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M. Zulayka Santiago

Jul 262012

Over the course of three days, we connected, shared, strategized and transformed in a beautiful home where streams of sunlight flooded the space, giving life to the multi-color décor. Our stories of love, trauma, struggle and resilience were as bright and rich as the colors in the curtains, etched into artwork from around the world and painted onto walls.

The first Standing in Our Power (SiOP) core leadership team retreat was held on June 6-9 at the blessed abode of core member, Shilpa Jain, in Berkeley, CA. One of my favorite memories was sitting around a large, round wooden table–that felt like it was made just for us—while we shared communally prepared food.

We began our core retreat with ritual, led by Dayanara Marte (Dee) and Omisade Burney-Scott. It was a beautiful, co-creative process that allowed each of us to honor something greater than ourselves. Shilpa led a ‘Snowball Inquiry” activity that surfaced questions that are real for us at this time. It was like sewing together a quilt with disparate yet strikingly interconnected patches.

From the discussions that ensued, a thread began to weave throughout the retreat in the form of an inquiry: How can we embody a new way of ‘being’ and release the constant pressure of ‘doing.’ Honoring that question, we were able to slow down, breathe and be present. We agreed that the inaugural SiOP retreat, scheduled to happen October 25-28 in Ohio, will focus, in large part, on who we want to be as Women of Color leaders. We will explore how to embody new ways of leadership and release the overwhelming sense of anxiety and inadequacy that comes with needing to do the next best thing.

We then took a deep dive into some much-needed healing work with Dee and Piper Anderson through a process called “Emotional Release,” which has been developed by Dee in her work with Women of Color in the New York City. It was an incredible individual journey inward and then back to the collective. I personally uncovered traumas that I had packed away so well that I forgot they even existed. Together, we laughed, cried and held space for each other as we explored how our hearts had been broken.

Meizhu Lui, our amazing elder on the core, then led us through a process to deepen our political analysis and framework. We examined historical and contemporary data that spoke profoundly of the social inequities experienced by Women of Color. This process definitely got us fired up. As Meizhu tells us: we need to know how we got here to then be able to transform our present and future. Cherine Badawi led us in a World Café process – as we walked in pairs throughout Shilpa’s neighborhood – which explored Women of Color leadership by tapping into our experiences and visions. As the retreat came to a close, we appreciated each other, shared gifts and celebrated with music and poetry.

The retreat yielded a powerful draft agenda that we plan to continue refining as we finalize our list of attendees for the first national SiOP gathering. As we continue our deep listening phase and begin building the next circle that will help to develop the larger network, the energy of our core retreat guides us. These next few months will be a time to continue focusing on how to be, while we also manage a series of tasks. I have no doubt that it will also unfold and flow in a truly magical way.

Feb 202012

z.santiago-blog-imageI come from a long lineage of strong and resilient Dominican women.  I was born on the island of Puerto Rico, but have been raised on the ‘mainland.’ I identify as a proud queer Latina, with strong ties to the US South. We arrived in Louisiana from Puerto Rico when I was six years old. At that young age, I was able to quickly acquire the English language and with that came tremendous responsibility.  Not only to my mother and our immediate family members, but anyone in the community who required the services of a young, but capable, cultural liaison.

It came easy to me….this dance of acculturation and bridge-building.  Indeed, this is the first recollection I have of standing in my power.  Being able to navigate a new place, a new culture, and new people, sometimes even better than the adults that surrounded me.  As a young girl my intelligence and ability to quickly adapt felt like tremendous strengths and vehicles for expanding power.

Of course, as quickly as I learned this, I also learned that feeling powerful for me is something that fluctuates…ebbs and flows.  Sometimes a fleeting feeling that disappears for months, other times a strong marker of identity that lingers.  And this has been what continues to be true for me in this journey….recognizing that sometimes I stand firmly in my own power, others I am barely held up by the mere memory or reflections of my inner strength.  This does not in any way negate my authenticity, resilience or magnificence.  It is just a good and humbling reminder that every journey has peaks, plateaus and valleys.

Like many who have dedicated their lives to social justice, I too have been greatly shaped by the nonprofit sector.  At times I have been a powerful change agent, at others I have felt like a defeated hamster trying desperately to jump off that damn wheel. Truth is, I entered this work trying to heal others’ wounds and quickly realized I had not dealt with my own.  It took me a while to realize that my wounds are completely interconnected with others’.  Now, I strive to look at myself more clearly.  Being present to my own healing…recognizing that this is the only way I could ever help others.

There was a time when I believed that most effective form of power was the loudest, the kind that stood out front, made the most headlines, gathered the largest masses.  I’m not so sure anymore.  I am in a much more quiet phase in my career and in my life.  Remembering the type of power and change that happens on a much more personal and interpersonal level.  Recognizing that it takes all of these, all of us, to bring about any significant change.  Trying hard to practice non-judgment and expansive love in all that I do.

Over the years I have tried to ‘decolonize my imagination’ searching desperately for alternative leadership models that welcomed wholeness and truly supported liberation.  Models that appreciated my unique and powerful contributions in this lifetime, were not threatened by them, and wholly embraced me and my quirky ways. A network of strong women of color such as Standing in Our Power is the womanifestation of that dream.  To have the opportunity to continue and deepen these conversations with other strong, powerful, and magnificent women feels like an act of great resistance, resilience and love-building.  Undoubtedly this will strengthen and clarify my own leadership. UNDOUBTEDLY, the impact of this work will be felt in the larger social justice sector.  It has to, and it already does.

M. Zulayka Santiago, SiOP Core Committee Member:  After over 14 years of working for institutions large and small, Zulayka has found her home as a FREElancer. Her spirit has come into this life to surrender more deeply to freedom and joy, and the projects that she chooses to work with fully support this marvelous journey.Most recently, Zulayka contributed to the work of building health equity in North Carolina in her role as Program Officer for the NC Health and Wellness Trust Fund.  Prior to this, Zulayka stretched her entrepreneurial muscle by launching her own small business, Liberación Juice Station LLC, a mobile juice bar serving fresh-pressed organic juices, smoothies, and teas.  The vision of this business was to “create a vibrant and thriving community, where nourishing our bodies, caring for one another and healing our collective soul share common space.”

In the last few years Zulayka also worked as the Co-Manager for the North Carolina Peoples’ Coalition for Giving, a multi-racial statewide network devoted to amplifying the wealth and power of giving by communities of color; and also for El Pueblo Inc., a statewide Latino advocacy organization, first as Youth Program Director and then as Executive Director.  She has also served as the Operations Manager for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northern Arizona.  These are just a few of her many other worthy endeavors.

Zulayka received her undergraduate degree in Pan-African Studies from Barnard College, Columbia University. In 2001 she received a Master of Public Administration Degree from UNC-Chapel Hill with a Certificate in Nonprofit Management.  She is a proud fellow of the 06-08 William C. Friday Fellowship for Human Relations through the Wildacres Leadership Initiative.   Zulayka has had the fortune of traveling to nine countries on three continents, expanding her worldview, deepening her sense of self and heightening her appreciation of other people, places and cultures.  There are still many places to visit, but for now she peacefully resides in Raleigh, NC with her life partner and 14-year old dog.

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