* Ana Paula “AP” Velasco
At 10:00 am sharp, Betty Gabriela Rodriguez joins me on a Google Meet link. Dressed in a white long sleeve and a soft smile with her hair draped over her left shoulder, “Gaby”, as she is known by her colleagues and friends, is ready for the busy Wednesday morning ahead of her full of advocacy meetings and mobilization. While many of us are still recovering from the emotional turbulence of the United States’ 2020 Presidential Election, Gaby shows no signs of exhaustion. If anything, she looks energized, refreshed, and dare I say, unstoppable.
Getting to know Gaby is to know this generation’s new wave of progressive and inclusive women in the NGO sphere. Born and raised in Venezuela, Gaby’s first encounters with discrimination involved two close friends whose relatives were diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). While one identified as being part of the LGBTQ+ community and the other was a drug addict, both faced intolerance at the hands of institutions and society. A few years later at the age of 19, Gaby found a friend and mentor in one of her University professors; not only was her professor a decorated attorney but also a transgender woman offering a new perspective to Gaby as a young, ambitious college student. These early experiences brought Gaby to create her own safe, inclusive NGO space in 2018 called Amazona Foundation.
Amazona Foundation is “an independent, nonprofit organization, committed to empowering women and people of gender and sexual diversities (GSD) by promoting resilience, social entrepreneurship and mentoring. To deepen our impact and achieve equal opportunities, we work as a networked nonprofit seeking the full enjoyment of their human rights.” As a community that looks to embrace tolerance and diversity in order to ensure an inclusive environment, Amazona Foundation hosts a number of opportunities for people to engage with conversations on gender and identity. Past events include roundtables centered on a wine night with topical experts, discussions promoting informal education on gender discrimination, and fireside chats about transgender rights. Although all events are now virtual due to COVID-19, the impact of Amazona Foundation’s values of social justice, diversity, and equity continue to pack a punch. Going on its third year in 2021, the NGO is nothing short of Gaby’s brainchild.
While many NGOs and CSOs tackle issues of gender discrimination domestically and globally, these same organizations are often privy to leaving out the communities that need them the most. It is not uncommon for well meaning groups to dismiss communities where race and gender intersect, such as marginalised communities of color, migrant/undocumented women, and non comforming folks. In an area where nonprofits struggle to remain inclusive, Amazona Foundation shines. When asked about the importance of representation in NGO spaces, Gaby’s passion floats through the screen. After arriving in the United States four years ago, the Amazona Foundation Chair gained a new perspective on the importance of bringing multiple voices from different communities into one space. She cites her upbringing in Venezuela as a huge marker in her life, but says she can’t compare being an immigrant to the United States to being an immigrant growing up in the United States, stating, “I have no idea what it means to grow up in this country as the daughter of immigrants. The experiences are different…” A cornerstone of Amazona Foundation, inclusivity is instrumental to the organization’s cause of battling gender discrimination. Without it, Gaby and her directors believe we would stray even further from tackling gender-based intolerance: “What I want to say with this is that as a society, we need to embrace these spaces where we learn about each other so we can continue to learn from these different perspectives. It’s not just about educating oneself. It’s also about engaging with others to educate us.” According to Gaby, having one person represent every “cause” or community runs the risk of replicating a familiar and patronizing dynamic that has plagued marginalized communities for centuries; for this reason, a safe space like Amazona Foundation is critical for continued NGO inclusivity when facing issues like gender discrimination.
Going into 2021, Gaby is looking forward to a new chapter in the organization’s expansion. While 2020 was the organization’s most successful year, there is one area where Gaby and her directors look to broaden Amazona Foundation’s scope: education. Citing the need to “teach people to be human,” Gaby recognizes the importance of diverse voices to the NGO sphere for a full picture approach to gender discrimination. Piggybacking off of past engagements with community activists, Amazona Foundation will spend the next year honing in on efforts to host tough yet necessary conversations on community-based racism and systematic exclusions.
While gender continues to change as a malleable, social construct, Gaby and her team at Amazona Foundation balance their roles as leaders and allies. When I asked Gaby what motivates her to continue with her work, her eyes twinkle while she tells me how much she enjoys “the beautiful opportunity of learning and growing with others.” Amazona Foundation doesn’t just invite others to have a seat at the table; it is an organization run by a culmination of open minded womxn unafraid to teach, listen, and most importantly, be wrong. With Betty Gabriela Rodriguez at the helm, the deconstruction of harmful gender norms will continue to include educating womxn of all communities and walks of life.
* Ana Paula “AP” Velasco is a senior at The George Washington University in the Elliott School of International Affairs. She studies International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict Resolution and minors in Film Studies. Her recent work includes advocacy and research work at Issue One, a nonpartisan organization focused on protecting the democratic vote, and time on Dr. Jill Biden’s team at Biden for President. A Chicana from San Antonio, Texas, AP lives in Washington, DC.
Photo: Paco Alacid
Graphic Design: Mayra Chacaltana