We build women’s collective power in the U.S.

December 13, 2022

Grantee Partner Spotlight: El Pueblo

by Iliana Santillán

The Ms. Foundation is proud to support our grantee partners, who are at the forefront of organizing and creating solutions that improve people’s lives and bring us closer to achieving a true democracy. The insight and perspective they provide is invaluable. The Q&A below was generated by Iliana Santillán, Executive Director of El Pueblo.

El Pueblo’s mission is to build collective power through leadership development, organizing, and direct action so that the Latin American community and other marginalized communities control our own stories and destinies. El Pueblo is a S.H.E. grantee partner. 

What brought you to this work? 

There are many things that led me to the work I do with my community today. I came to the United States at the age of 12 with my mom and brother, and we only had $50 to our names. One of my first memories in the U.S. is sitting in the back of the classroom feeling lost and helpless. I went from being ranked at the top of my class in Mexico to being ignored in America because I didn’t speak English. As a young adult, I pursued a career in education. I worked with children who were learning English as their second language. Everyone felt like they belonged in my classroom; all my students felt like their contributions were important. 

After 10 years of working in the education field, I left the classroom. The stories I heard and saw while I was a teacher are the reason I do the work I do now. Today, I am the Executive Director of El Pueblo, a nonprofit organization that works with youth and adult women to improve the lives of all North Carolinians. We advocate for driver’s licenses for undocumented people and in-state tuition for students who have DACA or no status at all. Together, we form a courageous and resilient community.

How do you connect/collaborate in your community? Key partners?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of grassroots community leaders. They have taught me what it means to be accountable to my community. Our relationship is not always easy, but we remain steadfast in our commitment to make sure that the voices of community members who are directly impacted are at the forefront of our work. 

As a Latinx-led organization, we must accept that in order to really affect change, we must go beyond our comfort zone and take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror. Collaborations with non-Latinx organizations are crucial, but can seem transactional, so we’ve shifted the way we approach non-Latinx partners. We’ve been building and creating spaces and structures that encompass the broader community. Our key partners know that we are not only accountable to them, but also ready to do the work to dismantle anti-Blackness within the Latinx community.

What are you learning or what are you teaching? 

This is my second year as an Executive Director, so I am learning a lot. First and foremost, I’m learning to sustain a pace that allows me to enjoy life. A wise woman (El Pueblo’s previous Executive Director) once told me that burnout is real, and I didn’t believe her then. But now, I tread cautiously around work-life balance. I do this for me, but also for my staff. I want to make sure I am able to create a work environment that sustains curiosity, innovation, and enables my team to thrive both personally and professionally. I am also learning how to step into my power. Some days I wake up and I want to throw in the towel, but most days I wake up and I see what I am building and co-creating with my team and my community, and I can’t help but to feel an immense sense of gratitude and hope. 

Everything I am learning, I am teaching. I am fortunate enough to work with a team of amazing women. My hope is to support them as they step into their power. 

Tell us about a recent victory or something you’re proud of. 

I am proud of my team’s advocacy efforts at the North Carolina General Assembly (NGCA). This year we were able to defeat an anti-immigrant bill that would allow for ICE to collaborate with local law enforcement. SB 101, previously known as HB 370, has been a threat since 2019. Together, with grassroots community groups and a broad coalition of allies, we’ve defeated this bill twice. 

Defeating this bill was a victory. However, what brings me the most pride is the fact that we are owning our narratives and carving out spaces for our community. Leading groups of over 50 people to the NCGA is no easy task, but we have been working towards this moment for some time now. To defeat this bill, community leaders spoke to legislators and lifted their voices at committee hearings. We shared our narratives, made demands, and showed up in spaces where we are not welcome. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished and the paths that we’ve forged for others to follow.

What can philanthropy do better and/or how can individuals be helpful allies?

Since COVID, I’ve seen a few improvements from the philanthropy front. More and more funders are starting to understand the complexities of our work and are beginning to prioritize our time. This includes making systems easier and more accessible to us and seeing us as worthy. In recent times, I’ve been able to access coaching for myself and for my staff. These investments have further established trust between organizations and foundations.

I have also seen improvements in allyship. Several years ago, I often found myself speaking to large audiences about the hardships of being an immigrant. This felt performative and it made me feel as if I was speaking on behalf of all immigrants, which was not the case. Today, I see more people taking the time to educate themselves and offer spaces where they themselves can educate their peers. I still speak in front of large audiences, but instead of narrating and justifying my experiences, folks are better equipped to ask specific action-oriented questions. So, I would say that instead of “preaching to the choir” we guide and direct actions together.    

What gives you hope? 

So many things give me hope! For one, my daughter Madison is a constant source of strength and inspiration. Throughout each phase of my life, she has challenged me to think long term and to think about how I am staying accountable to myself and my community while consistently sustaining a movement. Her patience and her resilience fill me with gratitude. 

The women I have the privilege of working with give me hope. They are wise and flexible enough to move the organization forward in a new direction. Since my time as executive director, we have hired a handful of talented young women who have grown in their roles and are critical to our work moving forward. I am incredibly grateful for their contributions, comradeship, and commitment to leading El Pueblo forward.

Lastly, my community, the women and the youth that I work with motivate me each day to continue to do the work I do. Their commitment and willingness to fight this fight gives me the strength to continue to do the same and show up each day with that same energy. It’s hard work but when I look at them it makes it a little easier knowing that I’m not alone in this fight.