Aurea Montes-Rodriguez is the Executive Vice President at Community Coalition and has worked at the organization for more than 20 years. Born in Mexico and raised in South LA, she developed a passion for building African American and Latino leadership, capacity and strategies that are inclusive and effective toward community transformation. Her inquiry will explore strategies for investing in emerging women of color leaders, centered in organizing and movement work. She seeks to find new effective community approaches to nurturing and cultivating the leadership of young women of color.
The Challenge: I dedicate my Stanton Fellowship to four women who are no longer with us, but who encouraged me to pursue a Stanton Fellowship and graciously guided my early learning— Dr. Beatriz “Bea” Solis (2020), Linda Gomez Evans (2022), Debra Lee (2022), and Sylvia Hull (2022). Part of their legacy is an inclusive gender equity lens and the collective leadership they modeled that became a recurring highlight in dozens of conversations with women leaders.
My inquiry was largely informed by my experience in senior leadership at Community Coalition (CoCo). When I received the Stanton Award, I had recently assumed the responsibility for launching a Center for Community Organizing (CCO) to expand power building capacity in BIPOC communities across the country. As a 30+ year organization, CoCo had built significant organizing capacity and decades of multiracial solidarity experience to inform the strategies and programs of the CCO. However, I was concerned that we did not have a plan to effectively support the upcoming generations of women of color organizers. For the broader social justice sector, I also worried that gender equity was an intractable problem and the lack of investment in addressing gender specific needs of emerging organizers was creating inordinate stress and limiting future opportunities for long-term leadership roles.
The Proposal: I began my inquiry by looking at the social justice sector to explore strategies for investing in emerging women of color leaders, centered in organizing and movement work. My sight was set on finding new effective community approaches to nurturing and cultivating the leadership of young women of color. I focused on two categories of emerging leaders, female identified organizers (ages 16-30) and women who are new or growing in a leadership role in organizing or movement work.
The Stanton Journey: Early on, a deep dive on feminist theory and an advisory meeting with South LA community women leaders from CoCo’s Kinship In Action (KIA) Program shaped my inquiry. What I found in my research is that for many decades Black women have had inclusive and expansive gender analysis that include a critique on capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. The theories acknowledge the U.S.’s history and culture of violence, exploitation, division, as well as explore terms and evolve definitions of third world feminism, womanism, Black matriarchy, sexuality, and non-binary and gender expansive frames.
One week before the global Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a complete shutdown, KIA leaders insisted on keeping our scheduled lunch to discuss my Stanton project. These women had led a decades long fight to keep their relative children in “Family Care, Not Foster Care!” (the name of their campaign). The leaders were energized by my inquiry and voiced that they wanted to actively support my learning. Unfortunately, the two-week shutdown turned to more than a yearlong closure with women and elders being disproportionately devastated due to their caretaking and financial obligations, housing situations, health, and age.
Nothing could have prepared me for the leadership challenges that women would confront. Nationally, the reversal of Roe v. Wade was a gutting backlash on women’s constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion. This decision came soon after Kamala Harris made history as the U.S.’s first Asian Black woman Vice President. The attacks and threats appeared to be a central tactic of America’s Right Wing white nationalists and the left did not have a proper response. Beloved Patrisse Cullors, prominent co-founder and face of the Movement for Black Lives, pushed forward leading a global response following the devastating killing of George Floyd. The country came to an inflection point, and Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, Patrisse made great sacrifices to advance a Black liberation movement informed by their decades of organizing and over a decade of building the BLM Global Network after the murder of Trayvon Martin.
My Stanton Fellowship also opened many doors to women led organizations with similar gender justice values. The organizations are proactively investing in developing women organizers, but also identified a need for more spaces that are welcoming to mothers, young or inexperienced organizers; where women can be safe, be themselves; and discuss issues, problems, developmental needs, and receive support when moving to new leadership roles.
The generous reception of all the women I met in California and beyond was inspiring. They welcomed me in their homes and organizations, brought other women with them, introduced me to other leaders in other cities, and they formed new groups to support my inquiry with the hope that together we could build a future that values and includes women and girls fully.
A Wisdom Braintrust of four women including myself came together in 2021 in search of new ways to build communities grounded in sisterhood. We radically imagined women centered leadership informed by cultural healing practices and generative frames of abundance, mutuality, embodied feminine wisdom and community.
Along with three other Black and Brown women and CoCo’s CEO, we formed a Make LA Whole (MLAW) Coalition to explicitly call for greater investments in the LA City budget in women, families and overpoliced communities disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. We won a historic $170 million allocation and today the MLAW Coalition has grown to include SEIU Local 99, Black Women for Wellness and Catalyst California.
Connie Chung Joe with Asian Americans Advancing Justice (ASOCAL) convened a group of women leaders, now called Sisterhood Trust representing six social justice organizations: ASOCAL, Brotherhood Crusade, CoCo, Khmer Girls in Action, CARECEN, and Translatina Coalition. Our group is exploring sustainable care practices, nurturing the leadership of the emerging BIPOC and LGBTQ+ women leaders, and committed to speak out on civil rights issues impacting women.
Where I Am Now: Lastly, thanks to former Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, CCO is leading a community organizing fellowship for women and girls. Coming full circle, I was able to honor KIA leaders by naming the fellowship after beloved unsung hero, Debra Lee. The Debra Lee Women’s Organizing Fellowship is comprised of emerging organizers who identify as BIPOC, non-binary, gender expansive and women committed to transforming social and economic conditions, advancing equity and opportunities for BIPOC communities. My hope is that any new practices that emerge from the fellowship will contribute to more healing approaches that can improve the health and sustainability of future generations of women organizers and movement leaders.