I was faced with the juxtaposition of nonprofit leadership in my first job out of college working for a Catholic priest in East Los Angeles. We provided young, Latino, immigrant men who were experiencing homelessness with lunch, employment support, and case management. I was not at all religious and in my ‘rebellious’ youth proclaimed to be an atheist. Honestly, I didn’t know the difference between agnostic and atheist as much as I proclaimed to know. But I did know why I held that proclamation about faith so close to heart. It was due to my personal experiences with the Catholic church. My childhood molester followed his Saturday nights with us by taking us to church on Sunday mornings. All I remember about those Sundays is a lot of wood paneling, free donuts, and how the words coming from the priest’s mouth did not line up with the night before. Now as a young adult, my first boss walked in every day with that same white and black collar. My guard was up from the start.
Over 20 years later, me and bosses (aka authority figures) never really found equal footing in my eyes.
However, I was young and had big dreams of changing the world so I looked up to my boss… who also happened to be a priest. After all, he was from the same Jesuit faith practice as Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries. And I remembered studying Liberation Theology and the revolutionary work that Catholic priests were a part of in Central America. All this provided a counter-experience of men of authority in long robes and tight collars with a boss who rooted his faith in seeking justice and equity for the ‘least of these’. My relationship with this nonprofit founder and Catholic priest helped me to see people for who they are as individuals and not always as what they represent. This can be a good thing, or oftentimes as it is in nonprofits – a very confusing juxtaposition.
My last feat before leaving my first job out of college was the building of a transitional youth shelter in Boyle Heights. And if you know anything about NIMBYism, it was not easy. However, organizing volunteers to save lives along the border remains one of the most impactful feats of my career.
Several weekends from late spring through the summer, I organized caravans and even a few buses from Los Angeles to travel to a trailer park motel in Ocotillo, California – the last town on the way to the border.
The border has become a very public political topic in recent years, but back then it wasn’t talked about as much and deaths often went unnoticed. At the time I was involved, there had been over 500 deaths But the founders of the Water Stations project did not get involved. For them it was a human rights issue, not a political one.
The founder was a genius-level scientist but did not spend energy inventing a “magical” water station. Using data sets of most traveled pathways directing us, we simply placed plastic, gallon, jugs of water in a bigger dark blue jug to repel the heat. The water was (hopefully) signaled to border crosses with a giant blue flag at the end of a PVC pipe.
But dehydration was not the only obstacle. It was heart-wrenching when in such extreme heat the water jugs would have bullet holes with a faint water ring surrounding them.
After weeks of organizing donations to buy hundreds of water jugs needed. It was a large event to help raise awareness and included a trip to a cemetery of unmarked graves. To get to the dirt covered field, we had to first walk past manicured grounds, ornate headstones, and then through a row of trees on either side of us.
For every unmarked grave, I created a “headstone” from heavy white paper bordered by a slight gold trim. I was able to get a document listing each gravestone and any data recovered from the deceased body. Information was limited, and many of the graves only included the estimated date of death. A few of these dates listed birthdates only a few months before the recorded date of death, indicating that even infants were not spared. The county kept records in case the family came searching and would be able or willing to pay for a ‘proper’ burial. But for now, the graves were only marked with small, white wooden crosses imprinted with a case number.
Each volunteer was given a paper headstone and a paper flower handmade by some immigrant women we sometimes worked with in Boyle Heights. While searching for the matching unmarked grave they spontaneously broke out into the Mexican Folk Song “De Colores”. And that afternoon, even if just for one day, every unmarked grave had a few kind words and tears spoken over them, was adorned with handmade flowers, and honored with a paper headstone bordered in gold trim.
These few years were foundational in my views on how social justice and nonprofits work… and don’t work together.
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