Decolonizing Every Table

Decolonizing Every Table

Dawn Martinez Oropeza Al Éxito

Decolonizing every room I walk into” is something that my friend and fellow artist/poet Doug Miles, posts frequently on his social media sites. Doug walks into much more prestigious art spaces than I do, but I often have this thought when leaving many meetings. This is the same sentiment that many of my Latinx and POC (person of color) colleagues also experience.

I was asked, as a Mid-Iowa Health Foundation HealthConnect Fellow, in what ways, if any, is the fellowship table different from other tables I sit at as a POC. I have to stop and think deeply if it is any different? Why would it be different?

As a fellow, it is an honor to sit at this table with the other fellows and mentors for the last two years. I have grown considerably and received mentorship in unexpected and surprising ways. I also know that my voice and experience enriches many conversations and makes others think in ways that they may not have before. But, I would assume (and you know what they say about assuming) that one reason, maybe the main reason, I am at the table is due to the fact that I am Latina, a Chicana, and represent a statewide Latinx organization serving youth, 5th-College, Al Éxito,

Often, I am invited to meetings simply due to the fact that I am Latina, a checklist mentality at socially conscious organizations or institutions. The worst is when I attend a meeting where there is one representative of each marginalized population invited to fulfill representation quotas. As a POC invitee, I am met with too much recognition or a void of understanding or acknowledgment when I do address issues. I have, and many colleagues experienced both. Too often the desire or need to improve diversity results in tokenism.

It is in situations of tokenism that are the most taxing. There is added pressure to maximize the impact of being included in a conversation as a POC. I step into these spaces, carrying the stories of the youth and families that Al Éxito serves, being their voice, and advocating for other Latinx individuals. I sit in many meetings and wonder who else should be at the table representing Latinos for workforce development, mental health research, pre-service education? There are too many occasions that I am not an expert in the topic of discussion, but since I am there, I work hard to ensure that I do represent my participants and champion my colleagues’ expertise. Rabbinic sage Hillel the Elder once said, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” But, I know that I, in no way, represent the immense and diverse Latino community. In no way is Dawn THE voice for the 12% of Iowa’s population.

There is a power dynamic that I often do represent in many spaces, that of marginalized populations. It is a large part of my identity being from a mixed immigration status family, low income, Latina, and Jewish. At the Fellowship table, and all spaces I enter, I do represent the “client” that is often discussed. I see a disconnect between decision makers and the population being served, a lack of true understanding that transcends stereotypes and assumptions.

Is it different being at the Fellowship table? Not really. With the ultimate goal of the program to make a systematic change in institutional structures, unless power and privilege are being explored and addressed at the top levels of administrations, there will not be a significant change. Inclusion and diversity will be in appearance without substance, without systemic change.

Al Éxito is where I hope to make true systemic change. True power is in numbers. As in the Shine Theory created in President Obama’s administration, it takes a body of people to band together to amplify our voices. My work with Al Éxito, is to create a mass of Latinx and other marginalized youth to take up space, to lead at tables in a variety of areas. Not to be afraid to occupy space without fear of retribution or having the added pressure of speaking for all. It is especially crucial that all youth of today, have the ability to explore and understand how systems and structures were created to maintain power and privilege. That is the only way that a POC being invited to the table won’t have to worry about the added pressure of decolonizing that space. That is what Al Éxito works for in the future.