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Agents of Change: An Interview with Victoria Gonzalez

Meet Victoria Gonzalez – a mother, Black woman, and the Director of GDEI – a role that was created to steward YSF’s Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, practices and strategies throughout our organization. She is also the accountability partner for all Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Although still somewhat new in her role, she has been involved in DEI work previously as an administrative officer in higher education supporting equity for students as well as a long-time transformative and restorative justice practitioner. For as long as she can remember, activism has always been at the center of her work and life

Born and raised in Oakland and growing up in San Bruno, Victoria’s upbringing gave her the language and informed her understanding of the oppression and racism she experienced at a young age. Her mother was an activist for the Civil Rights Movement and had been surrounded by her mother’s friends – Black women who were also active participants in the social justice movements within the Bay Area. Because of this, Victoria learned how to navigate and negotiate this world, and how to speak for herself and for others early on.  

Here’s a closer look at her role and work:

What brought you to the Y?

The YMCA of San Francisco is the first organization that acknowledged the harm that had been caused, and after meeting Kari Lee and the GDEI Team, this was the place I thought I could do this work. I think folks that have blind spots have some basic understanding of DEI, and I think they would be amazing allies and agents of change if they were able to work and move through them. These are folks I want to work with because somebody who has blind spots, with some acknowledgment and understanding of anti-racism work is already on their way and that entry point allows for that experience of becoming powerful agents of change.

How did you get involved in DEI work and what does it mean to you?

I’ve been doing restorative justice work for about 8 years now and when I started, most of the work that I did was around overarching harms but then as I began to do the work more as a practitioner, the work that I did have more to do with racial harms. I started helping people navigate racial harms on the college campus where I worked. I believe that restorative justice in DEI work creates a space and uses tools that are very much an Indigenous practice that we’ve appropriated though, it’s a little bit different than in the ways that it’s intended but it's still community-based. That work itself is calling people in when they’ve caused harm as opposed to calling people out, and so it makes space for us to have a healing experience for our communities. 

I think what it means to me when I do this work is that I’m an active agent of change to dismantle and destroy the white supremacist system that’s oppressing everybody, specifically and mostly Black and Brown folks, but if that system exists then it’s harming everybody. I do this work because it’s important for me if I ever have grandkids, and for my grandnieces and nephews, that they don’t have to live in this world – a world that we live in right now. I do this work for the future because I think our humanity, in a lot of ways, depends on it.

Why are ERGs important?

They are important because most organizations are still functioning and operating from white hegemonic and white supremacist practices. Historically, they became these spaces for support and community, and a place for folks to feel psychological safety and support in these very white-dominant spaces that weren’t meant for them – most folks experience some type or form of racism on a day-to-day basis. It’s also a space where folks can advocate for themselves in a collective – very much an affinity space for Black and Brown folks, and folks from marginalized communities to feel safe. We need that sense of community to be able to show up as our authentic self and have a collective for advocacy. Until we dismantle white supremacy and the hierarchal-capitalistic practices in our organizations, we’re always going to need those spaces.

What are the necessary steps for an organization to become anti-racist?

We have to look at the people. We have to really engage in helping people move through their blind spots, micro and macro aggressions and biases, and we have to work on giving the tools to folks to function in an anti-racist and anti-oppression environment. We also have to support them through that work because everybody’s entry point is going to be different, and then we have the culture that we really have to change, and we’re doing that. We have to change the systems and practices that we have and the policies we’ve created to combat white supremacy and white hegemony. We have to do all those things simultaneously – we can’t do one of them alone. A lot of DEI work and practices have been focusing just on the person, just on the people and specifically just on a certain demographic in an organization which is usually frontline staff. You can’t give folks all this training and still expect them to function in a system and a culture that is inherently racist and marginalizing.  

One of the things I’d like to do here is to do work that answers the question, how do we work towards our collective liberation in a way that makes sense and how do we support each other as we do that work? Because there’s a lot of discomfort, defensiveness and feelings around it and we have to make space for that. 

What do you hope to see for the future of the communities YSF serves?

I think that the pillar I’m working on with Kari encapsulates it for me – championing an accessible, connected, resilient and just Bay Area – that pillar is the future for me. First and foremost, we as an organization are accessible for everyone, and everyone specifically from marginalized communities. We are accessible for folks who are monolingual, disabled, anybody in a different socioeconomic status, any Black and Brown folks; it's not just accessibility in like, ‘oh, they can come and use our services and programs,’ but that they can show up and feel a sense of psychological and physical safety in our spaces. As the Y has always been a part of the community, it’s a community center where folks can go to feel that and take care of their well-being. The connected part of it is that we have a true connection, and the true connection to the communities that we serve can only happen if our organization, our staff, is representative of the communities that we serve – that includes all the way up to the CEO, all the way up to the S-Suite. It's about staying relevant and not stuck in our old ways of being and thinking, and not stuck in the Y way. I don’t want to destroy the Y way for people, but we really need to re-imagine, tear that down a little bit and rebuild it. Because the Y way is steeped in white male patriarchy and hegemony, and the organization was created for that. That’s not who we are anymore and those aren’t the communities we serve anymore. 

What do you feel agents of change mean for Y staff? Does it mean that they would feel empowered to connect in many ways in our organization? 

For me to become an agent of change in my own way, not my mother’s way, I needed people to support me. I needed spaces where I can be unapologetically a Black woman. I haven’t always felt that way. The space I was in was about empowerment. Which didn’t resonate with me because empowering has something to do with somebody giving you power, and I didn’t feel empowered. I feel powerful because I was in spaces that are supportive and expansive. In those spaces I felt capable because I was experiencing community through training and cohorts. I think we have to support people and create an environment where people can practice that, and I think we’re in a unique position in the Y because we do serve communities. We are truly community service oriented. We are always going to be engaging in the community.