Many in LGBT California wanted the board of Equality California to make a bold choice in replacing Geoff Kors as the new executive director of the important statewide lobbying organization. Sunday night, May 15, of the four finalists – they picked longtime gay Los Angeles-based Latino activist and healthcare advocate Roland Palencia. The choice will no doubt be cheered by grassroots activists who have been critical of EQCA for not reaching out more to people of color communities.
“I am incredibly excited,” Palencia said shortly after being informed of his selection. “I am deeply honored and humbled by this appointment. I want to build on the successes and write a new chapter, not only for Equality California but also for the diverse LGBT movement in California. I want to help to build a solid and irreversible majority for equality and work with disenfranchised communities so equality is spread equally.”
Palencia will make his first public appearance as the new ED at EQCA’s Harvey Milk Day fundraiser on May 21, from 4-6pm at a private residence. (See the EQCA press release about Palenica’s appoinment below and contact email@example.com for more information about the Harvey Milk event. Palencia will also attend EQCA’s town hall in Weho about whether to repeal Prop 8)
Palencia told me in an extensive interview that he thinks EQCA hired him for his experience:
“I have lead multi-million dollar organizations. I have created the financial resources, the infrastructure. I have been in philanthropy for the past seven years so I have a lot of connections in the philanthropic world. I think what resonated for them is that I want to bring the community together. I want us to unite our diverse community. I think Equality California could become the backbone or the nervous system that connects the California LGBT movement so we can help local communities to fight for equality. I really see that kind of vision where we will be the nervous system, the backbone where we can be the support to local efforts and local struggles.”
I asked him about his perception of EQCA post-Prop 8:
“Look, it’s easy to find a single culprit and I think people were very disappointed, obviously, that we lost. I also think that we, the community as a whole, could have been a lot more involved, could have done a lot more things. It was an issue that was not getting us much traction for the community. It’s hard to believe that now – but that was the reality. I think a lot of us were really focused on the Obama election because that was historical and people really felt that was – in the hierarchy of what was coming down the pipe – that’s where we made a lot of efforts.
So clearly, I think that there were lessons learned. There were things that could have gone a lot better
but I also think that now the community is a lot more involved and I think that we’ll be a lot more powerful when we’re faced with this decision. And I also believe that the future is a lot more powerful than the past. I think we need to move on. It’s time to move on and it’s time to figure out how we heal that wound of our right to marry the person that we love that was taken away from us. It’s important – what didn’t work. What were the lessons learned but also – what are the new chapters in the movement that we can write.
I think my appointment also is symbolic of that. Equality California really means to really send a message that we want to unite a number of communities. My work in HIV and AIDS was about providing services for all members of our community, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity – and I think that really resonated with the board that I was a leader for the entire community.
I was not very involved in the mechanics of the [No on Prop 8] campaign so I did not know in an intimate way how the campaign was run. But I think that – because Equality California had such a high profile – a lot of us when this was lost – reacted in a way that pinpointed to some extent the blame to Equality California. I think some of the lessons learned, obviously, are that we want to make sure that we involve all communities. Even though there were a lot of efforts, Equality California worked with HONOR PAC in the East LA office. But certainly, anything can be improved. And so a lot of people really felt that there were blind spots in reference to that.
I think that as a whole, Equality California – and certainly the movement as a whole – is a lot more aware of the kind of alliances and the kind of coalition building that we need to build. What is ironic about this is that we are a very diverse community. We are the most diverse civil rights movement in the history of human kind. That’s just our reality. So we don’t really realize the human bridge that we are to so many other communities.
So I think that paradigm of the gay movement being separate from other communities was shattered or at least it was shaken. There’s been – whether it’s an implicit or explicit notion – that the gay movement and the people of color movement or community are like separate communities. And I don’t think that we have as a whole related to our community in a very empowering way that we are, by nature, already connected to hundreds, if not thousands of communities. I’m talking about not only Latinos and African Americans and Asian Americans and Native Americans but people in the Middle East, people throughout California, people at different social and economic levels, people with different gender identities, gender and so forth.
One of the things is that we claim, that we call for that diversity and that that is such an ingrained principle and an ingrained value of how we move as a movement. And I think that has not necessarily happened in the past and we have seen these as separate movements and I think one of my contributions is that I want to work on those intersections and to interconnect the movement for us to have a permanent majority that is irreversible so that our rights will never have to go back to the ballot. That we don’t have to continuously fight legislation that is anti-LGBT. Almost that the status quo of California is out of the business of a state-sanctioned discrimination and inequality and that we put California out of that business so that equality lives in this state in a very palpable way that is not questioned.”
Palencia says that means reaching out to moderate Republicans “who believe in fairness,” not just focusing on the Democratic Party. “I don’t see this as a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s more about conscience.”
Palencia also wants to work not only on passing legislation but analyzing legislation already on the books to determine if and how effectively it’s working to improve the quality of life for LGBT individuals. To do this, he intends to work with local groups from Bakersfield to Pomona.
Palencia also thinks “we have a much more receptive Legislature now” than anytime in the past. However, he also said it’s important to continue to be “on guard” because elections can change everything and if necessary, he would use an aggressive tactic with officials.
“But I think it’s important to acknowledge the kinds of gains we have made and also acknowledge the kinds of minds we have changed because of the efforts that have been made – certainly by Geoff [Kors] in the past. I think there is a lot more recognition of the power of the LGBT community in terms of the vote input and the availability to finance campaigns and be decisive in many cases in terms of who gets elected and who doesn’t get elected. And that has created a certain affinity and a certain sensitivity to our issues. They are making political calculations and I think that kind of pressure needs there, especially with elected officials who don’t necessarily want to support us. So I think that kind of tactic [being aggressive] still needs to be used, even though we have a more sympathetic Legislature. [But] we want to try some more collaborative kinds of approaches.”
Palencia comes to the position with some powerful allies– including John. A. Perez, the openly gay Speaker of the California Assembly, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, openly gay Assemblymember Ricardo Lara, the head of the LA County Democratic Party, Eric Bauman and – especially – EQCA board member Dolores Huerta, the iconic co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the famed United Farm Workers union. He said he also intends to visit numerous organizations to get a sense of what they do directly and see things through the eyes of the grassroots person on the ground.
Palencia said he does not have a position yet on the very complicated issue about whether or not to return to the ballot in 2012 to repeal Prop 8. Though he doesn’t officially start his new position until July 5, he intends to attend several of the town hall meetings organized by EQCA to discuss the issue. Palencia said he intends to listen to what people say as well as doing a lot more “fact-finding” – including whether the financial support for a repeal ballot initiative would be there – before making his decision.
Palencia does not seem to want to change any of the EQCA staff, who he describes as “magnificent” and “very committed.” He said there is “good chemistry” with some of the staff he’s met already. He also acknowledged Kors and said he wants to “build on his success,” which will “continue to be felt for generations to come.”
Palencia’s own commitment comes from his family. Born and raised in Guatemala, his father owned a small business. They were middle class – but very political. In the late 1960s, his father evacuated his family – which scattered to the United States, Spain and Canada during a very violent and turbulent government crisis. His father, however, stayed behind and joined the underground movement to fight back. His father was assassinated in 1971.
“My father decided to stay and fight and he was assassinated in 1971,” Palencia said, with a catch in his voice. “So I’m very, very present and very aware of the kind of sacrifices that people like my father, like Martin Luther King, like Harvey Milk made – literally with what is most precious to them and to the people who loved them, which is their lives. I’m very present to the sacrifices they made so we can live in a better world.”
Palencia laughed when I asked if he and his mother sought asylum in the United States or went through the immigration process. I asked about the “ah-ha” moment when he knew he wanted to fight for equality.
“It was not safe for us to be in Guatemala so my mom brought us to the US. We couldn’t get asylum because the US was providing military aide to the Guatemalan government. So we were not eligible for asylum.
We had a prosperous life in Guatemala. It was very obvious to me that once I immigrated to the US that there was a conversation about immigrant Latinos that was not consistent with who I thought I was. We had a business and we were not rich but certainly middle class and there was a certain I guess entitlement that comes with that. And frankly, coming here you’re immediately put in a box. For me that was the ‘ah-ha’ moment. I really rebelled against that. I really felt it was so contradictory to what I really believe this nation is – which is really a nation that wants to create opportunities and remove any barriers that would prevent an individual from living to their highest potential. So what was obvious to me was that I had to be part of that movement to be able to change the perception and to remove that kind of state-sanctioned discrimination but also the types of attitudes that people have about immigrants.”
Palencia also said that Catholicism was in the air that he breathed growing up so while he knew he was gay at five or six years old, he suffered internalized homophobia. He wound up coming out when he attended UCLA and decided to take on the LGBT fight for equality as well. He pointed to the Dream Act as one of the intersections between Latinos and LGBTs – and the issue of education that enables LGBT youth to find themselves.
Kors previously said that he would help the new executive director with the transition process. But this will be a huge adjustment for Palencia and it will be a true challenge of the California LGBT community to rise to the task to support the new EQCA leader, as well.
Here’s the Equality California press release:
May 16, 2010
Equality California Names Roland Palencia Executive Director
Noted community leader to begin role in July
San Francisco – Equality California and its Board of Directors announced today that Roland Palencia, a trailblazing LGBT activist with extensive experience in leading and managing multi-million dollar non-profit organizations, will serve as the new executive director for Equality California and Equality California Institute. Palencia will begin his tenure on July 5.
“I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve California’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and to build upon Equality California’s tremendous success,” said Palencia, who currently serves as the Community Benefits Director for L.A. Care Health Plan, a $1.2 billion public health plan. “I am committed to creating a better future for all LGBT Californians and to connecting the LGBT movement to the broader movement for socio-economic justice. Although permanently ending discrimination against LGBT people can be a daunting task, I am confident that together we will prevail. I look forward to getting to know and working with our dedicated membership, legislators and coalition partners as we strive to further Equality California’s mission to achieve full equality for all LGBT Californians.”
With more than two decades of activism and expertise with LGBT and healthcare issues, Palencia has long worked to provide resources to underserved communities, including LGBT communities, undocumented immigrants and the uninsured. From 1992 to 1998, Palencia was the Chief of Operations and Vice President of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, an international HIV/AIDS healthcare organization where he played a key role in building the much needed medical infrastructure and financial resources to support HIV/AIDS services. Subsequently, he served as the Executive Director at Clinica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero, which primarily serves Central American and Mexican immigrants. In 2003, Palencia was appointed as the Greater Los Angeles Area Regional Director for the California Endowment, a private foundation that annually grants more than $170 million to California-based entities in the area of health. Palencia directed a multi-county department and funded dozens of community-based organizations per year.
“On behalf of the Board of Directors, we are thrilled that Roland will lead the next chapter of Equality California,” said Board Chairs Cathy Schwamberger and Clarissa Filgioun. “Roland is an inspiring leader who has done groundbreaking work for the LGBT community and beyond. His impressive track record of advancing equality and justice makes him a perfect fit for the organization.”
Palencia was forced to leave his native Guatemala, which was ruled in the mid-1970s by a brutal military regime, after paramilitary forces assassinated his father, a small business owner and a revolutionary who fought for democratic change in Guatemala. Palencia came to California and attended UCLA where he earned a degree in history.
“I don’t take our rights and progress for granted, as heroes like my father, Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk have made the ultimate sacrifice so we can live in a more just world,” Palencia said.
Reacting to the announcement that Palencia will head Equality California, Dolores Huerta, Equality California board member, said “Roland is an outstanding leader whose ability to build bridges with many communities will help take Equality California to the next level, enabling the organization to bring our message of equality to an even greater audience.”
Palencia is a co-founder of pioneering community-based organization, Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos (GLLU), the first major Latino LGBT advocacy group, which later led to the establishment of Bienestar Human Services, serving the Latino community with 11 locations. He is currently an Advisory Board Member of HONOR PAC, an LGBT Latino Political Action Committee that supported and led efforts in East Los Angeles to fight Proposition 8.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Palencia to Los Angeles County’s Quality and Productivity Commission, and L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina appointed him to the Los Angeles County Hospitals and Healthcare Delivery Commission. He also held an advisory role to the multi-billion dollar Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
Palencia has received several awards recognizing his outstanding record of service to the community, including the Community Service Award given by former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn; Outstanding Contributions to the Community Award, given by Gil Cedillo, State Assemblymember and former Chair of the California State Senate Committee on Health Access; Local Hero by Union Bank of California and KCET and the Solidarity Award, presented by the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates.
Palencia was selected by Equality California and Equality California Institute’s Board of Directors after an extensive, national search conducted by executive search firm Morris & Berger.
Equality California (EQCA) is the largest statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights advocacy organization in California. Over the past decade, Equality California has strategically moved California from a state with extremely limited legal protections for LGBT individuals to a state with some of the most comprehensive civil rights protections in the nation. Equality California has passed more than 70 pieces of legislation and continues to advance equality through legislative advocacy, electoral work, public education and community empowerment. www.eqca.org