Speaking to people and making connections has always been easy for me, or so I thought. In my youth and college years, I was always surrounded by people that were like me: people of color, girls and boys with disabilities, young leaders with bright and promising futures. It was truly fantastic.
All of this changed when I entered adulthood and the political scene. When I started attending conferences, political meetings, and fundraisers, I was always very uncomfortable being the only person of color with a visible disability. Everything flipped for me. I was no longer comfortable speaking to people I didn't know and became very aware that I was the only Brown person in the room. However, what made me truly upset is that me being in these settings gave the other guests in attendance the opportunity to falsely believe that these organizations were “diverse” or the person organizing the event “valued inclusion” because there was a Brown girl attending or speaking in that event.
At one conference in particular I was speaking at, I remember wishing that there was another person of color in attendance that I could look at for support. I kept thinking, “I have to speak cautiously and fix my tone. Speak properly.” I would remind myself, “You know the subject focus on the presentation and execution of the speech.” To be honest, it was emotionally draining as I wasn’t prepared to be the only person of color in that space. After I spoke, I didn't feel good about it at all because it was not authentic. It was not me. I promised myself after that, no matter the setting or my nerves, I had to be myself, because that's when I am at my best.
I continued to be the only Brown girl in the room as I continued to become more heavily involved in politics. I was tokenized as a board member in an organization that was “progressive” in my state. I knew that this would be the case going in, but I thought to myself I have an opportunity to help this group understand the need to be intentional when trying to be inclusive. The organization needed to be more diverse in race, but race alone was not their only problem. They also needed to be intentional in capturing transwomen and transmen, people with disabilities, and other from marginalized communities. These marginalized groups are rarely in leadership roles or on boards despite being an important piece in building up networks and community. I tried everything to help them understand the need, but I was completely ignored and my input was not valued. I was literally there to make the board “diverse” but only for show so that their general members would feel that truly were part of a progressive and inclusive movement.
My ability to help this organization continued to be unsuccessful and stressful as any idea or critique I had was never considered. The fact that I was also young and didn’t have years of organizing experience under my belt also led to my voice being discounted and disregarded. Despite this, I continued to bring in young and new people of color, many my family and friends, but it still ended up a waste of time as they were also disrespected. This organization, even though progressive, did not live their values and being the ONLY person of color was exhausting. I was fed up, so I reached out for help!
I am a part of the Rhode Island Latina Leadership Institute and we had a speaker that specialized in these types of scenarios. I wanted her input on the situation and certainly her advice on how I should move forward. This woman was fabulous! She’s a lawyer who has been involved heavily in many boards in our state and an all-around amazing Latina. I was finally able to ask my question in front of my group: “What should I do to make the board more receptive to change, diversity, and inclusion?” I did not expect the answer that I got: “Leave. No board should tokenize their board members, if there is no plan to be diverse and inclusive, it is not worth the pain that comes with being tokenized. It is okay to walk away from toxic spaces where you are alone and uncomfortable.” I was shocked at the answer and then I realized she was right!
Now, I am not saying that we shouldn't try, but we should not cause ourselves added and unnecessary stress. If you have put all that you could into building a strategy that is not being implemented, working with people that are not receptive to your feelings, and you are the only person of color in the room, know that the best thing to do is remove yourself from the space. Find a board that does value inclusion, create your own diverse spaces, and be yourself! I learned that the hard way, but believe me, it is valuable advice.
Stephanie Olarte is the Rhode Island State Program Coordinator for The Hispanic Federation. She is a Latina and disability advocate, and is passionate about seeing more women of color elected to office.