Shifting Power from the Inside Out: 10 Questions for Juana Flores

Juana Flores is the Executive Director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a grassroots organization of Latina immigrant women located in the Bay Area with a double mission of promoting personal transformation and building community power for social and economic justice.  Juana came to MUA as a member in 1992 looking for resources as a woman, immigrant, and domestic worker. She became a member of staff in 1994 and MUA’s Co-Director in 2001. Since 2014, MUA has worked with consultants from RoadMap to design and implement a capacity building program called Futuro Fuerte (A Strong Future).  Futuro Fuerte strengthens leadership, professional development, and internal practices so that MUA can become an organization successfully led by its Latina immigrant women members.  In the last four years, MUA has built the capacity of 16 immigrant women members to take on paid staff positions and occupy key decision-making roles, One result of this process was that Juana became MUA’s Executive Director in 2018.  Through a new report, Shifting Power from the Inside Out, MUA shares lessons learned through Futuro Fuerte and provides an example of meaningful ways that movement organizations can tackle internalized racism and structural barriers to change.  

1. In your opinion, why is it important who leads an organization like MUA?

It is important who leads MUA because the model, mission, and values have always supported our vision that immigrant women are capable leaders.  An immigrant woman knows what is happening in her community and has the experience of migrating, working, and struggling in this country. Coming from another country and not speaking the dominant language does not mean that we are incapable.  Our leadership is innately part of who we are. But when we work with colleagues with formal preparation, we sometimes limit ourselves. When we recognize that this is what is happening, we realize that we can and do lead.

2. How is what MUA is doing different from what you’ve seen in other organizations?

When I see someone who came from the membership base as part of the staff in other organizations, it is always in the same position.  She is an organizer – but not someone who supervises. They always bring in people from outside to be above her. They are not developing leadership from within.  They always tell her that she isn’t able to do things. I have seen that in local and national organizations there aren’t opportunities for women from the base to vision and propose activities or new strategies.  They say no – that only formally educated staff born in this country have ideas and strategies. They do not believe in the ideas that come from community members or that women from the base are able to be creative and have vision or know how to implement the work.  At MUA, we push our leaders from the base to create activities and projects and to prepare themselves to play a variety of organizational roles. We are creating space to practice supervision and motivating women from the base to be supervisors. We believe they are capable of doing it.

3. Why is it important to analyze who has power and how it is used internally?  Can you give an example of how you personally are confronting and interrupting this dynamic?  

We are aware that we live in a society where power and privilege exist and MUA is not the exception. And even if we do not want to and have good intentions this is something that we have each internalized. It is important to analyze who has power and how it is used, because it causes a lot of instability and anger. Even now, we sometimes get stuck in the pattern of thinking that there are jobs that only grassroots members do, though I’m happy to say it happens much less than before.  And the college-educated staff are becoming more aware of their privilege.

I have learned to directly address things in the moment.  And I see more staff in the organization practicing direct and courageous conversations. A courageous conversation is often needed when you have already spoken with someone about a dynamic and you do not see a change.  But not every situation requires a courageous conversation. You only need to go there if you have let the situation fester or haven’t been able to communicate in the moment with your coworker about what she is doing that makes you feel bad. We are learning this difference and the need to communicate more – sometimes it is a power dynamic, sometimes it is simply not understanding each other or misunderstanding.

4. Why has it been so difficult to be direct? Is there a cultural challenge to having courageous conversations?

There is a lot of adornment in our vocabulary and way of speaking in Spanish. People born in the US use vocabulary and a way of speaking English that is more direct. In some moments when we talk, we think a lot, we talk around things, or we try to make things sound nice. Culturally, it is difficult for us to have a conversation the moment a difficult situation happens. In other cases, we ask for a conversation when the situation is already more serious.

In some cases it is difficult to be direct when the other party is a staff member with formal preparation and education. We don’t trust ourselves to say what we think and we wonder what if I am the one that did not understand. There are feelings of insecurity and inferiority. What has helped me to be direct is to say how I see things and to be curious about the conversation, that is, to be attentive to what is going to come out of the conversation. If I’m wrong it’s fine, but without saying something how am I going to know? With the staff members who come from the base, I try to be direct but give them the opportunity to answer in their way if they are still learning how to be more direct.  It is important to be gentle and direct.

5. What have you learned about collaboration or solidarity between immigrant women who come to the organization looking for resources and U.S. born Latina or non-Latina women?

I have learned that not only immigrant women have challenges in this country. In a country that gives to those who already have, we realize that the poor woman of any ethnicity will always be marginalized. It is important to keep this in mind so that they do not divide us and pit us against others. We understand that we must all unite to combat abuses and make changes to obtain what we deserve. And what we deserve is to live a life free of violence, that we and our children have enough to live with dignity. We understand that we need to build bridges not walls. Our philosophy invites us to recognize the need to be integrated and interconnected to Latina and non-Latina women.

6. What professional development resources do immigrant women need to prepare to take on leadership and manage their own organization?

It is important that we are asked what we need to prepare ourselves, instead of others assuming what we need. Because if we aren’t the ones who decide what we need, we will always feel like we are unprepared. Instead of offering us a menu of the skills that “we supposedly need,” we will feel more secure and confident in our leadership when we define how we want to grow.

Something that I think makes a difference for a woman from the membership base is having a mentor or coach. Someone who supports you to navigate the world of professionalism. Someone who also helps you understand, little by little, that being part of the staff means thinking with an organizational hat or vision not based on personal benefit or need, that we do this work to serve others. We also need to be given support to learn basic computer skills and the importance of managing our agenda and time. We need to be given time to get involved in a variety of political and programmatic spaces because that is the only way we will learn and it will be easier for us to represent the organization internally and externally. When a leader from the base understands programs and is ready to move to another level, I still insist on her having a mentor or coach to continue growing in the areas of finance, fundraising, administration, etc. Working in an organization means continuous learning.

7. What has been the role of consultants in this process, and why were they important?

In order to make a change in MUA it was very important to have people from outside of the organization who have been neutral and are able to offer us perspective because they see our situation from a different vantage point. It was very important to have someone who is not part of MUA help us learn how to understand and talk about power and privilege, improve supervisory systems, build a stable and responsible Board, give individual support to members of the base that transition to staff or take on new leadership roles within MUA as they begin to supervise, and help staff who don’t come from the base reflect and define their role in MUA. It has also been important that the consultants have prepared staff members as Staff Well-Being Coordinators to continue implementing the changes from within.

8.  What does shared leadership mean for you and MUA?

This has a very big meaning for me. Shared leadership gives the opportunity to not feel lonely when making decisions and prioritizes being inclusive. Although I understand that in some cases someone has to give the final word, this final word is made after many conversations making the decision easier. This model also provides an opportunity for more colleagues to develop their ability to be responsible for decision-making.

9.  What are the secrets to building a strong team with diverse experiences, levels of education, etc?

Futuro Fuerte has taught us to stop engaging in “dysfunctional rescuing”. We do not let a staff member born here do the work of a woman from the base or allow a staff member who came from the base but has more time in the organization do the work of someone newer to MUA. We do not define who will do what work based on their level of education. We encourage each other and believe we are all capable of doing our jobs, and that it is normal that we are all constantly learning. Having a program like Futuro Fuerte that is dedicated to surfacing internal dynamics so as to improve the well-being of the organization and the development of our staff prepares all of us to improve our quality of work and responsibilities.

10.  What do you hope that other organizations learn from this model?

I hope that this report can support and help other membership-based organizations to recognize that their members are capable of leading their own organization. This does not happen overnight. Even with MUA having this internal program does not mean what we are already 100% there.  We are in the process of creating this model. Every day we are learning more. To other community leaders I say: Do not be afraid, it is not easy and it is not difficult either. It is important to surround yourself with allies that support and believe in your leadership. We can show that we are capable and more than anything that we have a lot of desire to serve our community.  When other women see us leading, they will believe more in themselves and in the movement.