healing.
I will carry the trauma of this betrayal in the way I carry the trauma of rape and dating violence. I learned the hard way I cannot trust white women to stand with me and the communities I do this work for. When it got hard, the same white women who proudly claimed they would stand with me cut me loose. I am angry. I am hurt. However, I am not gone. I will continue to advocate for Survivors of Color. I will continue to speak out against white supremacy within the movement. I will hold those who cause racial harm accountable.
To the white advocates and activists- I believe you do this work because you care about your fellow humans, and it is in that spirit that I invite you into the hard, painful, and crucial work of anti-racism. It is only by working through your own role in upholding white supremacy that you can truly serve all survivors.
To my fellow advocates and activists of color- We are stronger than the violence and harm inflicted on us. We have an ancestral wisdom that guides us. The same experiences that have harmed and traumatized us in this work are the ones that teach us how to heal our field. Hold onto hope- generations to come will benefit from the labor we do today.