An Interview with Alicia Sanchez Gill, Interim ED, Collective Action for Safe Spaces
For more about the Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership series, click here.
Alicia Sanchez Gill
Interim Executive Director, Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS)
Tell me about your current role?
I’m the interim executive director of a grassroots organization in Washington, DC called Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS). CASS began as an anti-street harassment organization focused on eliminating gendered harassment and other forms of marginalization in public spaces. We are queer and trans people of color led. We use comprehensive, community-based solutions through an intersectional lens to eliminate public gendered harassment and assault in the DC metropolitan area. (Alicia Sanchez Gill pictured at right.)
Street harassment and other public space harassment disproportionately affects women, LGBTQIA+ folks, low-income individuals, and people of color, and we intentionally center these voices in our work. CASS recognizes the ways that overlapping social identities such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation can create multiple layers of structural violence, making those with intersecting identities more vulnerable to interpersonal violence.
Our work centers the experiences of those who have been historically denied, neglected, or fully excluded by mainstream anti-violence feminist organizations, including women and LGBTQIA+ people of color, people experiencing homelessness, people in the sex trade, and those who hold multiple oppressed identities. We are anti-carceral in our approach, meaning we oppose further criminalization for harassment and assault.
CASS uses four main strategies to advance our mission to eliminate public gendered harassment in Washington, DC: education, arts activism, data, and grassroots organizing. Two examples of our work are the Safe Bar Collective program where we train restaurant, bar, and nightlife staff to interrupt gender-based harassment and assault. Since 2018, we have trained 40 bars in DC. Another program is Rethink Masculinity which is a partnership between CASS, Rethink, and the DC Rape Crisis Center. We address gendered violence by teaching a cohort of men and masculine folks about nurturance culture, consent, boundaries, emotional labor, and sexual assault.
That sounds powerful. What other CASS accomplishments make you proud?
Our organization’s primary focus is prevention combined with community organizing and advocacy. Last year, we passed the Street Harassment Prevention Act (SHPA) and ensured that the first-ever legal definition of street harassment in the U.S. is broad and inclusive of the experiences of women, trans, and nonbinary people of color who experience sexual harassment on top of being misgendered, targeted with homophobic slurs, harassed based on their religious identities, and faced with everyday racism in DC’s public spaces.
The bill provides a budget for a citywide study on street harassment in DC as well as a public awareness campaign that may replicate the anti-harassment campaign across DC’s public transit system. Most critically, the legislation creates an advisory council inclusive of majority community representatives that will prescribe training for public-facing government employees and further measures to eradicate street harassment in DC. Our hope is that this policy brings DC closer to a vision of harassment-free public spaces. What’s also important about this legislation is that it uses non-criminal approaches to combatting a pervasive social problem!
CASS is powered by 30-40 volunteers who lend their talents to advocacy, communications, governance, and policy. I have never worked this hard in my life, but I love the work and our mission. I served on the board prior to this interim role and am doing my heart’s work. As interim, I’m the only full-time staff member. I lead most of the trainings, shore up internal policies and procedures, and focus on data and evaluation, fundraising and partnerships.
We are working with the DC Office on Human Rights and the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition. The coalition is made up of current and former sex workers who care about the human rights of sex workers; we are focused on getting DC’s City Council to pass decriminalization legislation of sex work. But let me be clear, sex work is not the same as sex trafficking.
What are some of your career highlights?
My tenure at the DC Rape Crisis Center (RCC) was most pivotal. I talk openly about being a survivor and knew I was a survivor when I worked at RCC, but didn’t have the analysis of how my experience was connected to the experiences other survivors. RCC is where I really sharpened my analysis on gendered violence and my understanding of intersectionality. I got really clear on the unique and specific ways that women and LGBTQIA+ people of color are harmed by interpersonal gendered violence and state violence.
This was my first job out of undergrad and I was not only managing the city’s 24-hour hotline and hospital program, but working with sexual assault nurse examiners. This partnership work early on gave me a deep understanding of DC’s community-based landscape. I learned a lot of management skills for better or worse and it taught me how to set boundaries for myself. I was really young, which is neither here nor there, but excited about the work and eager. I had to learn how to take care of myself. The experience helped me think about how organizations can help staff take care of themselves. Organizations need infrastructure and organizational culture that supports employees taking care of themselves.
CASS’ work is intersectional because queer and trans women of color experience harm not just at the hands of a partner but by the state – when they are seeking help, trying to get protection orders, looking for alternatives to court systems, when we’re not believed and our stories aren’t taken seriously. “Misogynoir” – a term coined by Moya Bailey – are beliefs about Black women in particular that continue to harm us even after we’ve sought help for the violence we’ve experienced.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
I’m not sure. What I will say about my work is that I’ve stayed pretty consistent. My work has really built upon the Rape Crisis Center as an entry point. I worked at a District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH), a domestic violence housing program, and at The Women’s Collective (TWC) supporting women living with HIV and AIDS and their families. My work at TWC bridged gender violence with HIV and I worked at that intersection, offering support groups for women who were survivors of child sexual abuse and living with AIDS (of which there are many; read more about it here.) Then I worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office on HIV Housing continuing to bridge the gap around HIV and domestic violence and providing data-related technical assistance to grantees.
Over the course of time, I’ve continued to deepen my analysis of the ways all of these things are connected. It’s very siloed how we typically see work – HIV, sexual assault work, domestic violence, reproductive justice, bodily autonomy, policing and criminalization and sex work. Part of my work has been drawing connections between all of these elements that people may not see.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
I’m generally really lucky that I have been able to choose my work – and not everyone can do that. I’ve only worked in mission-driven organizations for the most part. Even within those organizations, sometimes there are challenges whether around funding or partnerships. Many times, organizations’ own organizational policies are out of line with the values of justice, equity, intersectionality and anti-oppressive practice. For example, I worked at an organization that didn’t have gender neutral bathrooms. I advocated multiple times for gender neutral bathrooms and eventually we got them, but it took a lot of pushback and internal advocacy to make that happen.
Organizations need to think about how we are not meeting the needs of who we say we are serving or care about. Are there lines in the sand about who we will partner with? Is our pay equitable? Do we have comprehensive leave policies? Are hiring, firing and evaluation processes in line with our values? And for larger organizations, do we know what investments comprise our organization’s endowment?
Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
I feel like this is a daily practice. One example is when I was doing a training with an international audience about the connections between racial and gender violence. Following the training, a person approached me to call out that this “racism talk” was so “American.” She was from a country that colonized half the world, maintained the enslavement of Black bodies and continued to enact harmful imperialist policies across the world.
I held up my index finger and said, “I’m gonna stop you right there.” I proceeded to explain how racialized and gendered violence, colonization, neocolonialism, and state violence are all connected in that moment. There is no talking about racialized and state violence absent of the violence of colonialism. I’m not typically that direct, but something rose up inside of me—the spirit of Maxine Waters and all my ancestors, I guess.
Each day is practice in reclaiming my time – reasserting my boundaries, my voice, setting boundaries. As a woman of color, and specifically a Black Latinx woman, relatively young compared to most executive directors, queer, from a working-class background, often because of how we show up in spaces, our voice is seen as less urgent. It’s a constant practice in asserting the urgency of our values and the imperative for our analysis, experiences, and voices to be in the room.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I spend as much time as possible in nature. I have a really nice back yard which is a rare gift in metro DC. Sitting on the grass being in nature really grounds me. I hike, practice yoga, and also ask for help when I need it. That has been my most important self-care lesson. Self-care is not a singular event and it’s not an individual task. I used to believe I wasn’t doing self-care right since didn’t get a manicure or schedule massages when I needed to.
Much of my work has been in women-led organizations and often, folks socialized with femininity are taught nurturance differently than how masculine folks are taught, which my work seeks to disrupt (everyone can be nurturing). What that has meant, though, is that we are often pouring into others more than ourselves. Self-care is actually community care – I think about it as a task I do in community and the whole community can take care of one another. It’s about community accountability, building resources and skills and dependence that can help us all be well.
I have a great community support network full of incredible friendships and people who check on me. That makes a really big difference. Executive director roles, especially as a woman of color, can feel really isolating. Being in community has been really helpful.
We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
What I want folks to say about me is that I loved joy, I loved justice and I loved my people. It reminds me of that Alice Walker quote from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose:
3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.”
I want to be remembered as a person who worked to not leave anyone behind and to make sure we brought the margins in to the center. Someone who listened more than she talked and led with compassion. I want to be seen as a person who valued people for more than what they could do and what they could produce, but loved and valued my people just for who we are whether we did another thing or not.
And I want my legacy to end sexual assault…a legacy that demonstrates that together we’ve ended sexual violence. My goal is not to continue to work within the non-profit industrial complex because that would mean people are still being oppressed. My goal is to dismantle the systems that harm us, and work myself out of a job.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
It’s been helpful for me to develop a deep awareness of myself. It’s hard to lead well if you don’t have a deep self-awareness of your needs, boundaries, skills, strengths, and learning edges. I know I am not good at everything. Knowing those areas is really helpful as you amplify your own leadership and ascend in your career.
Learn when to ask for help. I spent so much time thinking that to be a good leader or to be a good manager that I had to do it by myself since those were the models of leadership that I often saw – a Eurocentric, masculine version of leadership that was not community based. I have learned that you can lead from anywhere and there are so many leadership styles that are valuable.
I’ve also learned to model the behaviors that I want to see, whether for staff or family. That’s my social work background coming through. Modeling is a helpful tool in how I want to be communicated with, talked to, how I want meetings to go, and also how I treat myself and others. If I say I value self-care, and send emails to staff at 2 a.m., I am not modeling healthy boundaries. I am guilty of this, so I am saying it out loud to be accountable.
Remember that it’s okay to clap back. Clapping back can be a tool to combat micro-aggressions. You deserve both self-preservation and the assertion of your own power. You deserve to speak truth to power and not be afraid to assert yourself. You deserve to be in every space…in every room that you’re in. The world will try to tell you that you don’t belong. We often talk about things like “impostor syndrome” as if it is a personal failure or “self-esteem” issue, but our experiences and data tell us that impostor syndrome lives because racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. exist.
Lastly, don’t feel pressure to go to other peoples’ tables. We are creating our own tables which is why Black women are the largest growing group of entrepreneurs in the country. Don’t feel pressure to conform or be at every table. You can set your own table and the right folks will come.