Thursday, June 16, 2011

Guest post: An interview with Roland Palencia, pt. 2

PHOTO [L to R]: Roland Palencia next to recently elected Equality California Board Members Dolores Huerta and Rabbi Steven Jacobs.

This is the second part of a two part interview my friend Gloria Nieto conducted a few days ago with incoming Equality California Executive Director Roland Palencia.  In Part 1 (click here), Palencia discussed his Guatemalan background and the violence that marked his youth, his coming out experience as a college student, and his extraordinary history of activism in the Latino LGBT and HIV prevention community of California.

In this segment of the interview, Palencia discusses the role of Equality California in other progressive social justice issues.  He also touches on President Barack Obama's "evolving" views on marriage equality and the pros and cons of challenging Proposition 8 in the immediate future.

We pick up where we last left off. Palencia is discussing Equality California's failed efforts to defeat Proposition 8 at the ballot and some of the "No on Prop. 8" campaign shortcomings...
GLORIA NIETO: Well this brings me to my next question. What can you do to heal what has happened between the campaign and Equality California? What are you going to do to heal this gigantic rift which I believe needs to be recognized? And how can you change the perception of others in the state who feel the same? Because you have a board where you have to pay to play. It is not representative. As much as I love Dolores Huerta, she is not my representative. To me there are problems in terms of communication and representation [Huerta, pictured above, is the co-founder of United Farm Workers of America and was recently nominated to the Equality California board of directors].

ROLAND PALENCIA: No, those are real issues. I think the fact that I have been involved in the community for so long [means] I understand some of the issues. I want to meet with people. I want to hear what people have to say. I want to have a conversation. How do we integrate activists more in to the organization and figure out a way so that is a part of what we do? The reality is that we don’t have a common conversation. We don’t have a language we can in some ways that we can converse around. You know what I am saying?

GN: Yes.

RP: So we are going to have create that, little by little or however it takes. There’s a question of access. Who has access. What kind of resources? What kind of decision making? I think that is going to be an issue that we really have to think about. The other thing is I really want to create a different framework in terms of how we approach our community engagement. By that I mean we need to take up issues that matter to all of our communities.

For instance, health care. I have been involved in health care. We have to expand our notion of what community issues are. I think marriage is definitely an important issue. It is a critical one. In addition to it being a civil rights issue, it is an economic issue. We know that families that are legally protected also have a better chance of being economically stable, especially those families with children. So we have to frame this as a civil rights issue but also as an economic justice issue.

We need to take up other issues that hugely impact our communities and I mean all our communities. Health care is definitely one. Access to affordable health care is a big issue in our community. We have an opportunity with health care reform to create alliances and to create coalitions that have one goal. That one goal is to create access to affordable health care. Right now the state of California got $10 billion to do a program over the next three years called Bridge to Reform.

GN: I am on the board of the Santa Cruz Women’s Health Center so I am really aware of that program.

RP: So you know that one of the goals is to enroll 500,000 people before 2014. I think we need to be part of those efforts. We need to demonstrate our competence in other areas that impact. That’s one approach that I think is going to help to definitely start creating coalitions. Health care will impact women, people of color, single gay men, married LGBT couples. I mean you name it. There are close to 7 million Californians who do not have health care. I mean that’s a huge number of people affected. This is rich with opportunities for coalition work and to provide palpable benefits to our communities.

Another one is education. There are issues I need to vet with the board. We know that education is the big equalizer or at least has the potential to be. We also know that having access to higher education is a seminal experience for LGBT people. Most of us came out in college where we were able to get away from our families a little bit, from our traditional settings, rural, urban, what have you. We started to find people like us, people we could relate to in a number of ways. So for many of us, we came out in college. Obviously, kids are coming out a lot earlier. Aside from the fact that it is an economic justice issue to have access to an affordable, quality education, it is also part of our movement. It is where we shape our identities as activists many times. So this whole thing that is going on with the community colleges, 400,000 fewer students are going to be able access community colleges in the fall of 2011. I think that is like a stake through the heart of our movement. That means 400,000 fewer students are not going to have access to an education. This will have an economic impact and I think this is an economic justice issue.  But also in terms of activism, it really will deplete our troops. We have to start linking these things. We have to start looking at the fact that all these things are connected. All these things impact us in terms of civil rights and economic justice.

The other thing is I think, that and the reason why I am saying civil rights and economic justice we have to create a movement that is not only about civil rights. It is definitely about civil rights. But it is about economic justice. If we don’t take care of the economic justice part of it, we will have an incomplete civil rights movement. I think that one of the reasons why we still have a Latino underclass and an African American underclass and poor, white underclass is because we haven’t really dealt with the issues of economic justice. I think we need to go beyond the civil rights issues.

GN: You are making me cry. This is where so many of us live, having a commitment to full social justice. When the Arizona law first got passed,(SB 1070, anti-immigrant bill) I wrote something for Karen Ocamb’s blog (LGBT POV). I just got attacked with people saying immigration is not an LGBT issue. I am just wondering, what are you going to do? I don’t know that the organization is prepared.

RP: By the way, I don’t start the job until July 5th so I am just starting to figure these things out. But I know for a fact that they have a Beyond Borders outreach program. Part of that is to start educating the community on immigration issues, to start getting activists sharing with each other and to do coalition work. Equality California got a lot of flak for opposing the Arizona law. They got a lot of hate mail. I think that is a good sign. Immigration is a civil rights and economic justice issue. We have to frame in that way. It is a civil rights issue because the rights of people are being trampled upon. No human being is illegal. That is such a demeaning and dehumanizing term. But also it is an economic justice issue. Our economy depends a lot on that labor. We have a consumer society that loves cheap things, inexpensive things.

We, in some ways, are conspirators to having undocumented labor. The only way the system can produce what consumers want is if we lower the wages of those people who produce those things whether it is here in the US or outside. And we are saying “Fine.” If all of us benefit from having less expensive food and clothing, from less expensive housing then you can go down the line and document what undocumented labor contributes to the economy. Then we need to take care of those individuals who create those benefits for us. It is a hard conversation to have but I think we need to have that conversation. I mean the same people who are putting the anti-gay propositions on the ballot are the same people who are anti-immigrant.
So if the gay movement becomes anti-immigrant we are basically strengthening our enemies. We need to be really watchful about that. We have what I would call a hypocrisy economy where we want the benefits of the hands of the labor, the undocumented labor where we want the hands but not the whole body.

GN: I have a question about the education bill that was moving in Sacramento [The FAIR Education Act]. I was wondering why there wasn’t more of an effort to educate us about what was going on in Sacramento? I think the effort was being done just through social networks. I hope you will address that because that is not an inclusive way of communicating. About the wins and the losses. I would like to see more of an effort to educate us and for us to go show and lobby. I would like to have diverse people show up.

RP: We have to figure that out and somehow work on creating a mechanism to have people more involved, more informed with the tool so we can create that movement that we are talking about. I think that will be a real challenge. How do we create that loop with communities and with individuals who want to be involved and make a difference. We have to look at the legislation. You were asking me about how to get more connected to the community. Of course there is a process. It will not happen overnight. I was giving you a framework and an approach.

Equality California has passed about 71 bills. We need to do an analysis in terms of what does this mean about localities. We need to see if these bills create partnerships with local activists to start implementing those at a local level so that it really has an impact on the quality of life in those communities. It is not going to be in every community but we have the ability to not take over but can be the nervous system, connecting the synergy with best practices. To share what does work, what doesn’t work. To find out what is unique about one place, to know what is not unique about one place. I really want to create that network, that nervous system, that backbone to connecting our California movement a little bit more.

GN: I don’t know that this is Equality California’s job but there seems to be a lot of functioning Latino LGBT organizations in southern California but there is nothing up in northern California. A friend of mine in San Francisco and I tried last year to start a Latino LGBT organization up here. We couldn’t get a fiscal sponsor. We couldn’t get anybody to do that. It just seems like in part of the conversations it seems like it would be a natural fit for you and the rest of the staff could be hooking up people from different parts of the state so we can be having conversations about how do we work, how are we more effective and how to work together to be more united. And if, oh gawd, we have to go back to the ballot in 2012, what are we going to do? For me, 2012 is too soon anyway.

RP: I have some thoughts. We are in a quandary. On one hand we have a Presidential election that gives us an opportunity to get a lot of progressive people out there to vote. Also, we had a bit of a generational shift because we had younger people, we had a number of Latinos become voters. We had a sizeable Latino generational shift. Then we have Obama saying that he is evolving on the issue of marriage equality. That’s an indication that he might actually come out for marriage equality. We don’t know that but it is putting everyone on notice. They are not challenging DOMA. They were really strong on DADT. This is the holy trinity of issues: marriage, military and DOMA. So this is the only missing piece in that triad of issues. So that’s the opportunity.

The challenge is that this election is 18 months from now. We are supposed to have a game plan. We are supposed to have a fund raising plan. We supposed to have our community united, including our allies. Ninety percent of our pro-equality votes are going to come from our allies. The unions are supportive. The faith based communities, the civil rights organizations. The elected officials, you name it, right? We want to know that those allies are going to be there with us. The unions have their own struggles going on. They are fighting for their lives. Not as much in California but certainly they are starting to feel the pressure.

Then we have to add this other piece – the lawsuit. Lots of resources have been shifted to that. They have raised millions and millions. Lots of the pro-equality money has already been invested in this lawsuit. They might not be as comfortable funding a ballot initiative in 2012. This is a very complicated situation where you have tremendous opportunities and tremendous challenges. I think that part of the town hall meetings is to get some of that information but also to have to go outside of our community as well. Like I said, we depend on the 90% or so that are not just coming from our community.

GN: Here, Santa Clara county went for Prop 22 way back when. We flipped this county by like 32 points. I will say because I was outside the campaign that I could run the campaign in a way that I knew was more effective.  

RP: So you had your ear to the ground.

GN: Exactly. A lot of people don’t know this about Silicon Valley. But 64% of the population is either immigrant or children of immigrants. We have the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. Obviously it was critical that we get things out in Vietnamese. We had people out there talking about it. That is one of the reasons we were able to change the vote here because of our relationships with the API [Asian Pacific Islander] community. Right now I am working with a group called Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) to talk about immigration issues here in Silicon Valley. So I am the only non-Asian in the group. But I am doing outreach into the LGBT community, working collaboratively with the biggest Asian group here. So for me that is what it needs to look like – Latinos and Asians working collaboratively in the state of California.

RP: I have just a little more time left. I am just so glad that we connected. We shall continue our conversations.

GN: The last question I have for you, are you going to be moving up here?

RP: I am going to be based in Los Angeles. But I will be travelling throughout the state.

GN: So then the center of the gay universe will be in WeHo now?

RP: You could say that [laughing]. That is one of the things I am looking forward to. I am LA based. I looking forward to working with people around the state. I went to the Courage Campaign’s training in Fresno. We take so much for granted in LA. I was so moved by the courage and passion of people in the Central Valley. It was like going back to the 1950’s. I was just so impressed with the passion and commitment. That inspired me for months. Well even today. It was very touching. I was very touched.

GN: I am glad to hear that. I have really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for your time.

RP: Thank you. I am sure we will talk again.

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