I was born into an activist family. As the daughter of an albino war refugee from El Salvador and an indigenous mother with a 9th-grade education, I learned from a very early age that community comes first and sacrificing for the greater good wasn’t the exception, but the norm. Whenever and wherever you are, my parents taught me, always support those in need--that is what it means to be human. This mentality (as well as my work in community health education for almost a decade) is my driving force to volunteer my expertise, stand up for the underdogs, and dedicate the time necessary to effect change.
Lesson #1: You don’t have to do it alone
A few years ago, I suffered from a traumatic brain injury while leading a training group in Oaxaca, Mexico and was disheartened by the little to no support given from my organization. The concussion was a huge blow: it set me back for two years while I endured months of physical therapy, occupational therapy, vision therapy, and speech therapy. All the while, the organization I worked with made it impossible for me to care for myself: from an insane workload and constant domestic and international travel, to zero accommodations and absolute disinterest in my health and wellbeing from senior staff. But despite all the cards stacked against me, I still tried to push myself because I didn’t want to fail. It was my own personal hell, but I tried to keep tough and push through like I always did and had done. This proved an impossible task. The severity of the concussion left me unable to advocate for myself.
During this trying experience, I came to an important realization. My concussion wasn’t just an injury; it was a life-changing shift that forced me to reexamine who I was, what I was capable of doing, and opened my eyes to the idea that building and relying on resources and trusted friends for support wasn’t a bad thing. The concussion gave me the courage to see how important it was to care for myself. I struggled to get to a place where I could be kind, loving, and prioritize myself as much as, or more than, the people I was used to serving. That was the most important and impactful lesson of my adult life.
Lesson #2: Change starts with you
I learned my second biggest lesson from working in the nonprofit sector for nine years. Time and again, the same problems would crop up, no matter where I worked: the glaring exclusion of quality of life and respect for the lives of women of color. Sure, organizations spent time and money on diversity trainings and it was nice to sing kumbaya for an afternoon. But shortly after, senior staff would revert back to old habits. Even as a light-skinned mujer, with undeniable Latinx features, I faced adversity and push-back. People gave me lip service, promises of good intentions, all under the guise of keeping me in my place. In these toxic spaces, I struggled tremendously to find peace with my identity, which was often put at odds with the stereotypes senior staff associated me with. I also witnessed the outright discrimination thrown at Black colleagues and friends -- and I knew that if I was having a hard time, they had it even worse.
On top of the oppressive tactics, the organization would pit women of color against each other in a battle of who would be terrorized that particular week. It became a poisonous game: gratitude that you weren’t the target that day, but also shame that you couldn’t stick up for colleagues without repercussions. But the end-result was the same: by pitting us against each other, they were able to better control us and successfully discouraged us from talking and sharing our stories with each other. If you had no idea what the other person was going through, you couldn’t be empathetic, supportive, or better yet, organize and demand fair treatment from everyone in the organization. These epiphanies don’t just apply to the workplace--if you pay attention, they are happening around you all the time. Dividing minorities is the most machiavellian way of ensuring that the white collective is always in control and most powerful.
Which brings us to The Melanin Collective...
While it’s my nature to find solutions, I realized these problems were beyond me. There was no way to effectively create change in organizations that, for the most part, gave lip service to women of color but showed no inclination towards change. While my mission has always been to bridge the gap and support women of color in toxic spaces, I couldn’t do it in an environment where the cards were already stacked against us.
So I decided to look outward, in order to look inward.
The Melanin Collective comes from the need to pause and reanalyze ourselves and our impact in the world. Why is it that we are called upon to sacrifice and give ourselves to these missions and visions of organizations that can’t do internally what they are hoping to accomplish externally. Why aren’t we holding each other, organizations, or society accountable for the impact exploitation and sacrifice have on women of color? We need to have the tough conversations, invest in ourselves, and build a unifying platform for all women of color to heal and thrive. Once we prioritize ourselves and improve the systems oppressing us, we will be able to effect greater change in our communities as a whole.
For press inquiries, please contact Communications Director, Kaitlyn Borysiewicz at kaitlyn [at] themelanincollective [dot] org.