In just four months, Liza went from having no connection to community organizing to starting the DC abortion fund. Liza’s story showcases her speaking race to power, and directing her leadership toward taking on racism in white-led organizations. Her CoreAlign fellowships helped her deepen her racial justice lens, and make the connection between relationships and mission-driven work.
During college, I worked as a medical interpreter at an immigrant health clinic. I hated college. I didn’t graduate on time because I failed a class. I was embarrassed to tell my family so I lied about my graduation. I then lied about my income to open credit cards so I’d have enough credit to pay for the $3,000 class I needed to get my degree. When I finally graduated, I had very few qualifications and my work as a medical interpreter wasn’t steady enough to pay the credit card back. I finally found a job working at the National Abortion Federation (NAF) hotline. I got paid $8 an hour to answer calls and help people access abortions. This was in 2003. It was nothing like it is now. We helped people pay for abortions by calling regional funds that had $200 in the bank. I was 23 years old and had no relationship to the language of politics, social justice, or feminism. I had never been an activist and I didn’t know what any of those words meant. I just wanted a job that I could tolerate and I wanted to do things that were good in the world. I totally loved it. Every time when I went home, I felt like I did the right thing that day.
I’m white. I’m of Puerto Rican descent, but I’m not an immigrant. I had not been treated like I was Hispanic except for a few times in my life. For someone who doesn’t speak English and is poor, trying to get an abortion is a goddamn nightmare. It felt like working in abortion access was my calling, not as a form of charity but because my health and well-being and that of my community were at stake.
After working at NAF for a few months, I noticed that the DC abortion fund hadn’t answered their phone for four years. It was a desperate need, so I decided to start a DC abortion fund. I felt sure that this was the work I wanted to do. Years later, I went to school to become an abortion researcher. I learned organizing skills through the Gloria Steinem Fellowship with Choice USA and did an internship at National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, both of which were life-changing. I had no previous experience with activism, and the idea that you could like work on abortion and reproductive rights from the perspective of being a person who is Latino amazed me.
I spent two summers with CoreAlign after graduate school. From CoreAlign, I learned that a vision of reproductive justice is not up for debate. I learned to state as fact that the world values people according to their distance from whiteness. At the same time, CoreAlign taught me how to have generative conversations without assuming that everyone thinks and believes the same things as me. I remember two white women bristling at the idea that sharing power was needed. They didn’t want to give up power, and were trying to use logic for a conversation that went deeper than that. I learned, specifically from black women, that if I propose anti-racist work at my organization I’d be labeled a pain in the ass- the kind that is needed to shift culture. They taught me it wouldn’t be comfortable. My management team may feel criticized because they think they’re being called racist, but I’d still need to stay grounded in knowing it’s the right thing to do. Shifting power means actual real money and time, dedicated money, time to people. It’s not just being nice to people of color. CoreAlign helped me practice being resilient during these conflicts — to anticipate other people’s reactions and prepare.
In my current work, I had the idea that Gutmacher should set aside professional development funds for staff of color to connect to strategy and community outside of our white-led reproductive health strategy. My understanding was that the organization was not in a place where they had the frameworks or the values to understand why centering black and indigenous in this way was worth $50,000. I confided in Patrice, a 24 year old research assistant who is an abortion doula and another co-worker who was rooted in anti-racist work. We wrote a concept note. We made it seem like we were giving them the opportunity to do the right thing as opposed to telling them they were terrible people, and it was approved! They’re sending 13 black and indigenous staff all expenses paid to Sister Song, and it’s the beginning of funds for professional development for black and indigenous people here.
CoreAlign was one of those spaces that really forced me to make the connection between relationships and mission-driven work. I don’t have an instinct for connecting just to connect, it’s just not my personality. To demand dignity and say, I’m human and I get to be treated like a human, that’s instinctual for me. But the role that relationship and community plays in achieving that work, I had to learn.