From Intern to Executive Director – Eveline Shen’s Reflections on Forward Together at 30

July 31, 2019

As we enter our 30th year at Forward Together, I have been engaging in a bit of self-reflection. When I joined Forward Together over 20 years ago, I was an intern. At that time, we were called Asian Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health (APIRH), and I was brought on to develop a summer program to empower low-income middle school–aged Asian girls. It was a dream for me. I was hungry to work at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality and was inspired to develop the kind of summer program that I wish I’d had growing up as an Asian American daughter of immigrants in Colorado. I created a curriculum for these young women to explore the ways the media, their communities, and the healthcare and educational systems affected their bodies, sexuality and reproductive health. I included sections on community organizing, power and oppression, media literacy, body image, heterosexism and homophobia, safe sex and contraception, and gender identity. I also integrated daily activities that encouraged the young women in the program to gain a deeper connection to their bodies so that they were more in touch with their needs, as well as their physical and emotional strengths. 

It was truly amazing to see these young women grow and develop in response to an experience that addressed their wholeness rather than a single aspect of their identity. That summer program was a microcosm of the work I do now — developing the leadership of Indigenous women and women and gender non-conforming people color, finding ways to incorporate movement and to honor our whole selves in the work, and continuing to build power and connection at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality. 

The seeds of our movement building fellowship Stepping Into Power are in that summer program. Just like those young girls I worked with 20 years ago, our women, people of color, Indigenous, queer, trans and gender non-conforming movement leaders are constantly swimming upstream. Oppression and a competitive culture increase the isolation our leaders feel and often pit us against each other as we scramble for limited resources. Stepping Into Power stems from a desire for our leaders to have the kind of leadership support that I wish I’d had in my career. The Stepping Into Power fellowship allows us an opportunity to create community grounded in the shared values of interdependence, reciprocity and collaboration. As power becomes more centralized and farther away from the grassroots, we are faced with the stark reality that no leader or organization alone can make the changes we seek. We openly question How would we show up differently if our whole selves were welcomed and honored by our movement and by each other? What would it be like for us to work together from a place of abundance rather than scarcity? What more could we achieve if we built a community of leaders who could emerge from tensions and conflict with greater clarity and impact? Stepping Into Power allows us to explore these questions together and to gain transformative skills on multiple levels — individually, organizationally and for movement leadership, using the Courageous Operating System, which I developed for social change leaders.

During our 30 years as a women of color–led organization, we’ve learned a thing or two about how critical the leadership of Indigenous women, women and nonbinary people of color is to building real power and change for our communities. We live in a society where women of color, TGNC people of color and Indigenous women receive messages from our community, our institutions and the larger society that demonize us, stigmatize us, invisibilize us and de-center us. In addition, state control and regulation of our bodily autonomy and reproductive lives have been central to the controlling of communities of color and low-income people throughout this nation’s history.

Too often, solutions for the problems we face are generated by people who are not part of our communities. We believe that it is critical for women of color, TGNC people of color and Indigenous women to be agents of change for ourselves and our communities. Relationships are essential to our approach to building power and leadership in our communities. The connections we have with our loved ones provide meaning to our lives and how we work together is just as important as when we successfully pass a policy, put on a convening, or take an action. Women of color and Indigenous women have often been the bridge builders within our communities and between sectors in our movement. TGNC people of color have historically been barred from our movements. We see that everyone benefits when all boats are lifted and we strive to bring all of our communities along whenever possible.

We know that in order to stem the tide of attacks our communities face, we need to build a diverse and strong base within communities of color and low-income communities that can hold our policy makers, institutions and decision makers accountable; build power by coming together in a united front that connects reproductive justice issues to other social justice agendas; and transform our culture to prioritize the needs of our communities. And leaders from our communities are best positioned to do all of the above. We see this road to success in the way that our leaders in New Mexico and Oregon are able to engage their families and pack state houses with our folks. We also see this kind of leadership in how our Echoing Ida writers are able to shed light on the deep truth Black communities know and inspire conversations rooted in these truths. 

For our 30th anniversary, we invite you to join our celebrations by sharing your story of the transformative leadership of Indigenous, women and nonbinary people of color. Let’s dream together about the world we can build through powerful leadership grown and nurtured in our own communities. And if you’d like to support our mission into the next 30 years, we invite you to  make a gift today. Any donations will be matched by a generous donor. 

Eveline Shen, Executive Director

Forward Together