This episode is part of the Culture Fit project that Carol recorded with her son-in-law Peter Cruz. In this episode, Carol, her cohost Peter Cruz, and their guest Damary Bonilla discuss:
Dr. Damary M. Bonilla-Rodriguez is a national leading authority on leadership development, especially as it pertains to diversity and inclusion. She delivers keynote addresses and presentations drawing upon her experience from roles in the non-profit, private, and government sectors, as well as her doctoral research. Her research about Latina leadership in the United States has served as the foundation for events, conference sessions, publications, and content development - to address the urgency of leadership development for a fast-growing population and create a pipeline of diverse leaders.
Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish and Social Work from the College of New Rochelle where she received the College President’s Medal, graduated with Departmental Honors, and was awarded the Sigma Delta Pi Spanish Award. She also holds a Master of Science degree in Organizational Communications and a Specialized Certification in Corporate Communications, both from the College of New Rochelle. Personal endeavors of overcoming statistics and accessing higher education, led her to earn a Doctorate in Education focusing on Executive Leadership from St. John Fisher College.
To change the political and leadership landscape for Latinos, Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez ran for State Representative in the 189th District of Pennsylvania in the 2016 election cycle where she became the 1st Hispanic to make a State ballot in Pike and Monroe Counties. In November 2019, she became the 1st Hispanic elected as School Board Director in the East Stroudsburg Area School District where she Chairs the Education and Negotiation committees. Passionate about supporting professional organizations, she is a Board Member of the Brodhead Watershed Association where she Chairs the Membership committee, Colonial IU 20 where she serves as Vice President, Prospanica NY where she serves as Vice President of Professional Development, Latina VIDA, Latinas on the Plaza and an Advisory Board member for several organizations including: The Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs, Monroe County Children and Youth where she leads the Education committee, SciGirls, and the Alliance for Positive Youth Development. In addition, she was appointed by Governor Tom Wolf to represent the Poconos Region on statewide commissions on Redistricting Reform and Latino affairs (GACLA) where she Chairs the Education committee.
Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez was recognized as a 2014 Coors Light Lideres finalist and the recipient of numerous awards including a proclamation from the NYS Assembly, the Proud to Be Latina Soy Poderosa award, and the SISGI Beyond Good Ideas Excellence in Nonprofit Leadership award. Her published written accomplishments include the books Ethics, Gender, and Leadership in the Workplace and Today’s Inspired Latina (Volume II), as well as contributing to the Huffington Post and being featured by several media outlets including NBC Latino, Chief Writing Wolf, and the Empowered Latinas series.
While, she is proud of her many accomplishments, she highlights her greatest as being the mother of eleven-year-old twin boys, Caleb and Joshua. She resides in Pennsylvania with her boys and husband Robert. Her favorite quote is: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (Newton).
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Dr. Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez. This is one more in the Culture Fit series I did with Peter Cruz. Damary, Peter and I talk about the interconnections between having to code switch and imposter syndrome, the pressure of being “the only,” and her hopes for the upcoming generations. Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Peter Cruz: This week we have Damary. Hey Damary. How are you?
Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez: Hey, Peter. I'm good. How are you?
Peter: I’m doing well. For our listeners, could you just share with us some tidbits about your professional background and who you are?
Damary: Sure. So my background is I am a Hispanic woman born and raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. I've lived in the Poconos for the past 14 years. I'm the director of the leaders of color New York program, which is focused on building a bench of black and brown leaders in New York. I serve on Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's commission on Latino affairs representing the Poconos region as well as served on his redistricting reform commission. And I say that my most important job is being the mother of 11 year old twin boys.
Peter: That's incredible. As an expecting parent myself, that seems challenging.
Damary: Congratulations. It is challenging.
Peter: But in regards to your professional side of it when you were working with. Leaders of color who are trying to enter or establish their positions in, in, in mostly white dominated spaces. Just to jump us off, like what pressures do you see that exist to either code switch or similar, remove aspects of themselves just to like, I guess be taken seriously.
Damary: Your, so a topic related to leadership that is emerging for women and for leaders of color more now than, since it had been coined in the 1970s as the imposter syndrome. And this week, I've talked about it several times because women and leaders of color struggled to. I have the opportunity sometimes to achieve a formal title and position in society to climb the ladder of success, to penetrate the political sector. And once they do get there to really be able to maintain the status, if you will, because there are expectations that. You should speak a certain way or behave a certain way. Sometimes even dress a certain way. Right? For the women, we talk about things like, is it okay to wear hoops in the workplace and be still considered professional? For those of us that are bilingual, is it okay to use a little bit of Spanish or Spanglish? I was raised in New York City and we speak Spanglish. That's another language. And so just being able to understand where. And if you have to shut off some aspects of yourself, which then does not allow you to be your authentic self is a challenge in itself. Right. And then when you do get a seat at the table, how are you able to gain and maintain the respect of your colleagues, particularly individuals that may not be as qualified as you, but based on privilege, are at the table and absolutely feel like they belong. So the conversation around the imposter syndrome is you, you internalize those concepts and those notions that are just throughout society and or not, when you're able to leave those aside and push through what. Like you don't belong at this table or there's no room for you, then you're able to really show up as your authentic self and challenge the status quo. But that's a day-to-day struggle.
Carol: So often I feel like I mean sometimes, and certainly more nowadays they're, they're direct messages that are very clear and explicit about you don't belong, but I feel like a lot of times it's, it's much, it's more subtle, and oftentimes for the four people who are in the dominant culture who are white, who are white men, unfortunately, men that may not even realize that they're taking up as much space as they are taking up, or, assuming competence on the part of other colleagues that look like them or themselves in this.
Damary: Absolutely. The implicit bias in the professional setting is probably the greatest influencer of the environment of whether or not somebody feels like they fit in based on their gender, their sexual orientation, their their age, their race or ethnicity. And you're right. Sometimes people don't even realize because they have biases where everybody looks like them and talks like them. And here comes this individual that doesn't fit what they are used to. And sometimes they just don't know how to react. And I've heard comments from older white males at the same tables, as I am saying, things like you speak out of turn or your tone will not be tolerable. Sometimes I am seen as - and this goes for women leaders and then also people of color sometimes, and often, mostly women of color who are leaders, where you hear things like you're aggressive, or, you are abrasive or, you're, I've been called unprofessional. You're unprofessional because you speak up and you speak. But for me, it's conviction and leadership. You asked me about working with leaders of color and as a leader for leaders of color, I feel like it's my responsibility and I have to speak up and speak out. Otherwise what's the point of being at any given table?
Carol: You say you've been labeled aggressive and, studies have shown that, that same behavior, whatever people were perceiving of, how you were showing. That same behavior on the part of, of a white man would be labeled as assertive or leader, so the exact same way of being the way of showing up, it's just perceived and so different a way, depending on what your social identity.
Damary: Right. And that brings me back to the conversation about code switching, that we were starting to have around leaders of color, particularly when you're trying to fit in, you see yourself in a position to either compromise your identity in terms of not speaking about certain aspects of your life. We see that I'm not when it comes to the LGBTQ plus population, but then also in terms of shifting, if you're in certain places and spaces, You might try to adapt the way you speak, use words that you think will be more acceptable in that space versus when you are with family and friends and individuals that you feel comfortable with. Myself being in academia. Oftentimes I use layman's terms because that's how I best communicate with everyone at every level. But when I'm in the academic spaces, individuals are using big words. I know the big word. I know the meaning of the big words, but I choose not to use them because I'm a communicator and it's more important for me to be able to connect with all individuals at any level, whether they have access to formal education or not. So code switching and fitting in is really about making choices around how much of yourself are you willing to compromise in any given space or, or moment?
Peter: Yeah, and the thing that I wanted to just touch on briefly was just that. This is a thing that is universal regardless, because there are a number of people who are shifting careers or moving to different cities where, maybe if I move to a more progressive city, this probably won't be an issue. Or like, trying to escape it because it's, but the thing is that it's unavoidable in, in your experience, moving from a bigger city to the Poconos, being there for an extended period of time, like. What is that labor-intensive and trying to, I guess, use this for an Eichler, was it, I mean, cause that's the assumption.
Damary: It is labor-intensive Peter. It wasn't, it is. And, and it will be because these are the systemic issues that we talk about. So you're right. Regardless of where you are. There are geographic perceptions. So have you moved from the north to the south? There are certain expectations that individuals in the south have that somebody from the north may not be able to, to live up to. Right. So regardless of where you go, you have to realize that there are cultures within communities. There are people who have lived in certain areas for many years. So some of the issues that I have had to grapple within our community and I've been here 14 years are. Everything from speaking with an accent, which people don't realize, right. It's my New Yorker’s accent. And so I've been asked about, you know the way that I speak, where my from et cetera being labeled a transplant and, and not fully being. The white individuals who have been here for generations, who to me have a lot of wisdom to share in terms of the economy of the community in terms of the educational system and other systems that I want to be part of. And I want to help, and I've traveled the country. So I have a wealth of knowledge and expertise that now is starting to support our community. As I'm leading the diversity, equity and inclusion. For our school district. And so on, in December of 2019, I was sworn in as the first Hispanic elected to the east Stroudsburg area school district school board. And as the first, thank you as the first and as the only, you often have to educate people along the way about what it's like to be you about, what are the issues that are unique to people like you, in this case, students, educators, community partners, through. I also represent us on the board of the colonial intermediate unit 20, which is 13 school districts from Delaware valley out to north Hampton county and focusing on special education. And there I'm also the only Hispanic as well as the youngest and several others first and only. And there is pressure that comes with that. But for me, there is also a reward that I have the opportunity to help create a space that is more inclusive for individuals who are different. They don't have to be like me, but they just have to be different than who's been at that table before me.
Peter: And for people who are numbers like a first and only because I think that's like what's happening now. Right? Many organizations, many companies are having. First ever diversity equity, inclusion person, most commonly it's a woman of color because of the glass. What is it? The glass cliff taking over it. For those people who are trying to establish that type of environment, what are some key things that you have, like tried to implement that were unsuccessful or things that were successful right off the bat, that they should either try to replicate and make their own. But things that helped you get off the ground and establishing
Damary: that because of the individual, whether you're the person that is pushing for change or the person on the other side of the change certainly has. A personal lens on the diversity equity and inclusion conversation and thinking about what is my perception of diversity, how do I promote a more inclusive environment? How do I move the needle forward in my organization? My community and society broadly becoming more equitable and, and being able to serve everyone who wants to be served by this institution or deserved by, to be served by the institution. If we're thinking. School district or a nonprofit organization or a company with a target audience in terms of the organization, it's really about evaluating the policies and practices that are in place. Are those conducive to being an inclusive environment, are those conducive to moving the organization, the institution. Equitable practices or not. And then there's a level of buy-in that has to be gained from every individual at the organization at any given time. You're not going to get that buy-in all at once, but you do have to work with individuals in the respective. So that it becomes institutionalized. And then if you're the person that's pushing for the change or driving the change, you have to be patient, you have to be mindful and you have to be sensitive to meeting people where they are. And knowing that just because you want people to buy into DEI does not mean they will. And just because you want an organization. To take on this effort doesn't mean they will, or they can, they may not have the capacity, the expertise, right? The individuals on the team to be able to do this work comprehensively at least.
Peter: Yeah. I would just speak on, on my own experience that this also it's prevalent in. Corporations or organizations that are actually not white dominant as far as the people involved, because racism is so systematic that we, and white supremacy culture is just prevalent everywhere that we're just perpetuating it without really recognizing it. I remember being in a diversity equity inclusion meeting, and having someone say, well, we are all brown and black people, so where we don't have the same types of struggles, but that's furthest from the truth.
Damary: Absolutely. So you touched on a couple of things. One there's, there is racism and prejudice amongst like individuals, right? So within the Hispanic community, there are over 20 countries represented under that umbrella of Hispanic, Latino Latinex. Right. And there is racism and sometimes division. Even those countries, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans or Ecuadorians and, and, and the mannequins, et cetera. So we can not assume that just because it is a black or brown institution, these things are not happening, but also in terms of the tenants of white supremacy culture, when we think about perfectionism and that pressure, right, talking back to the imposter syndrome that we touched on a little bit ago, that pressure to be good at things, or to have to work harder, to be at certain tables because. I don't see a way in or nobody that looks like you has been there, or nobody in your family has achieved a level of higher education. I mean, I'm one of less than 4% of Latinas in the United States with a doctorate. I was raised by my grandparents who went to the first and third grade. They didn't speak, read, or write English fluently and what they did know, they self taught. Where would I have ended up if I didn't have the opportunity for mentorship for nonprofit organizations given. The space to know that these opportunities existed. And then at the college level, having advisors that supported me and Latinas that looked like me, where I learned that a doctorate was a possibility that wasn't anything I had ever thought about before, but I was open to the possibilities when I got to college, I was the first in my family to graduate college. So then my responsibility is to pass that along to others in my family and my community and society.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, it's because so much of what you're saying and just like I had experienced, I'm also Puerto Rican first in my family. I think when I graduated, I read this study that said like about. Three to 4% of Hispanics just like to go to college. And then of that three to 4%, about 8% complete. And it was just like very, very, it's just an immense pressure and burden to be the representative of everyone. So the simulation just has to come naturally because. shifted and navigated through these spaces. Do you feel like you could answer this? How can we, as you want, but do you feel that that is more existing in education or in politics?
Damary: Oh, this is a whole nother session, I think in both. So in, in education, in terms of access to education and being in this. The student, you do experience the need to assimilate frequently, because if you look around, you're often by yourself, right? And as you stated in terms of what the data shows, but the higher you climb in terms of formal education, higher education, the more likely you are to be the only one. So to finish the journey. So you, you find yourself having to adapt and shift along the way you find yourself having to identify with individuals that may not speak the same language or eat the same foods, but that you can still learn from and have some peer to peer mentorship with, to just make it through the journey and then using the opportunity to help others. In terms of politics, though, we talked about geography a little bit. So if you're in a place like New York city, you're going to find more. People of color in positions of elected leadership, right? However, if you're in places like the post. You're not going to see that. And though we did have an influx of people of color and particularly Hispanic people who moved to the Poconos in the last 20 years, they still have not fully penetrated those spaces. I ran for state representative in 2016 and became the first Hispanic to make a state ballot in Monroe and Pike county. That was just five years ago. That's the reality of what the data shows. Right. And then when I did get on the ballot and I was knocking on doors, I heard things like, you speak with an accent. You're not a NoCal. You should be home with your children because my five-year-old twins were on the campaign trail, handing out flyers and they really loved it. They love people. They love the energy. They say that they're going to run for office. So. That is where we're able to shift the dynamics. When we help our children see the possibilities that we didn't see, right? Because we didn't have the role models because we didn't have the opportunities or the experiences. Then we shift the dynamics because their generation, for my kids, they expect to go to college. They expect to run for public office. They expect to be elected to public office. That's a very different mentality than those of us that have had to really fight. And the fight for social justice is every. It's everything from the boardroom and the school district to, the, the boardroom in any of the organizations that I serve across the country. But even here locally, I was the first Hispanic to be elected to the board of the Broadhead watershed association and Hispanics care about the environment. However, There's a difference between individuals that come from the city who don't really understand, how do I help maintain the waters? How do I help contribute to protecting our environment? Right? So there's a level of education and support and connection that our organization knows is very important. And we've had informational events and have been deliberate about inviting diverse individuals to join. So when you talk about politics, sometimes issues like the environment may not be front and center when people of color do get to the table, because if you've grown up in an urban community versus the suburbs versus another geographic area, The priorities are different to that. I would say it's across the board.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, yeah, like we've been talking about it's all universal everywhere. I have one question that ties into it, but in regards to politics as the world kind of, becomes more progressive in a way. Right. I think the starting off point and the foundation is different based on geography, but The near future when your children maybe run for office or my child runs for office, who knows when in some near distant future, we hope you foresee it? Cause you were just interacting with the two people trying to tell you that you're not from here X, Y, and Z that the need in politics per se. Cause I think it lives out in the public. To Western than need to assimilate.
Damary: I hope so. And for the record, please plant the seed for your child, that they can and should run for office. I hope so. I'm the type of person who is very comfortable standing out, so I don't feel the need to assimilate personally. Just because I'm also patient enough with others to teach them what it's like to be me. And sometimes it does take more push than others, depending on the individual, depending on how receptive they are, depending on how much they actually want to learn about me. But I hope that we are making strides so that our children are able to show up as they're often. So because we use the word authentic leadership often, and, we want people to be authentic. We want people to bring their full selves. And yet when people attempt to do that, we center them. We don't want people to be their full selves. It just sounds like the right thing to say, especially when it comes to the diversity conversation. And, and so, right now the social unrest and the issues that we're seeing and, and in the media and that we're seeing play out in our communities, It's putting a sense of pressure and urgency for institutions and organizations to move some of those that you talked about, that yourself they're creating the diversity officer positions. I mean, across the board every day we see lots of posts. Some of those, even if not intended that way, are just to check off the box. That's what they're doing. Right. Because if the organization does not have an environment conducive as these individuals and we're forcing individuals to assimilate, then you're really just checking off the box. So I'm hoping, but I'm also an optimist. I still believe in a government for the people and by the people because who better to tell us what are the issues that they need to prioritize than the people going through those issues, who better to inform the social justice movements that we are promoting right now than the people who have lived marginalized for generations. Public incidents have happened over the past year or so. And global prices for these issues to emerge to the place where they are right now. So I'm hopeful, but I can't say for sure.
Peter: And that's usually, that seems to be the last question I asked, like, what are you optimistic about and what are you hopeful for? So I'm glad you addressed that stuff. Carol, do you have anything else?
Carol: I just want to say, I appreciate your persistence, you keep showing up, you keep being the one and only, which is that's a huge amount of emotional labor that you're taking on.
Damary: Thank you. Yes, it is. It's exhausting. I've been saying that a lot more lately. And so I'll, I'll share this with you in terms of, in terms of optimism, what I'm optimistic about is people being inspired by injustice to the point that they will step up to the. And take on leadership roles. And I've been talking a lot over the past year about how crises bring about leaders. And so you're either going to sit back and complain and just be bogged down by the crisis, or you're going to step up to the plate and ask what can I do and contribute. And that can mean getting engaged in your child's PTO, or that can mean running for office, or that can be. Anything in between, but it means that if you really feel compelled to see difference, you're going to be part of the difference. So what I'm optimistic about is that more people will be inspired by social injustice, by prejudices that they experienced or that they see others experience. And that, that will bring about more allyship in terms of diversity of racial and ethnic communities. Right. Because we can't sit around and just talk about white privilege and white supremacy, if we don't talk about all the privilege. I was born and raised in the projects in New York City. I'm a homeowner. My kids do not have the same experience that I had. And so understanding that I have privilege in a heterosexual family versus not understanding that my kids have privilege because of the socioeconomic status of their parents versus their parents growing up is important as well. So there’s just a lot of DEI dynamics that that we can talk about. So hopefully we'll continue the dialogue.
Peter: Yeah. Maybe we'll have you on when we talk about intersections.
Damary: Yeah, I'm leading a committee at work on intersectionality and coalition building.
Carol: All right. So perfect.
Peter: So that will be part two of our conversation. Thank you so much to Damary. Thank you for doing that. You don't want to take too much more of your time.
Damary: Oh, great. Thank you. And it's an opportunity to reflect, but yes, Carol, sometimes I'm exhausted. I woke up this morning thinking like maybe I need to throw in the towel on this, on the school board piece. And then I got a message on Instagram that one of my quotes was printed on a greeting card in this new company for. But for highlighting women of color and it, and, and it was exactly about how we remember your blessing, no matter what life circumstances you're facing. And I'm like, okay, I get it. I remember what I said.
Carol: It's terrible. When your own words come back to you. Right? My favorite is when your kids say it back to you.
Damary: That one's great. Especially when they're sassy about it. That's what awaits you, Peter, what mommy, you said? I know I said it. I know what I said.
Carol: Thank you so much. It was great talking with you.
Damary: Great talking with you both. We could've gone on for a while, so anytime I can hang out with you, let me know.
Carol: Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can learn more about Damary and her background, as well as how to connect with her in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. We also post the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
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