Activism Within the System

Longtime community activist Kathy Flores reflects on pursuing her calling while navigating the slings and arrows that come with being a public face in the fight for equality.

Recently, I left my work as the City of Appleton’s Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator and have spent time reflecting on what it means to be a grassroots activist working within mainstream structures. For over two decades, I have always done some sort of social/racial justice work starting in the corporate life for a large employer in the Fox Cities. After six years of working in diversity and inclusion within the corporate arena, I felt the pull to focus more on my community so I helped start Harmony Café, a place that was known as a peaceful place for celebrating diversity. It eventually became known as the local LGBTQ center and a place of support for LGBTQ youth.

I moved into the work of domestic violence/intimate partner violence/sexual assault not long after my role with Harmony Café and spent seven years helping educate health care providers, advocates, faith leaders, employers and more about domestic violence. My outreach work focused on women in jail settings and other marginalized communities while employed at Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs. It was in this organization that I learned about the roots of true activism and advocacy, mainly through the supportive role of its director, Beth Schnorr, and the survivors themselves. I learned how to hone in my skills of listening to survivors and always including them in everything we did, from safety planning to designing new programs.

Harbor House is also the place where I met my spouse when she became a volunteer; it’s where I came out of the closet and where I began working with LGBTQ survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and hate crimes. While at Harbor House, I found my voice as a survivor, an activist, and a queer woman.

An activist goes to City Hall

Seeing the disparity for addressing LGBTQ survivors of violence, I founded the Fox Valley LGBTQ Anti-Violence Project in collaboration with Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs, Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services, Reach Counseling, and the Sexual Assault Crisis Center.

After my time with Harbor House, I became City of Appleton’s Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, feeling I could round out all the work of activism and advocacy I felt called to do. I questioned whether this would be a good fit for me and in the interview I asked City of Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna if he was ready to hire an advocate in a government role. He gave me the charge to shake up the status quo. I’m not sure if he lived to regret those words, but he was always supportive and remains an ally to me and the work I do today.

During my time as Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, the City of Appleton started to visibly support the LGBTQ community for the first time, along with other marginalized communities. Within just months of working for the city we discovered that the rash of teen suicides in the Fox Valley had greatly impacted LGBTQ teens at an alarming rate. Within a four-year time period we identified that 85% of the teens who had died by suicide had also identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning. I worked with others in the community as we addressed this crisis with our teens. As a community organizer, I brought people together to make sure we were addressing all areas where teens were vulnerable.

Pushback

The work of LGBTQ suicide prevention became public as we led campaigns to help keep kids alive. Not long after this, the city took on the task of passing a policy to provide domestic partner benefits for same-sex-coupled employees. Within the following three years, I was being called out for my vocal support of the LGBTQ community and spent months dealing with open records requests from anti-gay forces in our community and pushback from some members of our City Council, including one who publicly stated that “this position has gotten a little too gay.”

It wasn’t long before a few alderpersons sought to remove the position of Diversity and Inclusion from the City’s budget. This happened three years in a row with very public battles to keep the position in place, including long public hearings where the merits of the position were hotly debated. Many of the attacks were on me personally in not-so-thinly veiled comments and actions. The front page of our local newspaper declared, “Gay activist defends her work!” It became such a nasty public battle that I started to question the cars that were parked in front of my house at night.

Each year, we managed to save the position in the budget, but each year I felt the sting of being so public on these issues impact the work a bit more. Even with the pushback, we forged ahead. With the help of Fair Wisconsin, we eventually became the third city in the state to pass inclusive ordinances for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals through laws protecting housing, accommodations, and employment.

Activism and intersectional identity

Still, the message was clear that I needed to fly a bit more under the radar and not be so outwardly queer. Time and time again I was asked to pull back, hide the work a bit more and not be so outspoken on LGBTQ and race issues. Whether refugee resettlement, transgender rights, Black Lives Matter, working with the local Black-led organization of African Heritage, marriage equality, or a whole host of other issues that I worked on, it became a regular routine for me to find a way to get things done without notice as much as possible.

When the massacre in Orlando happened, I was called upon to pull together a vigil for the community. Knowing the pushback I would receive for a large public gathering honoring LGBTQ people of color, it became just one more thing that needed to be done on my own time and not in my role with the City of Appleton. By this point, I had become accustomed to using most of my vacation days to do the work that would be deemed “too radical” even though I knew in my heart this was far from radical work. As a result, I felt not only devalued personally, I felt that marginalized community members were also being devalued and that my work was starting to suffer for it.

Getting loud fighting racism

The last 10 months of my time with the City of Appleton were some of the hardest months I faced in that role yet. In October 2015, I attended a Black Lives Matter demonstration facilitated by Lawrence University students of color. I was in attendance on my own time because I felt it important to show up, show solidarity, and listen to the concerns of the students. I did not march because this was a student demonstration, but stood on the sidelines in a show of support.

In the weeks before as they planned this protest, I helped them connect to community leaders and gave information from the ACLU so they would know their rights. My appearance at this protest ended up on the front page of our local newspaper, drawing wrath from some elected officials and other city leaders. At the same time, I was speaking out internally about some concerns that were happening with our own city leadership and in one department in particular about racism and the lack of understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement and helping voice the concerns I was hearing from members of the Black community. Things became very tense, and I was called to task many times for voicing my concerns about what we were doing within the city and how it was negatively impacting marginalized community members.

As time went on, I was shut out of some of the work within the City of Appleton due to my internal outspokenness on racism that existed within our own structures. Mayor Hanna continued to support me. I believe he probably saved me from getting fired, but it became quite difficult to navigate work with other leaders, and I started to feel like the work itself was suffering.

Moving on

I decided to leave the City of Appleton to get back to doing grassroots activism work in an organization that would allow me to bring my full self to the work. In July, I accepted a position with Diverse & Resilient to facilitate statewide work around intimate partner and community violence within the LGBTQ community. In my short time with this organization, I already feel fully embraced, encouraged, and welcomed to do the work that needs to get done.

There are many of us in this world who are activists trying to fit into mainstream organizations, so I understand I was far from alone in that struggle. However, for me, trying to suppress who I was and the work I feel called to do became such a burden on my soul that I felt I could no longer move forward effectively with the work. In the past decade, I have survived an aneurysm, cancer, and MS, so I’m not afraid of surviving the tough stuff in life. However, at almost 50 I’m finally recognizing that the health of my spirit in this work is just as important as the health of my body. In fact, I know that the two are greatly linked. Being an activist and advocate is deeply a part of my DNA.

I am quite grateful for my time with the City of Appleton. I feel that while I was there we were able to do strong work including the passage of transgender-inclusive ordinances, the important work of refugee resettlement, anti-racism work, suicide prevention work, harm reduction advocacy, and so much more. It is my commitment to all of this work that shifts me to move onward.

The power of identity

As someone who identifies as a queer Latina with a disability, I have learned much about my own oppression as well as the privilege I carry as a white-appearing person. I realize that had I been a Black queer woman, I would have been forced out long ago. I understand the power of my privilege and plan to continue to learn how to be a better coconspirator with other marginalized community members, rather than an obstacle. Because my commitment to fighting racism and other forms of oppression continues, I will bring the same passion to my new work. Recently I helped launch an Appleton chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) which focuses on white people educating other white people. We are a chapter of the national SURJ and unapologetically stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

The person and the persona blend

When Diverse & Resilient first announced that I had joined the team, I had a bit of a moment of panic in looking at their profile of me on their website. I clicked on the link to “learn more about Kathy Flores” and saw that it went directly to my personal Facebook page. After years of having to state that there is a private citizen Kathy and a public advocate Kathy, even having a personal Facebook account and a “Kathy at Work” account, I became quite adept at compartmentalizing the various identities I held. As I sat and looked at this link it dawned on me that this new organization not only knows who I am, but they fully embrace me. Diverse & Resilient is already doing strong advocacy work, and I’m no longer the only queer voice in the room. This makes my heart swell in ways I haven’t felt in years. Being an advocate surrounded by so many other fierce advocates makes me feel like I have found home once again.

I am so thrilled I joined the team of Diverse & Resilient. It takes me to the core of who I am as a grassroots activist/advocate, community organizer and leader within the LGBTQ community. It feels so affirming to be embraced for being fully authentic.

“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”
—Dr. Angela Davis


Kathy Flores is the new statewide coordinator for addressing intimate partner and community violence with Diverse & Resilient, following seven years as the City of Appleton’s Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator.