How can we put reproductive rights in conversation with racial and economic justice? How are queer Latinx communities and other queers of color leading the field in comprehensive, queer-positive sex education? What can we do to make space for multiply marginalized people within ALL advocacy organizations?

In episode 53 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Elicia Gonzales about how reproductive justice organizations can better incorporate intersectionality (and why they should), the role of Latinx and other queer of color movements in Philadelphia’s radical history, why pleasure is a right not a privilege, and why Elicia puts listening at the center of how she imagines otherwise.

Guest: Elicia Gonzales

Elicia Gonzales is the Executive Director at the Women’s Medical Fund in Philadelphia and co-founder of the SEXx Collective that creates ongoing sex-positive community events. She has worked in the social justice field for more than 19 years on issues ranging from reproductive justice to queer Latinx social justice. She is a licensed social worker and has masters degrees in social work and human sexuality education. Elicia has served as adjunct professor at Widener University’s Center for Human Sexuality Studies. From 2009 to 2016, she served as executive director for GALAEI, a queer Latinx social justice organization. Elicia serves on the Boards of Bread and Roses Community Fund, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern PA, and Camp Sojourner Girls’ Leadership Camp. She also serves on the Jonathan Lax Scholarship committee of the Bread and Roses Fund and on the advisory committee for Red Umbrella and Red Ribbons. She was a fellow for the Rockwood Racial and Gender Justice for HIV movement. Elicia lives in Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood with her amazing wife and cat (named Justice, of course) and is originally from Denver, Colorado where her beloved biological family resides.

We chatted about

  • Elicia’s work at the Women’s Medical Fund (02:35)
  • The importance of intersectional reproductive justice and sexual liberation (06:35)
  • Elicia’s past work with GALAEI (09:40)
  • Sexual education advocacy (13:02)
  • Connections between Elicia’s academic and activist work (15:17)
  • The interplay between creativity and social justice activism (16:31)
  • Imagining Otherwise (18:37)

Takeaways

The Women’s Medical Fund

“The Women’s Medical Fund has been around since 1985. It was born from the hearts and minds and passions and outrage of some early radical feminist organizers who saw that since the 70s, the Hyde Amendment has ensured that people who are on Medicaid can’t use that insurance to pay for their abortion. Seeing that this was coming to Pennsylvania, this group of radical organizers got together and said ‘What can we do?’ The first person literally got into her own pocket, got 250 dollars and said “I’m going to give this to someone who needs an abortion and can’t pay for it.” Lo and behold, the Women’s Medical Fund was born, although back then it was called the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Medical Fund. It has retained virtually the same simple mission, which is that we generate revenue and put it into the hands of people who are not able to afford this basic human right.”

Intersectional approaches to reproductive justice and sexual liberation

“What we’re doing at WMF and what we recognized when I was at GALAEI is that we folks who are well intended need to do a lot of work to lay the foundation to do this work with any sort of integrity. One of the lessons I learned is that you need to have people at the table who are closest to the pain (a phrase I heard used by the group POWER, which is an amazing interfaith organizing group). If you don’t have folks whose real lived experiences are impacted by intersecting systemic oppressions, then you can’t really claim to be doing the work with any sort of justice….What does it look like for us to create a space in which we invite folks who call the helpline or who don’t have the funds to pay for abortion or don’t have access to healthcare or have unstable housing? What are we doing to ensure that we are a space that’s affirming their identities, and not exploiting folks or fetishizing their experience? Doing this work means ensuring that voices of marginalized folks are elevated and are at the front and center.”

GALAEI’s queer Latinx approach to HIV/AIDS

“Similar to abortion, HIV does not live in a vacuum. It is really the epicenter of a lot of different isms, ie: racism, sexism, homophobia, patriarchy, white supremacy. We knew that we needed to expand our work beyond just HIV so we expanded the work to include and to evolve into a social justice platform. We also started to identify ourselves unapologetically as queer and Latino, which was a departure from us wanting to serve everybody in Philadelphia, which ended up making invisible the needs and the resources for Latino communities….We also relocated our offices out of Center City into an actual neighborhood that is 90% Latino. It was really important that if we were working with community, that we be in community. And so the office is now located in Norris Square Park, and the organization is partnering with folks around that park who have historically just done some really incredible stuff like Norris Square Neighborhood Project and Adan Mairena from West Kensington Ministry.”

Why sexual autonomy is so important to social justice

“Since middle school , I’ve been guided by the notion that people should have the right to do what they want with their bodies and that pleasure is a right, not a privilege. If you’re able to control the body of a person through reproductive restrictions, which bathroom a person should use, or how many children a person should have, there’s virtually nothing that you then can’t control in that person’s life.”

Checking one’s own privilege

“I’ve learned that I need to use my ears more than my mouth. I think that sometimes flies in the face of what you’re taught in school. I’ve said this (I teach at Widener): I tell my students all the time…you’re the expert, be the expert, step into your power and know your worth. But at the same time, in order to do this work and to do it well, we also need to be teaching folks and talking with folks about how we listen to other people—really listen to the underlying values that are coming out when that person speaks. Listen for the commonalities in our experiences and hearing about their pain and hearing about their strength and figuring out where there are common bridges between our experiences. You never get to the end of knowing and it’s important for us as we do this work together to be humble and to continue to stay open to other people’s ideas, strengths, and resources, to recognize the expertise in the room, and to really be thinking about ways that you can continue to check yourself. How am I exercising my own privilege in a positive way? Where am I taking up too much space from somebody else who should be having this conversation with you right now? Am I working to elevate the leadership of others who aren’t necessarily front and center? These are the things that I personally am continuing to grapple with and trying to do what I can to hold myself accountable and encouraging other people to do the same.”

Imagining Otherwise

“It’s trickier to envision what world you want to live in. It’s a lot easier to think about the world that you don’t want, especially now with everything that we’re bombarded with and confronting. It’s a lot easier to say that I don’t want that or I don’t want this. But, I want the world that we experienced on Halloween night (to put it simply!): communities coming together without bias and without suspicion, without fear of being attacked or judged….I would love to have a world where there’s more of that: more focus on what does happiness look like, what does it look like for us to collectively be creative, enjoy the simple things in life like walking in the park with loved ones or cooking together, dancing, laughing, all of the things that we feel sometimes are not possible when we’re also fighting against all of the -isms that exist in our world.”

More from Elicia

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 53, and my guest today is Elicia Gonzales. Elicia is the executive director of the Women’s Medical Fund in Philadelphia as well as the cofounder of the SEXx collective (inspired by TEDx), which creates ongoing sex-positive community events. Elicia has worked in the social justice field for more than nineteen years on issues ranging from reproductive justice to queer Latinx social justice. She’s a licensed social worker and has master’s degrees in both social work and human sexuality education. Elicia served as adjunct professor at the Weidner University’s Center for Human Sexuality Studies from 2009 to 2016. She served as executive director of GALAEI, a queer Latinx social justice organization. Elicia serves on the boards of the Bread and Roses Community Fund, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and Camp Sojourner’s Girls Leadership Camp. She also serves on the Jonathan Lax Scholarship Committee of the Bread and Roses Fund, as well as the advisory committee for Red Umbrella and Red Ribbons.

[01:27] She was a fellow for the Rockwood Racial and Gender Justice for HIV Movement. Alicia lives in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood with her amazing wife and cat who is named justice, of course, and she’s originally from Denver, Colorado, where her beloved biological family still resides.

In our interview, Elicia shares how reproductive justice organizations can better incorporate intersectionality (as well as why they should), the role of Latinx and other queer of color movements in Philadelphia radical history, why pleasure is a right and not a privilege, and why she puts listening at the center of how she imagines otherwise.

[To Elicia]: So thanks so much for being with us.

Elicia Gonzalez: Oh, it’s my complete pleasure.

Cathy: So you are a bit of a mainstay in the Philadelphia activism scene and I’m so excited to get to talk to you today. After many, many years in numerous Philadelphia social justice nonprofits, you are the relatively new executive director of the Women’s Medical Fund. I’d love for you to tell our listeners a little bit about what the Women’s Medical Fund does as an organization and what you do there.

Elicia [02:36]: So I have the distinct pleasure of serving as the new executive director of Women’s Medical Fund. I just started in July of 2017 and it’s really just been a whirlwind of an onboarding process. I took over with much pride and honor, took the torch from the much-beloved visionary leader Susan Schewel, who was there for fourteen years. So I knew that I had some incredibly big shoes to fill and I wanted to make sure that I was 110 percent ready to take on the task.

The Women’s Medical Fund has been around since 1985 and it was really born from the hearts and minds and passions and outrage of some early radical feminist organizers who saw that since the 1970s, the Hyde Amendment has ensured that people who are on Medicaid can’t use that insurance to pay for their abortion.

[03:34] Seeing that this was coming to Pennsylvania, this group of radical organizers got together and said, “What can we do?” The first person literally got into her own pocket and got $250 and said, I’m going to give this to somebody who needs an abortion and can’t pay for it. And so lo and behold, the Women’s Medical Fund was born (although back then it was called the Greater Philadelphia Women’s Medical Fund). It has remained virtually the same simple mission, which is that we generate revenue and put it into the hands of people who are not able to afford this basic human right.

Cathy: Are there particular projects that you’re excited to jump in on that are coming up?

Elicia: Every single one of the projects I would say is the reason that I got excited about this work. It’s not necessarily a project per se, but it’s really sort of a evolution of the organization to recognize that abortion really is at the epicenter of racial and economic injustices. So our strategic plan took a really big leap and included advocacy to focus specifically on racial and economic justice. I just found that to be very relevant and incredibly needed and something that I found that I could get behind.

[04:53] That strategic plan includes working with other movements that are advancing racial and economic justice in the city and region. As we know in Philadelphia, there’s plenty of incredible organizing happening here led by and for folks of color and other marginalized groups and so we really intend to stand shoulder to shoulder with those folks. So that’s exciting.

We want to recognize that abortion access is key and critical and we also want to think about abortion access as just one part of the spectrum of overall reproductive justice. So yes, it’s important to ensure folks have access to abortion and it’s also important to remind folks that they can raise their family in a healthy environment and that they can choose to have children if they want to as well and that we need to work to ensure that they have the economic dignity to do so.

Cathy [5:55]: It seems to fit really well with your longstanding intersectional approach to issues of reproductive justice, of sexual liberation, of gender identity, and I know this is something that a lot of fellow activists and advocates and people who want to get into that kind of work struggle with: centering race, class, citizenship status, gender identity—really issues of power—in this kind of advocacy work. I’d be curious to know if you have any advice for others who maybe aren’t as lucky to work with such a fabulous organization as you do. How can they help get their organizations or their communities to start to center these kinds of important questions of power and inequality in reproductive justice organizing?

Elicia [06:36]: That’s actually a really thoughtful question and I appreciate that you framed it from that way of talking about it centered within power because for us, what we’re doing at WMF [the Women’s Medical Fund] and what we recognized when I was at GALAEI and in another circles is that we folks who are well intended need to do a lot of work to really lay the foundation to do this work with any sort of integrity. I absolutely learned a great deal of lessons. One of the lessons learned is that you need to have people at the table who are closest to the pain—that’s a phrase that I heard used by POWER, which is an amazing interfaith organizing group. If you don’t have folks whose real, lived experiences are impacted by all of these intersecting systemic oppressions, then you can’t really claim to be doing the work with any sort of justice.

[07:31] But in order to do that, and what we’re asking at WMF, is what does it look like for us to create a space in which we invite folks who call the help line? Or who don’t have the funds to pay for abortion or don’t have access to healthcare or who have unstable housing? What are we doing to ensure that we are a space that’s affirming their identities and not exploiting folks or fetishizing their experience? We know that doing this work means ensuring that the voice of marginalized folks needs to be elevated and that they need to be front and center, recognizing the power that they bring to the work in their very lived experience and supporting them.

[08:25] It feels somewhat counterproductive to some folks who come from a social service model of it being transactional to have somebody coming to an organization for a service and then to then say, “we want you to come back and learn at a Know Your Rights workshop or we want to learn from you and have you come to this political education workshop, or let’s let sit together and strategize how we can go talk to our legislators.”

Historically, I think that we do a really great job in the nonprofit industrial complex of creating victims and in perpetuating that victim mentality. So my advice would be to check yourself and to really assess your own internal policies and practices that perpetuate this cycle of transactional services and not necessarily empowering communities to be in charge of their own health and dignity.

Cathy [09:17]: So you’ve mentioned GALAEI several times and I’d love to hear more about that transition because it’s still fairly new for you. Many folks know you through the amazing work that you’ve done with that organization. So could you maybe just explain for folks who are listening who aren’t familiar with that organization, what does GALAEI do? And maybe what are some projects that you’re particularly proud of working on there?

Elicia [09:40]: So, GALAEI is definitely always in my heart and I feel I’m very much part of the fabric of GALAEI, no matter how much time might pass in the future. The group started in the eighties by also a radical queer feminist group of folks: Latinos who recognize that there weren’t any organizations that were speaking specifically to the needs of queer and gay Latino communities in Philly. David Acosta mobilized some folks and started to respond to those needs. GALAEI was one of the only organizations in the state whose only mandate was to serve queer Latinos around HIV and AIDS. So there was a testing case management group, educational experiences, sex ed workshops, and streets-based education. That was very revolutionary back in that time. So he would really go out into the streets, literally, handing out condoms, handing out literature about how to “stay safe” from HIV. He [David] was at the time organizing folks to work with folks in the sex industry, injection drug users, transgender folks. That was really at the heart of GALAEI in the 1980s and really guided the work moving forward.

[10:50] There’s a couple of things that I feel really proud of that we accomplished while I was there. One of those is the expanded vision. So similarly actually to abortion, HIV does not live in a vacuum. It’s really the epicenter of a lot of different -isms, including racism, sexism, homophobia, patriarchy, and white supremacy. We knew that we needed to expand our work beyond just HIV. So we expanded our work to evolve into a social justice platform. We also started to identify ourselves unapologetically as queer and Latino, which was a departure from us wanting to serve everybody in Philadelphia, which ended up making invisible the needs of and resources for Latino communities. So that was one of the things I feel proud of: the expanded vision and the naming of ourselves as queer and Latino.

[11:48] The other thing that I feel really proud of is the legacy that happened while I was there. We relocated our offices out of Center City [the downtown region of Philadelphia that is heavily commercial and wealthy] into an actual neighborhood that is 90 percent Latino. For us, it was really important that if we were working with community that we be in community. So the office is now located in Norris Square Park and the organization is partnering with folks around that park who have historically just done some really incredible stuff, like Norris Square Neighborhood Project and Adan Mairena from West Kensington Ministry. GALAEI also continues to house the Trans Equity Project, which was formerly called the Trans Health Information Project. GALAEI continues to provide the operational support for that effort as well.

Cathy [12:43]: You are a longtime advocate for sex education and you’ve mentioned it briefly in some of your previous comments, but in many ways it’s at the core of what you’ve been doing over the course of your career. What draws you to the field of sex education? What is exciting about it for you?

Elicia [13:02]: I just think it’s always been who I am and I didn’t realize that. I say this often, but when I was 18 I proclaimed that I wanted to be the next Dr. Ruth Westheimer. That’s dating myself! I took a human sexuality class in college and it just really resonated with me. I was joking then that it would be funny if I became a sex therapist but then people kept telling me, “you know, actually you’re the person I can go to and talk about sex or dating or periods or my body and I don’t feel weird about it.” And so from 18 to 30 I said, “I’m an aspiring sex therapist.”

[13:43] I came out to Philadelphia actually for school. So I went down to Widener’s program, where I met Dr. Bill Stayton and he was just this fabulous, wonderful visionary elder who was leading the program. It was really his baby. He heard me talk about what I’d envisioned for sex and sexuality and encouraged me to pursue a social work degree. So I got a master’s degree in human sexuality education and then a master’s degree in social work.

Since middle school until now, I’ve been guided by this notion that people should have the right to do what they want with their bodies, that pleasure is a right not a privilege, and that if you’re able to control the body of a person, like through reproductive restrictions or through which bathroom a person can use or how many children a person should have, there’s virtually nothing that you then can’t control in that person’s life. I feel it in my belly. I just feel like it’s critically important and I feel very—I keep using the word privileged, but I do feel like it’s a privilege that not everybody has that I was able to say at such an early age that this is something I want to do and then pursued it with the support of an amazing family and friends. And I’m able to actually live that out now.

Cathy [15:09]: Have you found that your educational training or academic training in human sexuality shapes your activism or maybe vice versa?

Elicia [15:17]: So I actually was in school for the doctoral program (and at the time it was a doctorate of education, an EdD) but I got out of that program and just left with my master’s because I didn’t want to be in academia. I felt like sexuality shouldn’t be confined to folks who have access to education in a traditional setting. I really felt like it needed to be out in the masses, mainstreamed, and talked about everywhere. So I would say that the academic institution reminded me of the importance of talking about sex and sexuality outside a classroom setting. It also helped me to think about what that would look like in terms of partnering with organizations or people or thinking creatively about how to establish our own sexuality education platforms or projects that weren’t necessarily steeped in this sort of academic setting.

Cathy [16:11]: So I’m curious how you see your work combining these different realms that we’ve been talking about: education, both the kind of street-based education, community-based education, as well as the kind of formal education, how you bring that together with an emphasis on creativity or art and social justice activism.

Elicia [16:31]: It’s fluid. So it’s ever-evolving. If anything, I’ve learned that I need to use my ears more than my mouth and I think that sometimes flies in the face of what you’re taught in school. I teach at Weidner and I tell students all the time, “you’re the experts, be the experts, step into your power, know your work.” But at the same time, in order to do this work and to do it well, we also need to be teaching folks and talking with folks about how we listen to other people, really listen to the underlying values that are coming out when they speak, listen for the commonalities in our experiences, hearing about their pain and hearing about their strengths and figuring out where there are common bridges between our experiences.

[17:21] What I’ve learned is that you never get to the end of knowing and it’s important for us as we do this work together to be humble, to continue to stay open to other people’s ideas and strengths and resources and to recognize the expertise in the room and to, you know, to really be thinking about ways that you can continue to check yourself. How am I accessing my own privilege in a positive way? Where am I taking up too much space from somebody else who should be having this conversation with you right now? Am I working to elevate the leadership of others who aren’t necessarily aren’t front and center? These are the things that I personally am continuing to grapple with and trying to do what I can to hold myself accountable and encouraging others to do the same.

Cathy [18:10]: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of the kind of work that you do. That’s the question of what is this all adding up to for you? What kind of world are you working to create when you teach your classes, when you do work with organizations, when you do work in communities, when you do all of the kinds of projects that you’re involved with over the course of your life? What kind of world are you working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Elicia [18:38]: I love this question because many folks talk about what’s our vision plan? It’s a lot more tricky to actually envision what world you want to live in. It’s a lot easier to think about what you don’t want, especially now with everything that we’re bombarded with and confronting. It’s so easy to say “I don’t want that, I don’t want that.” I want the world that we experienced on Halloween night (to put it really simply!): communities coming together without bias, without suspicion, without fear of being attacked or judged, just engaging with one another in this very mutual exchange that was fun and lighthearted. That were people being themselves in character, out of character. There was just a freedom and a joyfulness that Halloween and trick or treating evokes.

[19:34] I would love to have a world where there’s more of that: where there’s more focus on what does happiness look like, what does it look like for us to collectively be creative, enjoy the simple things in life like walking in the park with loved ones or cooking together, dancing, laughing, all of the things that we feel like sometimes are not possible when we’re also fighting against all of the -isms that exist in our world. I won’t say that I embody this yet, but I do believe that only love conquers hate. I try to take care of that a little bit more each day.

Cathy [20:12]: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your vision of imagining otherwise.

Elicia [20:17]: Thank you. My pleasure.

Cathy [20:23]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]