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Yaromil Fong-Olivares

Feb 262014

yaro picture 2014I left the Dominican Republic and moved to New York City at the age of 10. Ever since I can remember my impulse has always been to defend others; perhaps it was those impulses that led me to political activism in college.

While in High School and college I got involved in many social justice struggles but did not have a political analysis per se. My main drive was always ensuring fairness and fighting against my intuitive urge to eliminate injustice in my immediate surroundings; school, my community, and my family.

My true moment of transformation was my trip to Chiapas. A group of students and I went to Mexico during the Zapatista uprising in 1994, putting our bodies in the way of the military who would have harassed, arrested and even killed the protesters if it were not for the international supporters who were physically present. The experience made me realize both my privilege – and my power! The courage of all of us standing up to oppression did make a difference. When I got back to the U.S., I was ready to work as a community organizer for indigenous and immigrant rights, and against racism and sexism.

Since the age of 10 I had taken care of children as more than a big sister – almost a mother – it was natural to seek a mentoring role. I wanted to organize young people. In various non-profits, which were mostly about providing services, I followed that path. Fortunately, I had mentors myself as well; older women who helped me develop my skills and my analyses. Because I was a good writer, I got tapped as a fundraiser, and worked with many wealthy white individuals.

When I was 24, I decided to try to reconcile with my family. But when I saw my father, he went into a rage, attacked me and tried to kill me. My mother, in spite of all the abuse, still defended him and was also angry with me. All of this led to my going into a deep depression. Therapy helped me get to one level of healing, but I needed deeper work; therapy turned out to be a bridge to other kinds of healing methodologies.

I began yoga/spiritual practice, which took me to a level I had not imaged possible. For the first time in my life, I felt GREAT! I was happy, and incidents that had triggered intense emotional responses in me before no longer bothered me. Feeling so well myself made me want to help others get to the same place, and I decided to become a coach.

But to start my own business, I need to learn how to operate one, so I took at job as a trainer at a gym, which has been my first for-profit job. Yes, it’s a very corporate environment, but for the moment, it’s what I need to do. Physical movement arts and physical strength lead to mental strength and then to psychological and emotional strength, so being a trainer is aligned with my philosophy.

My preference is to work with women so they can stand in their power; in the work I do outside of the gym, I include nutrition, lifestyle, physical training, yoga, and spiritual practice. There is a way in which all women suffer in the same ways: we are brought down by poor body image and low self-esteem. Women of color have added issues and due to the continued presence of racial discrimination, we are at a career disadvantage compared to white women. But most of all, we are more likely to put ourselves last and to ignore self-care.

White women are more likely to feel entitled to self-care, such as going to the gym or to a spa. Women of color are less likely to spend time – and especially money – on ourselves. The cultures we come from see that as selfish. But times are changing, and more women of color are being brought to the understanding that we must take care of ourselves as well as of others.

siop 2012-13 group pic

How can we break ourselves out of the habit of putting ourselves last?

One practice is to make an appointment with yourself. It might be as little time as a once a week commitment to start with, and as small an activity as taking your time while eating a good healthy meal, doing a session of yoga, going for a swim, or meditating.

If you break your commitment, ask yourself what’s holding you back and be honest in your answer. It is that you feel you don’t deserve it? That you don’t have the support? That it’s out of your comfort zone?

Standing someone else up is not something we would do, and we must treat ourselves as just as important as others we make such commitments to. Once you begin to see some changes in your life, you realize it’s worth it, and a virtuous cycle has begun.

Going to the Standing in Our Power gathering last year and experiencing communal healing was wonderful, since I am still on a healing journey. It was special to get not just individual support, but support from a whole community of women who are my equals. As someone who “mothered” my younger sisters and other younger women, I am used to having to be the “rock,” and not to show my own vulnerability. Among my peers, I could let go of being in control, and to trust putting myself in other women’s hands. Even though I was asked to play a coaching role, I felt that I got as much as I gave.

Women are doing amazing work, and I want us to FEEL amazing too! We deserve to feel great in body and spirit. I feel that the community we began can explode into something enormous. As we help each other resolve the traumas we carry within us, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. I’m so excited that women of color will lead by example for the next generation!

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.

May 162012

As an overachieving, overworking activist, sitting idly in the company of solitude, did not come naturally to me. Rest felt like lazy selfishness, two things my immigrant mother indoctrinated me NOT to be. Sitting in meditation, rummaging through years of painful emotions and lingering trauma while searching for inner guidance tested my courage and stubbornness.

On the first day of 2010, after experiencing two painful and messy breakups–one with my wife and the other with my career–I sat in my unfurnished studio apartment in the overpowering company of emotional pain. I found myself without motivation to self-medicate with work or family drama. A couple of weeks after my breakup, a couple of days after my resignation I longed for love. I told no one. Instead, I sat in front of my ancestral altar desperately seeking rescue from my reality. Hoping to find light within pain, I found something better…healing self-love. I came to stand in my power by sitting with myself to find my “why.”

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”

Like my grandmother, my aunt and my mother, early on I committed my energy to protecting children and teaching youth to go beyond survival and to thrive. During my last official nonprofit job, when it came time to defend our high school for low-achieving dropouts I gladly put on my activist armor and fought back. Alongside other courageous and committed stakeholders we formed a united–albeit small–front against a wealthy, majority white, board of directors. They craved the accolades of supporting a school for “promising” children. We wanted to stand for what was right. The members of the board were certainly invested in “winning” and they did. The school that served as parent, best friend, sibling, and hope for survival and success was shut down due to its lack of “promising” children.

Our egos were bruised, our energies spent, yet not winning did not defeat us in the same way that it defeated the youth who attended the school. As we moved to the next stage of our careers, some more at peace with our decisions than others, we eventually accepted the disappointment left by our confrontation with the darker side of the business of nonprofiteering–the side that involves confidential memos that never make it to the website or marketing materials. After 10 years of personal investment in nonprofit work, I experienced an unforeseen purge of idealism, followed by disdain for the paternalism of the nonprofit industrial complex. My idealism and naiveté led me to the real challenge of nonprofit professionals: staying truthful and courageous to the community and mission despite infiltration from individuals of very questionable character who wish to run nonprofit organizations as they run their hedge funds and banks, and sometimes even their families. It was then I realized why some nonprofits become funding darlings, why only some ideas make it out of our communities and into mainstream media, and why some kids that tried their best never really had a chance. It turns out that even supporters such as funders and in this case board members, do see a “losing side,” the side of “the rejects, the dangerous.” Even in community-based organizations specifically created to help children and families with severe socioeconomic disadvantages THEY are still searching for what THEY know, “promising non-threatening” children of color to feel good about “helping.” I recognize that it’s not this simple or one-sided and I can go on a huge tangent about this but for now just know I call this eye-opening experience my Nonprofit MFA, Masters in Feminist Activism. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t earned it, yet I am always grateful I did.

I continued to sit in front of my altar, hoping to soon find the courage to ask the right questions and accept the truth. Perhaps regain my strength, refine my mission, perhaps reach out to my community.

The truth trickled in as I discovered a deeper kind of power. Power informed by my truth, ignited by my suffering, sustained by my healing. I choose the word sustain as an intentional reference because we can not afford to ignore emotional and psychological well-being in discussions of sustainability and social justice and equality. Without us, each and every one of us, there is no movement.

When as a woman of color, as a femme lesbian, as a survivor, as a writer and creator I defend my right to authentic happiness I stand in my power. I push boundaries visible only to those who choose to see them, real to those who choose not to. I reject the notion of success, embrace my own legacy and lead not just with my brain but also with my spirit and my heart. It’s not an easy decision, it is a courageous decision. It’s not a certain choice, it is a choice that thrives in the creative demands of uncertainty, the power of my intuition, an intuition fueled by women who came before me, share this world with me now and are yet to make their way over from the spirit world. It’s a choice. It’s a lonely choice, at times requiring the company and hand-holding of spirit goddesses. It’s the only choice that elevates my soul, my family, my community, my ancestors. In my power, I stand, I kneel, I crawl and cry. I am whole, always firm within my values, my purpose and collective knowledge. I choose power. I choose light. I choose love. I choose.

Each day I showed up to my altar and removed painful arrows penetrating my skin, not with my Barnard degree or my professional titles, but with my dance of courage, love, compassion and patience.

Standing in my power I…
receive comfort and healing love from my mother
trust my community,
sit with suffering, with courage and determination to heal,
with compassion and accountability for those whose choices
have hurt me because
“violence however well-intentioned
always backfires upon oneself”
Standing in my power I…
choose forgiveness.
Forgive myself.
Accept my beauty after years of learned self-hate.
Start over. Finish. Quit. Dream. Create.
Break self-imposed silence with my soft voice,
experience vulnerability and,
experience the freedom of healing.

The power of women of color standing together in leadership and community is expansive, collaborative, not based on dominance or oppression and has and will continue to propel our world forward. Standing in our power means nurturing leadership models in which we can each contribute concurrently and cohesively with our passions, our intuitive insights, and our power to create and nurture.

Reinventing myself and my career meant transitioning from youth leadership development to coaching adults. As expected, mentoring youth continues to be top of mind. Specifically, I worry that too many “promising” young women of color are coerced into participation in paternalistic definitions of leadership. Now more than ever young women are encouraged to compete with each other for the few and elusive slots at the “big boys’” table.

As I move forward I am thinking about how I can most effectively contribute to building the leadership capacity of young women of color without having to sacrifice my own calling to mentor and teach women my age to dare boldly and expansively. I believe that by teaching each other, sharing knowledge and building collective power and the power within we will succeed in rejecting oppressive capitalist structures of work, family life and spirituality in favor of justice and equality. I envision a multi-generational model of mentorship and teaching in which women of color can fill in each other’s leadership and educational gaps; the gaps left behind by centuries of anglocentric capitalist models of learning and living. Lucky for us we have access to our own multi-millennia collective knowledge of thriving and healing.

After 10 years of youth development and nonprofit leadership Yaromil Fong-Olivares gave up her six-figure salary in favor of honoring her personal values and mission. In early 2010 she stumbled upon the world of professional personal development and set out to be the first “out” Latina Lesbian lifestyle coach by creating DI=VA Life Coaching. Now after a few winding roads she finds herself in quick and systemic evolution mode, enjoying the art of living and creating. She continues to evolve and thrive as an ACE-Certified Personal Trainer, Reiki Energy Healer and Lifestyle Coach & Blogger. A Latinasian (of Chinese-Dominican heritage), originally hailing from Santiago, Dominican Republic, Yaromil is committed to living and sharing happiness, passion, love and laughter as a self-identified “feminist social entrepreneur.” Always a lover of words, stories, beauty and justice, she is a frugal scholar self-taught in the areas of Positive Psychology, Taoism, practical philosophy, marketing, design, and meditation. She is a student at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition and will receive her Wellness Coaching Certification in January 2013. She holds a Sociology degree from Barnard College, Columbia University and sometimes produces music videos and other media. Connect with Yaromil on twitter, @yaropathfinder and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/divacoachingblog, or by visiting her blog: www.yaromilolivares.com/blog.

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