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Victim finds courage as leader

Rebecca O'Neil | Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Daisy Hernandez, author of “Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism,” kicked off Saint Mary’s Student Diversity Board’s (SDB) 8th annual leadership conference “From Awareness to Action,” on Tuesday, March 19 in Carroll Auditorium.

Her broad “view of what leadership should be or can look like” set the stage for this year’s Student’s Diverse Leadership Conference (DSLC), the largest student-led conference in the Midwest.

The keynote speaker was 11 years old when she had her first encounter with leadership. Her elementary school teacher prompted an argument on extraterrestrial existence on Neptune. Hernandez, cognizant of the fact she belonged to one of the few Latin American families in her New Jersey community, identified with the outsider and chose to affirm the E.T.’s presence.

“My uncle – my favorite uncle – actually had Resident Alien written on his ID,” said Hernandez.

Brought up in a Cuban-Colombian household, Hernandez belonged to a family of mixed immigration status.

“I was always aware of the challenges. There is a lot of fear that comes with being undocumented,” said Hernandez. “It took me a while to piece together who in my own family had “papeles” and who didn’t.”

After her teacher read the budding writer’s essay aloud, her classmates were in ascension -aliens must reside on Neptune. Although amused by her success, Hernandez realized the power of her essay

“I realized that if I could convince those kids that aliens existed, I could convince people of anything,” said Hernandez.

Hernandez acknowledged that her growth was facilitated by many of her open-minded teachers. They made the subject matter fascinating by establishing connections and making the material relatable, she said.

The Catholic grammar school she attended had sex education classes in which concerned educators discussed HIV and AIDS in spite of the stigma that still existed in the 80s. She was exposed to the story of Ryan White, a teenager infected with HIV and barred from attending his high school as a result.
“Who hasn’t been excluded at one time or another?” Hernandez said.

Her all-girls high school showed her the value of creating a safe space by its support group for students who underwent abortions, she said.
“Seeing what my teachers did outside of the classroom was inspiring.”

In college, Hernandez began to identify herself as a feminist.

“I think most people feel they’re beyond the ‘personal is political’ phrase, but I love it, and will always love it,” she said.

Hernandez said she participated in “Taking Back the Night” and joined a march through her college. Once the group’s protest concluded and they returned to the student center to discuss, Hernandez recalled that a young man in the back stood up and said his girlfriend was a victim of sexual abuse and asked what he could do to fix it.
“He had a very conventional idea of leadership. Very ‘I can solve this. I can do something about it,'” she said. “Of course, there was no solution. People told him he could not do anything but support her. In a way, get in touch with his own feelings.”

Hernandez also referenced the first congressional Senate meeting in 10 years that took place last week to address sexual violence in the military.

“A male survivor spoke before the Senate for the first time. He acknowledged he did not just speak for himself, other men had been abused,” she said. “That’s the kind of leadership in which survivors exist.”

Hernandez, a bisexual woman and victim of sexual abuse, said she found herself through his courage, attributing her success as a leader to the idea of “engaged empathy.”

“It is not pity,” said Hernandez. “It’s an appeal to our own sense of possibility. It unites us and then calls us to action. If we focus on the core of the issues, connections start to happen and changes made.”

It was this potential that inspired “Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism.” The collection of carefully selected stories coedited by Hernandez includes pieces by people living incredibly diverse lives that encompass universal truths.

“The feedback is shocking to me,” she said. “It created a sensation of connectedness with people who had completely different backgrounds.
Hernandez stressed that its contributors were not bean-picked by race.

“‘Curandera’ is Spanish for healer,” she said. “Books are ‘curanderas’ because of their healing force, their ability to create empathy.”
Hernandez closed her speech by encouraging the audience to write their own book.

“Art is such a great vehicle for social change,” Hernandez said.