Equity Evolution: CANs Growth Story
Sensitive Content Warning - Our blog series is an open space for sharing stories and experiences on our equity journey. The following blog post includes the topic of sexual assault, and some might find this topic disturbing or traumatizing. Please care for yourself.
A Quick Glance in the Mirror
My name is Lupita Perez and I am grateful for this chance to share part of my story with you all. In this blog post, I wanted to explore a topic that is close to my heart, but I do have to warn you that it is not a “light” or openly discussed topic despite the disturbing amount of people whom it resonates with. So let me get right to it, my goal in signing up for April’s post of the CAN teams Equity Blog Series was to bring attention to Sexual Assault Awareness Month while also weaving in my personal experiences and reflections that have influenced my work and relationship with others.
No one forced me to share or to make connections I didn’t see for myself or to spill my heart out in the name of “equity”. I spent years healing through the things I am able to own and discuss now and I found reason to share it in this context because it is still the driving force behind my personal passion and has been connected to a lot of my success and achievements in my professional life.
I care about sexual assault because so many people are hurt either directly or indirectly by it. I believe that in any field that has to do with forming trusting and loving relationships with people, it is important to discuss openly what constitutes healthy and safe relationships and spaces. Countless individuals are or have been trapped in dangerous cycles of violence that perpetuate fear and pass on pain, whether it’s because of fear itself, contempt, denial, or ignorance. I think it is important that we look at our life and see what parts of ourselves still need care and attention. Sometimes it’s relationships with family, with friends, with our workplace, or our own destructive habits that need shifting. Although women of color are disproportionately victimized by sexual assault, harassment, and other forms of sexual violence & exploitation, it is still important to remember that violence has no gender. Sexual Assault is not only rape; it is ANY type of unwanted sexual contact, and not all sexual assaults are violent “attacks” (learn more here). In order to make sense of who I am today, naturally, I thought to look to my past.
“When you look in the mirror, what do you see?”
I learned early on in high school to master the art of appearing like everything was going okay. One day those concrete walls I spent my life building up all came down with one thought-provoking question from my teacher. It seemed like a simple question, he asked, “when you look in the mirror, what do you see?” I was at a very difficult point in my life when he asked, so the thoughts streaming through my mind left me lost for words. As a student in survival mode, I never stopped to ask myself what it was that I saw each day that I got ready for school and each day that I returned for the night. When I looked too long all I could see was the pain written on my face, sorrow deep within my eyes, regret seeping through my pores. The memory of the night I was raped was reflected in every glance I took in the mirror. The person I was I could no longer be. Only an outline remained from the once happy being peers came to know and care for. I was excelling academically and had a seemingly happy social life, but deep down I had lost my drive toward the future. The goals I set for myself were all shrouded by the stain of shame resulting from something I had no control over. It was all in that mirror; it said it all in that one quick glance.
Life After College…
Fast-forward to life after college, I felt like I was on top of the world overcoming what seemed impossible. I focused on success and achievement above all else, ignoring my body signaling parts of myself that were still operating in fear. Since I no longer trusted myself and because of the shame and guilt I still felt, I placed extra responsibility on myself. It is known now that trauma trains you to think and operate differently. Most notably for me, I was focusing on being nice and “professional” to keep myself safe, even when I felt uncomfortable. I prioritized people-pleasing and humor to deflect any feelings of discomfort or unwanted attention. Through building my own awareness of my life and the lenses I was using to see the world, I noticed that my pain was in the driver’s seat. I was constantly crushing under this sense of urgency and hyper-responsibility. As a 1st generation college student from South Sacramento and the youngest of seven siblings I knew I had to “make it” no matter what. However, I was clinging to perfection and creating an imbalance in my personal and professional life. I know and accept now that perfectionism is not the same as excellence (white supremacy culture). The emphasis I placed on others came at the expense of my own well-being. I remind myself now that there is nothing noble about self-silencing and suffering to keep a perceived “peace”.
I instantly clicked with Expanded Learning…
I instantly clicked with expanded learning because this work continues to challenge me, empower me, and trusted peers embrace me as all I am and all I hope to be. I feel inspired and honored to be in a field so unique and so tremendously powerful. I never imagined being part of the inaugural cohort of California’s Expanded Learning School of Leadership & Facilitation TA Fellowship would connect me with the opportunities, but more importantly, with the people that would help me grow in every aspect of my life. Only a few saw me for me and could sense the weight that came with my smile, seeing past my over-achieving and enthusiastic nature. I will say, those few people were enough to drastically shift my focus on healthier ways of carrying my load in this world and I will be forever grateful for those transformational relationships.
There is an unspoken pressure that is placed on young and often times inexperienced expanded learning staff just entering this work to be amazing tutors, mentors, coaches, and peer-counselors from the start, often with very little investment or respect from other members of the school community. So many practitioners show up ready to put their capes on and save the world, but the truth is, people are not impervious to the vicarious pain and trauma that can come from supporting others. That lift gets heavier when working in extremely vulnerable and under-resourced communities. Imagine coming from that same community you now work in, but rarely having the grace, space, or tools to process things for yourself before showing up for others. This is exactly why as a Site Coordinator it was hard for me to simply direct my staff to “leave their problems at the door” because to me that meant I was asking them to suppress what they might be coming in with and then “fake the funk” for the kids’ sake. I wanted my staff to know that I would make space, in the little time we had to prepare for our high-energy program, to release what they needed to and I would pour into them so they could do the same for others. Those that know me as Ms. Perez know that jokes are not just jokes, to me if they are made at the expense of someone else’s dignity. Now you can probably see why things like sexual harassment training in the workplace and consent were not a laughing matter to me despite it often being joked about as such. I made it my mission to empower staff through things we were often not prepared for or supported through. I just knew I wanted to lift up their power to lead positive change vs. exerting my power over them to accomplish my own agenda or that of my organization.
Healing at Your Own Pace…
It feels almost impossible to shield ourselves from heartbreaking news of violence, trafficking, and sexual assault, from subtle to extreme cases. On top of that, people are oblivious to the depth of harm that takes place when reminders of trauma are laced into everyday conversation. It is worth stating boldly to always defend your right to heal at your own pace. Each of us deserves to take the time that is necessary. Fear of sexual violence makes the world that much more dangerous. It is not just the people that commit these acts, but also rape culture that contributes to harmful environments and interactions. Everything down to what we watch, listen to, and entertain in our everyday language can have an effect on us and has the power to diminish or empower. Rape culture ignores the hurt we endure, the state-sanctioned brutality we see, and the degrading comments that justify violence. Knowingly or unknowingly committing to this way of engaging contributes to environments and attitudes that trivialize and normalize sexual assault and abuse on a regular basis. It is essential that we reject the idea that racial and gender stereotyping, violence, and hate against specific groups is something that “can’t be helped”. (16 ways you can stand against rape culture)
You do not need expensive books, a degree, or even a top-notch job title to be mindful and accept with grace when you make someone feel unsafe and you should prioritize repairing the intentional or unintentional harm done. Like Dr. Bianca Baldridge shared in her keynote, not everyone is worthy to work with young people and one could argue that some folks need to be coached out of youth-serving professions. I agree that it should be seen as an honor & privilege to help guide and support youth. It is beyond hurtful to hear or discover when school staff or workers in close proximity to kids commit any act of violence, especially ones sexual in nature. It is not easy but essential that we learn and work toward the better future we want for young people. This includes getting informed, but also not hesitating to take compassionate actions and contributions aligned with our strengths each day. We do not need added authority to share our truth and experience or to stand up in defense of ourselves & others. Personally, I am choosing to heal out loud so that others around me can feel safe to do the same. I have made the firm commitment to continue to fight for a world that prioritizes wellness & dignity, protects black & indigenous women, and stops misogynoir each time it emerges.
I made peace with my reflection in the mirror.
When I think back to all of the amazing highlights from the TA fellowship, one statement stands out to me from the one and only Tiffany Gipson; she told us that all of our mentors and coaches can only be mirrors for us on this journey, but they cannot be our fire. Thankfully I made peace with my reflection in the mirror. I am less fearful when asked to share my perspective and I am rekindling the flames that flickered with each trigger and tribulation. Reflecting on her statement today reminds me that so many people can see the light in us, but it is only when we can see and own that light for ourselves that it reaches its true glory. Now when I look in the mirror I see my story in a whole new light. That horrific event did not define me, nor was it going to limit what I could do. I may have not seen that at first, but the underlying strength in me paired with an unwillingness to remain a victim, helped me grow and strive toward an image I could love and respect. Pain might be inevitable in life, but suffering is optional. I am grateful that I found a line of work and lane in it that allows me to learn, explore, and contribute to the shaping of a better world. I believe the true gift is that what we can learn can be replaced with better learning. With the right effort and guidance, we can un-learn damaging patterns, harmful behaviors, and selfish ways of being with others who do not share our affiliations or beliefs and that have the right to reject our affections. If we do not, then we leave fewer examples of compassion for our young people to see and carry into the future. My advice is that when you are in spaces, notice when you have the privilege or even the slightest bit of power, and share that with others to create just and safer spaces everywhere you go.
These past three years I had to continue to master the art of focusing inward and falling in love with who I am today. Navigating multiple pandemics made it hard for me to feel like my “normal self” amidst such complicated circumstances and unimaginable hate, illness, pain, and loss. Thanks to the love I was surrounded with I remembered to look instead at the things I can control, the hope I can give, and the memories I can still create. I know I will cherish them so much one day because each day is not promised to us or the ones we love most. I am blessed to be surrounded by leaders who I feel can really see me. The right people hear you differently and that has made a huge difference in my life. I am making the effort to practice self-compassion instead of working and stressing myself to the point of exhaustion. I am proud to work alongside professionals who believe in mission, not organization, trust not control, and who fight to address social inequities to ensure that practitioners in the field, youth, and families have as much opportunity as any to thrive. I feel truly nostalgic because I remember the days I used to pray for the things I have now. With each person that comes in and out of expanded learning, I am inspired again, grateful for the gift of each new bond, and feel linked even to those that transition beyond this field. When you have a strong goal in mind, like the advancement of not just yourself but your family and where you come from, is when you don’t fall at the first obstacle. “Our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry” y todavia seguimos (and we still continue).
What I would share with survivors of any form of violence, is to notice the strength their voice carries…
What I would share with survivors of any form of violence is to notice the strength your voice carries and to have the courage to have conversations that matter. Whether it is between you and a journal, with a trusted person in your life, with a group of friends, or at a national convening, you never know the world of difference it could make in your life or to others that feel unseen, lost, or alone. Take pride in how far you’ve come, and what you’ve grown through, and try not to lose sight of the battle we are still in and the healing we desperately need in this nation and globally. As Nathan Houston and Gene Wilson from #iamImpact always remind us, “as much as it is about you, it is not about you”. I remind myself now that my only goal is to be better each day I wake up breathing, to improve and enrich my life, to have my own back, and to stand up for others. I will listen to the wisdom of those worth looking up to while also looking inside myself for the love, peace, & power I seek. I have my own goals stemming from a past and path that you might never understand because it is my journey. I am grateful to have loved ones who walk alongside me, but no one could ever walk this journey for me. I encourage anyone who cares about someone to have the courage to look ahead and fight for better. I am rooting for every person that strives to grow each day and who works collaboratively to create brighter futures for youth, families, and staff in the expanded learning/out-of-school time professions. This workforce often goes unnoticed, but leads on and takes pride in cultivating unique spaces where young people and their families can authentically connect with caring adults. I hope we all continue to build our learning so that all programs are safe & supportive spaces free from the fear of physical, mental, or emotional abuse or violence.
I look back in awe of where I started, I am grateful for the learnings along my journey, and I will continue to practice celebrating my resilient roots, damaged petals, sharp thorns, and all (cue rose that grew from concrete by Tupac Shakur). I remind myself that I did not pursue my degree or continue researching just to know more, but to continue to learn and grow so that I ignore less. Each person has their own strengths that speak to a beautiful journey of both challenges and triumphs. Although at times it seems like we need to be everything for everyone, that is not always the most effective approach to a more just and thriving future. I think Deepa Iyer hit it right on the nail in her reflection – “An effective, healthy, and sustainable social change ecosystem requires different actors to play these roles, and often, at different times.” The work feels better when you are joined by people that care about you and see who you truly are behind the masks that help you get through each day. Practicing mindfulness and body-based tools that aid in healing such as deep breathing, moving your body, etc. can also help when you feel triggered or when you simply need to show yourself some love.
I hold this quote from Angela Davis close with me and the work I do each day and that is “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” I challenge you to ask yourself what emotions YOU associate with feeling safe and social? Contemplate this before you go out, before you attend big events, or even before going to visit friends or family. Also, remember that just like you, others are deserving to feel safe in the spaces they enter and we can help make sure that more places feel like this for everyone. I want to extend a huge thank you to all my mentors and colleagues for the work you do, the battles you take on to support peers, youth, and families, and for simply being the YOU that others trust to lead with integrity and love. I hope you know that you are not alone on this mission of ensuring a better future for all!
Lupita Perez (She/Her)
Readings & Advocacy
- YouTube video on Trauma and the Brain
- YouTube video on Polyvagal Theory
- Colonialism and Rape Culture
- Sexual Violence & Women of Color: A Fact Sheet. Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence
- 16 ways you can stand against rape culture
- My Role in a Social Change Ecosystem: A Mid-Year Check-In
- #MeToo Won’t Succeed If We Don’t Listen to Black Women
- We, As Ourselves | Shaping the Narrative About Black Survivors
- A Social Justice Movement Focused On Black Survivors Of Sexual Violence
- Helping Prisoner Rape Survivors
- Grooming: Know the Warning Signs
- Black Women & Sexual Violence and Title IX & Trauma-Informed Services for Students
- Where We Stand: Racism and Rape. National Alliance to End Sexual Violence
- 100 School Districts: A Call to Action for School Districts Across the Country to Address Sexual Harassment Through Inclusive Policies and Practices
- Futures Without Violence
- Counseling & Other Support Services in California
- Weave Sexual Assault Resources and Teen Resources
- CALCASA – California Coalition Against Sexual Assault
- RAINN – Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- US Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- National Women’s Health Information Center
- National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization
- An Abuse, Rape, and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection