Diversifying the Leadership of the Southwest Women’s Law Center

Jane Wishner, Executive Director

 

About the Southwest Women’s Law Center

The Southwest Women’s Law Center (“SWLC” or the “Center”) was founded in 2005 by the Center’s Executive Director, Jane Wishner.   SWLC’s mission is to create the opportunity for women to realize their full economic and personal potential by: (1) eliminating gender bias and discrimination; (2) lifting women and their families out of poverty; and (3) ensuring all women have control over their reproductive lives.   SWLC integrates five tools to create social change: in-depth research and policy analysis, community education, targeted litigation, advocacy, and coalition work on local, state, and national levels. SWLC uses research and data in all of its programmatic activities and is committed to evidence-based advocacy.

The Center works collaboratively with community-based organizations. Some of our work is done in response to needs identified by organizations providing direct services in the community, such as administrative advocacy work for an organization that supports immigrant women in Albuquerque who are survivors of domestic violence. Some of our work is inspired by colleagues at the national and regional level who have been engaged in effective policy efforts. For example, based on information obtained from colleagues outside of New Mexico, the Center educated local advocates and stakeholders and successfully advocated for state legislation – adopted in 2009 – to enable survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking to take time off from work to obtain orders of protection, consult with attorneys, and participate in judicial proceedings without risking their jobs.

For its first three years, the Center’s sole fulltime staff member was the attorney/founder. In January 2008, the year this project on diversity was launched, the Center hired a fulltime administrative assistant, and later, a fulltime Outreach and Community Education Coordinator and a fulltime staff attorney. As of August 2010, the staff are all women – the Executive Director is white, the Senior Staff Attorney is Latina (but will be leaving to start her own private practice), and a new Reproductive Justice and Health Law Fellow is white.

This project on diversifying the leadership was an important tool to help implement these changes successfully, and along with a strategic planning review during the summer of 2009, was an important part of the Center’s growth and development. 

 

 

The Project

SWLC’s Diversifying the Leadership project was originally designed to focus on Mexican Americans/Chicanas (including immigrant women) and Native American women to ensure that the Center’s work effectively and centrally included their concerns. 

SWLC pursued three strategies in implementing the grant:
 
  1. Expanding and diversifying the Board of Directors and engaging in diversity training to ensure that the experiences and perspectives of women of color from under-represented groups are included in decision-making. 
 

In mid-2008, the Board, which consisted primarily of white professional women from Albuquerque, agreed to change the bylaws to increase the potential number of board members from ten to eighteen, with diversification as one of the important criteria in recruiting new board members. This goal was especially important since the Center is a relatively new organization with a small staff. They also agreed to undertake diversity training before seeking new members in the last half of 2009. As a result, by August 2010, there were eleven board members: seven white women, three Latinas (including an immigrant who is Executive Director of a an immigrant women’s rights organization in New Mexico), and an African American woman. The current President of the Board of Directors, Professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of the UNM School of Law, is Latina. 

One of the major foci of this project was to support this expansion with a diversity training program for the Board of Directors. In December, 2008, the Board held a daylong retreat with a diversity trainer, Jona Olsson, Director of Cultural Bridges to Justice. It was a very engaged conversation with the opportunity for board members to learn about each other in ways we had never discussed. The exchanges between board members were highly personal and rewarding.  

Jona Olsson's approach to diversity training is to identify the “cage of oppression” which is a visualization of the many privileges that are associated with privileged class, race, gender and sexual orientation.  She had the group do several exercises exploring self identity as well as self awareness of privilege and bias.  She asked the group to disclose aspects of their heritage that are not often very obvious to others, and the group was able to share experiences and stories that reflected commonalities and difference.   The goal of the training was to highlight awareness of privilege and to motivate individuals to use their privilege to help "remove the bars" of the cage of oppression.  In other words, instead of feeling guilt about unearned privilege, those of us with privilege should instead use the privilege to dismantle racism, sexism, homophobia and other systemic oppression.  

We also had a very spirited discussion of "false consciousness", i.e., when members of the oppressed group identify with the values of the oppressor group.  Especially as it involved gender, the women on the Board discussed how false consciousness can lead some women to adopt stereotypically male behaviors.  The Board would like to have a second training to focus on false consciousness, which they feel could further improve group dynamics and enhance the effectiveness of the organization.

One of the benefits of the training was to provide our largely white, privileged board a new perspective on viewing social justice work and the day-to-day experiences of persons of color, particularly women of color. We explored what diversity means and the role of class, religion and community as well as race. The fact that the board committed to a follow up session – not originally part of our plans – speaks volumes about both the impact of the training but also the complexity of incorporating change into our work and relationships.

 

 

  1. Increasing the cultural and language competence of SWLC’s staff.

While a clear desire to engage Latinos exists throughout political, advocacy and service spheres, effective tools to make that happen are lacking.   In order to enhance our effectiveness, we hired a fulltime bilingual Latina to serve as Outreach and Community Education Coordinator for the Center.   Her presence on the staff and perspectives regarding community organizing and community-based advocacy added an extremely important dimension to our work.   She left the Center to run programs within the Hispanic immigrant community in Albuquerque fulltime.  

Hiring culturally and linguistically competent staff is an important step in addressing this, but the evaluation of underlying beliefs of staff and organizational structures are also critical.   Diversity training gives staff an opportunity to identify some of the assumptions that they hold, gain some basic information that challenges them, and start them on the path to engaging Latino communities in New Mexico in a responsible, respectful and effective way.  

To plan and facilitate a staff diversity training, the Center contracted with Joaquin T. Arguello of the University of New Mexico’s Centro de la Raza, and Adriann Barboa of Young Women United, a community organization of young women of color in Albuquerque. Taking an innovative and fresh approach, the training focused broadly on the unique character of Latino/Hispanic communities in New Mexico, including the immigrant community.  It looked at the shared and diverging history of New Mexico and Mexico while also reviewing some of the impacts of U.S. colonization of the Southwest and U.S. immigration law on women and families. The Center’s new Outreach and Community Education Coordinator, Jessica Aranda, developed the concept for this training, with Mr. Arguello and Ms. Barboa.  

The training is critical to our work because of pervasive assumptions about the homogeneity of “Latino” communities in the U.S. and the resulting failure of political, advocacy and service entities to engage Latinos in their work in meaningful ways.  As Latinos have become the fastest growing minority group with sizable populations in every state and as the issue of immigration remains at the forefront of public discourse, this lack of critical analysis (demographic, historical, and sociological) of Latino communities becomes more and more problematic.   Even when compared to other regions, Latino communities in New Mexico are diverse, historically and politically unique, and have been shaped by centuries of human civilization.  

 
Specific intended outcomes of the training were:
  • Improve the SWLC’s ability to work in New Mexico by becoming more familiar with the history and diversity of the Latino community in the state
  • Receive an introductory review of the shared and diverging history of New Mexico and Mexico
  • Begin to clarify key terms around Latino identity in New Mexico
  • Briefly review US immigration law and the obstacles it creates for women and families
  • Briefly review some of the ways colonization in New Mexico has affected women and families
 

Our Board leader on this project – Antoinette Sedillo Lopez – participated in the training with the staff.

 

3.     Creating and institutionalizing relationships with key university departments and professional schools to create leadership opportunities for women of color. 

The Executive Director of SWLC held a meeting with Robert Valdez, the Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Center Foundation for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico (RWJF Center).   The mission of the RWJF Center is to increase the diversity of those with formal training in the fields of economics, political science and sociology who engage in health services and health policy research. Most of its participants are graduate students who are conducting their own research. While there is no formal fellowship or internship at SWLC for the RWJF fellows and researchers, SWLC engages some of them in the community-based advocacy we do on healthcare access and gender.   In summer, 2010, SWLC was invited to participate in a RWJF-funded program on healthcare disparities among minority communities. 

The SWLC is also continuing to offer opportunities for law students to participate in formal externships and seeks to expand such opportunities to students in Women’s Studies and the Public Health Program. SWLC, however, cannot manage such efforts until new program staff is ready to integrate volunteers and internships into their ongoing work, hopefully over the next 6-12 months.

 
Challenges

One of the particular challenges was our decision to focus on both Mexican Americans/Chicanas (including immigrant women) and Native American women. Early on, it was clear that we had overcommitted under this grant for the resources provided since each of the targeted groups is very diverse. We therefore narrowed our focus on Mexican Americans/Chicanas, the unique demographics of the Hispanic community, and the diversity within that demographic in New Mexico. We will expand this to include Native American women in the future when we have the resources. 

Additionally, the board training focused more broadly on internalized and institutionalized racism and sexism generally, not about a specific ethnic or racial group because we believed that was an essential building block. There were three Latinas on our board at the time of the training and diverse class backgrounds reflected among the participants. The Board is committed to follow up meetings to explore these issues in greater depth.

We also found that everything took much longer than we had anticipated. Some of this is the nature of the process and the fact that we are a very small but growing organization.   SWLC had a growth spurt at the end of 2008 that enabled us to hire new staff but that meant there was much more going on institutionally for us to manage. New staff had to learn the work of the Center; we had an active presence during the legislative session from January to March 2009 which was very time consuming and a “first” for us; and we hosted our first ever dinner in late April featuring Lilly Ledbetter.   All of that work and the integration of new staff took precedence before we could sit down together as new colleagues and engage in an open discussion about diversity and what it means. 

There were also more substantive challenges. In a small organization, there is a temptation to “count” numbers as a measure of diversification, rather than developing a qualitative method for evaluating how we integrate diversity in our work and our leadership.   We would welcome a continuing dialogue with the other grantees, NCRW and the Ford Foundation about how to engage in a qualitative analysis and evaluation. Moreover, we have discussed at length the impact that class has on all of these discussions and on the underrepresented communities we seek to engage in our leadership and in our work. The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court should provide significant opportunities for us as a women’s law center to explore all of these issues and what they mean not just internally within our own organization but in a wide array of public institutions. 

Another significant and perhaps the major challenge going forward is to determine how to integrate diversity in all aspects of our work, both at the board and staff level.   What does that mean when we are structuring our Board and Board meetings? How does it impact weekly staff meetings, if at all?   How does a focus on diversity impact the desire to reach across diverse backgrounds to find common ground?   Do we focus on what makes us different or what we share as a women’s advocacy organization?   Where does class fit in to these discussions? What about intersectionality in other ways (disability, sexual orientation, etc.)   The grant was extremely successful in getting us to begin to ask the questions, but we have a long way to go to not only answer them, but to develop mechanisms for addressing them in an ongoing way.

 
Coalitions and partnerships

The grant triggered preliminary conversations with staff/faculty at University of New Mexico, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy, the School of Law, and the Health Sciences Center. We also worked with University of New Mexico’s Centro de la Raza and Young Women United, a local community organization to develop staff training.  

Additionally, the Center’s new Outreach and Community Education Coordinator, Jessica Aranda, did extensive work in the community in both formal and informal coalitions, including a working group that emerged in the aftermath of the discovery of a dozen bodies of women buried on the West Mesa in Albuquerque. Ms. Aranda provided an important connection between the Center and the community where the women – many of whom remain unidentified – are believed to have lived.   Ms. Aranda’s prior experience as a community organizer in the immigrant community in Chicago, and her experience growing up in New Mexico enhanced the work of the Center and brought different perspectives to both the board and the staff.  

 
Impact

While SWLC may have hired a Latina staff member as the Outreach and Community Education Coordinator without the grant, the impact of the hire was multiplied because the Board and existing staff were intensely engaged in exploring the challenges of diversity and what it means.   Diversification of our staff and Board is an ongoing process, but without this grant, we would not have had the conversations, opportunity or commitment of our Board leadership to address what it means to integrate diversity in every aspect of our work – a conversation we have begun but will take a long time to implement.   

It has also had some impact beyond the Center. We are currently exploring how to work with the UNM Law School to offer a course on women and the law in which student papers and research would be posted on the SWLC web site and used in our advocacy as appropriate. When we have more significant resources (including staff devoted more directly to research), we hope to find opportunities for internships with the public health or RWJF Center at UNM.

The project will also continue to inform our work as we go forward: 

·      The Board has committed to another session together on diversity and is continuing to recruit and expand the board, developing a questionnaire and an interview process to engage new members, a process that has led to greater diversity on the board.  

·      The Executive Director is committed to finding resources to expand our staff trainings to include more cultural competence trainings as well as outreach to the Native American community.   We do not have a specific timeline because we do not have the financial resources right now, but welcome the chance to do so in the near future. 

·      With the expansion of our program staff this year, we are finally in a position to plan to institutionalize internship opportunities over the next year and we will be exploring that at different departments/schools at UNM. Diversity among participants in such internships will be a high priority. 

 
Lessons Learned

We have learned two major lessons so far. First, these conversations among people who may not know each other well on a personal level but work together are very hard. There has to be “safe space” for everyone to be open in order to do this work together.   Second, this is a time-consuming long-term process, and how the process plays out will be different depending on the institution and the individuals and relationships that are part of the institution. There can be no “one size fits all.” The willingness to be open, to look inward and challenge our own individual beliefs and perspectives, and to listen in new and different ways are key elements, but the path will vary from institution to institution.

Some of our board members have offered comments on the training to be shared with other NCRW centers:

The diversity training was very important for our board to experience together.  While we strive to have a diverse board, we did not have a framework or language to identify or express our differences.  The training enabled us to identify, label and explore our differences.  I strongly believe that this experience will enable us to work more effectively as a board dedicated to assisting women of New Mexico to achieve their full potential.   -Bonnie Bell Cundiff, Ph.D. (Vice President of the Board of Directors)

 Jona's training helped me see more clearly that we could work together collectively as the Southwest Women's Law Center in alliance with other organizations to achieve our mission of removing legal barriers and creating support for women to realize their full potential. I was particularly interested in the false consciousness barriers that we set up for ourselves sometimes.  The training made me proud to be associated with the Southwest Women's Law Center.   -Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, Member of the Board of Directors, Associate Dean, University of New Mexico School of Law

What did I learn? That diversity issues can mean different things to different people. I'm used to thinking about it as race or ethnic diversity and class, more than gender or sexual orientation.  Talking about diversity is still difficult to do among friends and supporters because racial/ethnic "diversity" has had such negative connotations during
our lifetimes.   Some of the exercises seemed to be focused on showing the "negatives" of being from a different class or ethnic group. This was of concern to me because there was no exercise to show the positives of not being from the majority culture; this is often lacking in this type of training. It seems that today society is trying to turn a negative connotation-diversity- into a positive. People of diverse backgrounds of our generation and older come together, but need to establish a basic foundation for interaction. I find that the younger generations do not have to do so; they engage more naturally together because many have been raised in integrated communities, attend integrated schools, and have been heavily influenced by pop culture (rap, street dance, street clothes, non white/straight movie stars, singers and sports figures). As I said at the training session, I found it to be one of the better training sessions I've attended- it was a small group, the trainer was casual and open to discussion, topics were well chosen, and there was diversity within the group, which made it a more meaningful experience.   -Confidential comment from a Latina member of the Board of Directors

 
Conclusion 
 

This grant enabled the Southwest Women’s Law Center to begin a long-term process of addressing diversification in its board and staff leadership and in the way it approaches and performs its work.   Having the commitment of the participating leaders is essential.   Being open to hard conversations that challenge longstanding perceptions of ourselves, our organizations and the communities (there are always multiple communities) we work with and in is also essential. The conversations and processes we began are serving as the beginning of an important journey for our very young Center.