“I never imagined I would become a ‘leader’”: the incredible journey of Juana Flores, Executive Director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas
“I remember the first time I was invited to a demonstration in front of City Hall with MUA. I said I would go, but I was too scared to show up. I felt so ashamed that I almost didn’t come back to MUA. But I decided to go anyway, and to my amazement no one judged me or made me feel bad. They just told me that they understood and that one day they knew I would feel safe enough to be on the streets with them.”
Juana Flores is Executive Director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (United and Active Women), a California-based non-profit organization That AIMS pour augmenter Latin American women ‘ s leadership and empower communit ies to push for social and economic justice. An immigrant herself, she tells us about her journey.
How do you see your journey today?
I never imagined I would become a “leader” when I arrived at MUA. I could never have envisioned that one day I would find myself representing workers at the United Nations and speaking at the General Assembly, or that I would stand within a few feet of President Obama, or that I would meet the Pope. Yet all this happened to me. It is incredible to think that a group that started with 8 women has now grown to reach thousands of women. At the beginning, I saw it as just a support group where we cried on each other‘s shoulders, but now I see that by doing that we developed our own strength. Our founders had greater aspirations for us, and thanks to the trust they placed in us, we have achieved them.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in a small town called Guadalupe, in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico. My father was a construction worker, and my mother was devoted to raising her 11 children, but she also worked as a laundress and sold her embroidery work to help support the family. With my brothers and sisters, I was often the one who got everyone to play. I was the one who settled conflicts between my brothers and sisters, and sometimes between them and the other children in the neighbourhood. My mother pushed me towards independence: she sent me to run errands around the city on my own. From a very young age I also did shopping and housework for my neighbours to earn money.
Can you tell us about your experience before emigrating to the United States?
At the age of 12, after finishing primary school, I took a business course aimed exclusively at girls for a year and a half: the course included typing, stenography, basic accounting, etc.
And then at the age of 14, I chose to become a nun, in an extremely strict order. The nuns live a completely cloistered life there. It is a difficult and austere life. I stayed there for almost 10 years. Then I left the orders and got engaged. Shortly after the wedding we had our first child and my husband had difficulty finding work in Zacatecas. In order to have an economically stable life, we moved to San Francisco in 1989.
How did you come to join Mujeres Unidas y Activas?
At my son‘s nursery school, a woman told me about this immigrant women’s support groups. She insisted that I participate. I kept walking past the place where the group was being held but I was too nervous to go in. Eventually I went. At the third meeting I attended, I heard about a Saturday training program. It was an 8-hour training on self-esteem. I participated actively and got very involved. It was fascinating.
Over time, I learnt to be a better parent, to have healthy communication with my partner, to set my own goals. I also learnt that I have rights: as a woman, as a mother and even as a worker. I was really amazed that I could stand up for my rights.
How did you become a volunteer at Mujeres Unidas y Activas?
When I was asked to volunteer to facilitate a workshop, I immediately accepted because I wanted to give back some of what I had received. I learnt how to run “Know your rights” workshops for immigrants in schools and churches and I even organised group sessions in my home.
The most important thing I learnt by becoming a member of MUA is that I am truly valuable. I was brought up with the convictionthat women have novalue, and I believed it. I learnt that I had a voice, that I had the capacity to continue to learn and that I could conveythis message to other women. If I hadnot taken part in all these training programmes, I would never have felt able to facilitate a workshop myself. I found out how to organise my thoughts, how to take notes, how to speak in public. I learnthow to make contact withexperts in the community, such as immigration lawyers and social workers, who could come togive talks… My own mental sharpnessand creativity were stimulated.
You soon became an employee at Mujeres Unidas y Activas, how did that happen?
At first, the founders offered me a few hours of paid workper week to coordinate the support group meetings. My husband encouraged me. Then in1994 we opened the first MUA office and I became its manager. The most difficult thing for me, as a staff member, was my role as a counsellor, listening to the challenges faced by women, their trauma and suffering.Sometimes they wanted an abortion or to talk about their relationship with a lover, and, as a religious person, it was difficult for me to listen to them without being judgemental. The terrible stories of domestic violence were also very difficult to take in. It helped me to understandthat we couldnot put other women in this role without training them.
I therefore contributed to the development of intensive training programmes for our members on the role of peer counsellors and support group facilitation. We called onexperts and shared our experiences and best practices. That helped us to develop leadership skills among our members,which serveour community. Thatis what I am most proud to have achieved.
I was eventuallyoffered a full-time job when one of the founders left. In the early 2000s, after the second founder left, I became Co-Director of MUA.
A short time later, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which was financially dependent on another structure, the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights (NCCIR), lost its funding when NCCIR closed down. How did you respond?
We did not want to close MUA. So, we continued to work without pay and decided to create our own non-profit organisation instead of depending on another structure. I had gained a solid foundation throughmy early years at MUA, but I didnot know how to runan association without the supportof our founders and our financial partner.
I asked for help fromexperts, I had to continue to learn and question myself. I learnthow to manage a strategic planning process, how to hire the right people to help us develop, how to supervise and make difficult decisions. Eventually, in part because of the challenges I had encountered, we launched our “Futuro Fuerte” programme, which provides training and professional coaching to help immigrant staff gradually take on greater supervisory and leadership roles. This programme helped me personally to take on greater responsibilities over the years. And then in2017, when my Co-Director announced her departure, the Board of Directors asked me to take on the role of Executive Director. And my learning experience and personal growth continue to this day.
Today, if I were to pass on a message to women, I would say that together we are stronger. Each woman can stand up for what she wants and go further, by working in community with other women from different backgrounds, with each of us supporting, protecting and takingthe others forward.