Lessons on Allyship From the Fight Against Colorado’s ‘Personhood’ Amendment

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Commentary Human Rights

Lessons on Allyship From the Fight Against Colorado’s ‘Personhood’ Amendment

Cristina Aguilar

With the recent campaign battle in mind, along with the countless other experiences I've had during my years of movement building work as a queer Latina activist, I’ve created a fusion of lessons learned from the past and advice for the fights of the future.

Read more of our articles on Amendment 67 here.

Two days after the most recent election, I traveled to the Reproductive Justice Leadership Summit and 20th Anniversary Celebration, or “RJ at 20,” to meet with fellow reproductive justice warriors in Chicago. I had just spent months working hard alongside other members, partners, and allies of the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR) to defeat a dangerous and deceptive amendment that would have added fetal “personhood” to the Colorado Constitution. This was the third time “personhood” amendments have appeared on the Colorado ballot, and COLOR has been part of the coalition working to defeat them each time; this year, it also led a robust grassroots effort focused on Latina voters in eight counties throughout the state.

After appearing on a “Movement Stories, Our Work with Allies” panel at RJ at 20, which was hosted by the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, I was touched by a movement sister who told me I was dropping truth about working with allies that we all know and live but rarely speak. I then reflected on our recent campaign battle, along with the countless other experiences I’ve had during my years of movement building work as a queer Latina activist. With that in mind, I’ve created a fusion of lessons learned from the past and advice for the fights of the future.

I present this with sincerity and respect for my sisters and brothers in the struggle—some of whom inspired this list with words of advice—in addition to our allies who join us on the journey toward reproductive justice.

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Racism is real. So are oppression, microaggressions, and macroaggressions. It’s important to call out racist moments, publicly and privately. Knowing when to do so, however, is an art I’m still mastering. Partners can be well-intended and still make racist statements or perform racist actions. Worse yet, they can become radio silent in the face of oppression.

The issue of language translation of campaign literature, for example, is a perennial one. This year, I finally landed on the best way to challenge the question of whether we would translate all anti-personhood materials and messages into Spanish, considering the importance of the Latino electorate in Colorado. I felt a breakthrough moment when stating, “By not translating ALL campaign materials and messages, you’re saying that Spanish-speakers deserve a lesser campaign experience.”

Not only is language translation an issue, so are assumptions about whose job it is. It’s time for people to stop assuming that it’s the de facto job of Latino organizations—or any other organization or person representing an important community whose dominant language is not English—to provide translation services. Translation and interpretation are professional services with standards that campaigns and coalitions should prioritize and invest in from the outset, rather than naively burdening native speakers or groups representing these communities with this “task.” Instead of minimizing the importance of translation, it’s time we see it as critical to ensuring that key communities, no matter their language, are treated fairly. I’m happy to say that this happened for Spanish-speakers in Colorado this election season.

Who are your people? Find and befriend allies. Find those partners and individuals who will lift up your message when you’re not in a room and amplify your message when you are. Too often, we have the experience as women of color of saying something in a meeting or discussion and effectively being met with silence—only to have our white counterpart say it seconds later and receive the acknowledgement of a “great idea, great statement, or excellent contribution.”  Plan for those infuriating and oppressive moments by inviting trusted allies to strategically amplify your messages. Who are your people? Find them, befriend them, thank them for being an ally.

Hustle, baby! Forget gatekeepers; open your own damn gate. For many women of color, the personal is political. Own this truth and make your own movement happen. Don’t allow others, such as pollsters, campaign consultants, or reporters, to be gatekeepers of spaces or relationships that are yours to claim. We have power to open our own gates or hurdle over them when necessary. Request meetings with power brokers. Trust your knowledge and expertise of the communities you serve and represent.

I was pleasantly surprised that doing this led to new campaign advancements for COLOR: By meeting with pollsters and campaign managers, we put ourselves in the position to advocate for and advise on Latina focus groups in English and Spanish, while earning respect for the work we do with Latinas. We forged ties that will benefit our community for future battles and victories. By opening our own gates and taking control of these relationships, we win for our community while building new alliances.

When kindness isn’t enough, kill ‘em with culture. Family, funk, and fire is what I think of when I remember one of the best cafecito/canvasses COLOR hosted during the campaign season. Joined by friends and families we played funk music, lit an outdoor fire, and we generated a buzz that we know how to throw a party and host a fiercely effective, intersectional canvass. Grounded in cultura, we employed our cafecito model of having comida, pan dulce, and musica as an entrée to our canvass kickoffs. We hosted in our own homes and opened the doors to a diverse set of partners with delicious comida and cultural flair; we ate, danced, and rallied. We also got nods from national organization representatives for “revolutionizing the way Latinas organize in Colorado” by doing what we do—both during and beyond campaign season. For us, it was breathing culture into our work; for our partners it was a warm experience that differed from more mainstream events.

Find common ground. No matter where we stand, under our feet is common ground. Find it. For this past election, that common ground was a shared passion for the protection of women and families and the engagement of Colorado’s rising American electorate (RAE). Our organization mobilizes and represents Latinos, young people, and women—a huge part of our state’s RAE. We, too, have a shared desire to keep all Colorado women and families free of threats to their autonomy. We can find common ground while holding our ground. Don’t confuse finding common ground with compromising values, however. Allyship needs to happen on our own terms and benefit our communities too. We win not by compromising values, but by uniting behind them.

Movement building is about community liberation. As a queer activist from the border who is passionate about intersections, I live this mantra and challenge allies to do the same: “We don’t advance unless we all advance together.” Or, to borrow Audre Lorde’s powerful message, “Without community, there is no liberation.” In other words, my liberation depends on yours. Liberation is not just racial equality or relationship recognition. It is justice for everyone. It has no borders; it acknowledges that we are all citizens of this planet and we don’t advance unless we all advance together.

Own your story. If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will. History shows us that our work and contributions are either erased or never told. Combat this by telling your stories at every turn. This election, we used social and earned media, wrote blogs, gave presentations and staged conversations at conferences, and showed up to the table to tell our story. Whether we experience victory or heartbreaking defeats, it’s critical we talk about it formally and informally. Don’t let shadows of larger partners dim your truth. And model good allyship by finding time to engage partners and acknowledging their efforts.

Reflect and share. I penned this piece because I believe in the importance of reflecting on and sharing lessons learned. Much of this list comes from discussions with other activist leaders and friends across many different movements who are en la lucha (in the struggle) working to make the world a better place. Taking time to reflect inspired deep gratitude to my RJ family who live this work, share in similar experiences, and are committed to peacefully and collaboratively advancing the beautiful and diverse communities we represent.

I hope these lessons learned are helpful to you as you take on your work. I am ever encouraged by the strong women of our movement. Adelante!