How the groundbreaking fellowship, Movement Mujeres, is helping women of color flourish in Texas
By Christine Bolaños
In Texas, the 2018 midterm elections resulted in a record number of Latino voters, many of them millennials or younger, and the election of two Latinas --- Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia --- to national office. Before the historic November election that saw the greatest number of women of color ever elected to office in the United States, two Texas women were already strategically designing the groundbreaking Movement Mujeres fellowship.
The program created by Wendy Davis, who rose to fame after challenging Gov. Greg Abbott to office and a filibuster against draconian abortion restrictions in June 2013, and Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, a Chicana activist who formerly led the Workers Defense Project and now heads Jolt, a Texas-based Latino political mobilization group, is the progressives’ response to filling the representation gap in Texas. If successful, the program would result in women of color taking political office in far greater numbers, and transforming the Lone Star State into a more equitable place for all people to live and work. This could eventually turn the solidly red state purple or even blue.
Launched in November 2018, Movement Mujeres is a joint venture between Davis’ nonprofit Deeds for Words and Tzintzun’s Jolt Initiative, which serves as the political arm of Jolt. Its inaugural fellowship class includes 25 Texas women, many of whom are Latina, who are participating in a two-year developmental program to improve their leadership, public speaking, governance, and policy skills. The fellows range in ages 21 to 35 and represent 14 cities across Texas. They will complete rigorous training, workshops, and advocacy to prepare them for futures in policy, government or nonprofit leadership and to better advocate for the needs of their respective communities.
“It’s a radical proposition to say we are going to invest in the people who have been ignored and underestimated because we believe that they are the ones that are going to transform our state,” Tzintzun said in a statement.
The Mujerista recently met two of the Latina fellows to learn how their heritage played a role in their aspirations, why they applied for the program, and what they hope to gain from the opportunity. We are presenting highlights from that conversation in separate question-and-answer segments below.
First is Dorothy Villareal who hails from the border between the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico. She works at Paul Quinn College as an adjunct professor and Special Assistant to the Vice President. The proud daughter of immigrants, she is passionate about public education and civic engagement to bring about positive change. Villareal is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania.
How have your Latina roots influenced the professional you have become?
Villareal: My Latinitad was so important in helping me get through college. I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, which is majority Latinos so all my life I only went to school with Latino students. When I went to college it was a real shock that suddenly people don’t look like me, they don’t call their moms every day, and when they do call their parents, it’s to have them look over their papers.
Finding my community while I was away (from home) was the reason I graduated. I saw how much of a gap there is in how higher ed treats students that have been minoritized and marginalized and how these institutions are not built for people like us and unless we’re in there, and pushing for change, then these institutions will never change.
I realized I had a perspective that was important, that was valuable, and we were able to push for measures to support students who stayed on campus during school breaks and couldn’t afford to go back home.
Why is community important to you?
Villareal: I couldn’t afford to go to see Harvard, to begin with. I didn’t have the clothing. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Community members rallied and gave me a $500 check to purchase clothes and figure out my flight to get to Harvard.
My mom’s (AP Spanish) students and my grandma would send me notes encouraging me to keep going. It totally changed my time there because I felt I wasn’t there for just me. When I was at Harvard, the people around me, perhaps we didn’t share the same experiences, but we shared the same values and beliefs. We were standing on the shoulders of giants, of the people who put us there. It changed to, ‘How am I going to learn what I’m using here and help my community in ways that matter.’
What do you hope to learn and gain from this experience?
Villareal: I don’t have any legislative or political experience, and I think that’s incredibly important as we move forward. Before my first meeting, I’d never been to lobby a congressman, and I was very afraid of learning about bills. You fear what you don’t know. They’ve really made it so that we become familiar with what we didn’t get taught in school.
What have you done so far?
Not only have we had a chance to meet one another --- it’s incredible how strong a bond we formed in 48 hours --- we learned about concrete things like lobbying, figuring out social media handles, the kind of messages we want to give.
There are some incredible mujeres in Dallas that we didn’t all know each other (prior). Now we’ve gotten together and had lunch. It’s really key that we’re building a group of talented mujeres who are supporting each other as we build and grow.
What do you think is the significance of this fellowship to women of color and Texas’ future?
There hasn’t been a program for women of color in Texas that is specifically meant to support them and their growth in whatever trajectory they’re following. It identifies what our strengths are and builds upon those. In none of these meetings do they tell us, ‘You need to talk this way,’ instead it’s, ‘Well, you’re really good at connecting with community members. How can you bridge that when you talk to legislators?’”
It’s about bringing our authentic self in the political process and that’s something uncommon for minoritized people. I think this is revolutionary and a long-time coming.
What do you think the future holds?
Villareal: I want to continue in education. Any change that is going to happen will be through education. So many incredible minds have been led astray by our school system. I really want to work in the state’s Higher Education Board because the board is making decisions that impact communities of color.
Second is Stephanie Villanueva, who was born and raised in the East End of Houston, before moving to Cypress with her family. She is a fourth-year, first-generation undergraduate student at The University of Texas at Austin majoring in public health. A daughter of Mexican immigrants, Villanueva proudly embraces her heritage and is currently interning at State Rep. Victoria Neave’s (D-Da) office.
How have your Latina roots influenced the academic you have become?
Villanueva: Mexicans make up a large portion of the state, and I feel like we need to be proud of our heritage and culture. I feel it’s important to be open about it and not be ashamed about it, especially amid the very negative rhetoric we hear all the time in the media. We are not what our government makes us out to be.
What motivated you to intern for Rep. Neave?
Villanueva: I felt it was important for me to learn about how our state government works. The bigger thing on why I applied to intern with her specifically is that I could relate to her as a Latina and a woman. That was a powerful connection for me.
As part of my internship, I answer a lot of calls from constituents and help make things easier for staff who are very busy. (Interns) do research, we create talking points for representative, and we have the opportunity to sit in on meetings.
What motivated you to apply for the Movement Mujeres fellowship?
Villanueva: I have been really involved with Jolt, and I really wanted to apply for this program because I saw it as an exciting and unique opportunity headed by amazing, hardworking women with a great vision for Texas. Being a public health major and knowing Texas is one of the most uninsured states in the country and Latinos are among the most uninsured and the fact I’m graduating soon, I want to use that knowledge and provide my community with the resources they need.
What do you hope to gain or learn from this experience?
Villanueva: I want to get to know the other 24 women in the program better. It’s going to be great to learn from each other as this cohort comes from various backgrounds, and we can all learn from one another and figure out answers to Texas issues together. I want to feel more empowered and supported by like-minded individuals not only for ourselves but (for) our communities.
What have you done and learned as part of the fellowship so far?
Villanueva: Using our voices as power. I think many times as women of color we take a step back from sharing our thoughts and I think it’s important to share them. Not everyone has the same knowledge we do, so it’s important to contribute our unique knowledge.
On the second day, we lobbied at the Capitol. I had never gone office to office. My group went to three offices lobbying and talking about issues that matter to Latino youth and youth of color, so it was a cool opportunity to meet with staff from different offices.
Any vision of how you will use what you learn from the fellowship to impact your community in the future?
Villanueva: We need more health professionals who are Latino and who are people of color. I envision being able to have a seat at the table when a lot of decisions are being made that impact our community.
This past election was great because we brought in more people of color, but at the same time, we’re still not there. The leadership doesn’t look like Texas and this program is investing in women of color, eventually being in more positions at the State Capitol.
Fellows each receive a $1,200 yearly stipend and travel and childcare expenses. When the fellowship ends, the women will know how to lobby on behalf of Movement Mujeres’ agenda, organize locally on key issues important to them, write op-eds and more.
To learn more visit MovementMujeres.com.
Note: The Q&A portion of the article was edited for clarity and length.
(Photos courtesy of Movement Mujeres)