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Women’s History Month – Celebration of Our Amazing Women and Femme Staff and Those Who Inspire Us!

Women's history month.
Women's history month.

Women’s History Month – Celebration of Our Amazing Women and Femme Staff and Those Who Inspire Us!

March is Women’s History Month, and we at TheCIL wanted to highlight our fantastic staff, their work in the community, and others that inspire them. When we think about the category of ‘women,’ we want to be clear that we include cis women and trans women, femmes who relate to womanhood, and we want to be inclusive of people who experience misogyny. We also understand that different people have different experiences of womanhood, based on their own experience with their gender identity, and other identities that they might hold.

Latinx woman outside holding her dog.

Camiel Silvas (She/Her)

Camiel is one of our resident Youth Program Coordinators who works closely with youths transitioning into the workforce. Camiel is the mother of two rescue dogs and soon-to-be mother of a baby human as well!

What inspired you to be in this role?

Camiel: I remember hearing a female disabled activist was diagnosed with a terminal illness. She said she was essentially dying for the cause, for disability activism, for disability justice, and disability visibility and all of that resonated deeply with me. I, too, have been dealt a challenging card with losing my vision in my 30s and having to navigate this chronic illness. How can I turn this experience into something bigger than just myself? For me, it was reaching out into the community, meeting other people who are disabled, whether it’s acquired or congenital, and figuring out how I can use my experience to help others and build connections and seek connections.

What’s your favorite/most invigorating part of your work?

Camiel: I love working with youth. I’ve always worked with marginalized youth, whether in the foster care system or LGBTQIA+ youth. I am really enjoying working with disabled youth, it has been by far one of the most profoundly meaningful experiences of my life. Seeing youth experiencing learning new things, learning how to advocate for themselves, that’s such a powerful sentiment, and seeing that in real-time is amazing.

In general, seeing how resilient youth are, but adding on the component of being disabled and coming from multiple intersectionalities, and they just thrive… it’s inspiring and keeps me going.

Helena: Is there a moment or job role that reflects or highlights these moments?

Camiel: Workshops on Zoom. Watching their faces on the little screens and seeing them come up with these brilliant questions. You know what they say, Inquiring minds lead to inquiring minds! At the end of the sessions, they would always thank me for my time, but I really am thankful for them for listening and engaging; it’s a very reciprocal appreciation.

What do you like to do outside of work? What feels important to share about you?

Camiel: My spouse and I were talking about it this morning, and she said there’s a powerful sentiment about me being a disabled, female, queer pregnant person. All of these identities mix together into a radical act of resistance.

Helena: How did you feel when you heard that? Did you own that description?

Camiel: Yeah… owning it and acknowledging that it’s a very powerful sentiment. It’s defying what society expects of us. I am a queer, low-vision person, but I am still going to be an amazing mother. I am a disabled, queer woman and I am still a fully capable and worthy human being, despite what society might think is capable of me.

Do you have any women/femme disability activists or women and femmes in your life that inspire or influence you?

Camiel: 110% Frida Kahlo. The fact that she was a queer femme… she came from these various intersectionalities of being a disabled, Latinx woman. She stands out to me because of her suffering of various conditions, being untreated, and in general living in an era where it was so hard to be a woman… She still managed her suffering and translated that into some of the most profound artwork today. She showed how humans are naturally so resilient, and her perspective and shift on what feminism is was very ahead of her time.

Helena: Hi, Helena here with some additional information about Frida Kahlo! Frida Kahlo (she/her) was a Mexican painter known for her many bold and vibrant portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by Mexico. She acquired a limp after contracting polio as a child, and later in life was in a bus accident that fractured her pelvis and spine, causing her to be in great pain and discomfort for most of her life.

Painting of two Frida Khalo's.

The Two Fridas, 1939 by Frida Kahlo

Helena: Do you have a favorite artwork or piece from her? What makes you like it the most?

Camiel: The Two Fridas. To me, it shows her depicting what intersectionality meant, [before the word was even coined in 1989]1. It portrays how she feels she is perceived by the world and how she perceives herself too. There are so many different interpretations and that is what makes it more beautiful.

Older Asian woman outside with short black hair and black shirt.

Janice Tone (She/Her)

Janice started out as a CIL consumer, and after volunteering with TheCIL through the pandemic in 2020, she officially joined us as our Universal Living Wellness Facilitator. Janice hosts weekly living well workshops and individual check-ins for seniors. She loves flowers, food, fun, and furry friends!

What inspired you to be in this role?

Janice: I went on one of those group Sacramento train trips through the Community Connections program, and that introduced me to TheCIL. I was suggested by Jenni [a former CIL employee] to volunteer at TheCIL because I needed to get out of the house more and meet people. Volunteering helped me get through a lot of my own past trauma and hurt when the systems in place failed me. Even though a terrible thing happened to me in the past, it’s funny how things worked out. Less than a year ago, I didn’t even know how to use a computer! Now, not only have I picked up new skills, but most importantly, CIL gave me the space to recover. Some of the consumers that I see now, wow, I’ve really bonded with them. It made me realize I’m not the only one out there.

Helena: Would you say it’s these interactions that inspire you to stay in your role?

Janice: Yeah! I bonded with other seniors who remember the good old days. We dressed in our “Sunday best” to fight for what we believed and still believe to be just causes. That so-called struggle for survival in this country goes on, and it’s never over.

What’s your favorite/most invigorating part of your work?

Janice: Through my consumers, I’ve learned compassion and empathy. One consumer told me, TheCIL is a safe environment, where it’s non-critical and non-judgemental, to allow them to heal. Each person is hurting in different ways, and the Living Well program is a good guideline to let our guard down and share. What keeps me going now is that I realize that there are a lot of consumers who have friends out there who are hurting, but have not found TheCIL yet.

What feels important to share about you?

Janice: I’m actually from the midwest, from Michigan. I lived through the race riots when they burned houses down. That’s why I moved to California. There are people out there who want to hurt you and do hurt you and your community; and although I’m angry, I didn’t want to contribute more to that hate through revenge or retaliation. I wanted to do more good.

Do you have any women/femme disability activists or women and femmes in your life that inspire or influence you?

Janice: There’s this writer, Helen Zia, who wrote My Country Versus Me. She was the first Asian activist that I knew about when I was in Michigan.

Helena: It’s me again with some more information. Helen Zia (she/her) is an Asian-American author, journalist, and activist. Helen’s journalism and advocacy played a critical role in bringing charges against perpetrators of Vincent Chin’s murder in 1982, just one of many Asian hate crimes that were swept under the rug by bigger media. Helen is outspoken on issues from human and women’s rights to countering hate violence and homophobia.

Janice: Another Asian activist was Grace Lee Boggs. She was an early civil rights activist in Detroit that worked with other “colored people”, that’s what we were called back then, that united the Rainbow coalition. She worked with Malcolm X. Did you know I was alive when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were active?

Helena: Whoa! How old were you then?

Janice: Shh, that’s a secret!

Helena: Alright, we won’t reveal Janice’s age, but I will tell you more about Grace. Grace Lee Boggs (she/her) was a Chinese American civil right and labor activist. Grace and her husband, James “Jimmy” Boggs, were known for their writing and grassroots activism in supporting Detroit’s local community and were prominent supporters of the civil rights and Black Power movements.

Janice: It is when we’re all united that we are able to kick down the walls.

Woman with her hair pulled back and wearing glasses.

Roma Leffmann (She/Her)

Roma also began her journey as a CIL consumer, and over time developed her expertise through her acquired disability support group and now is our Transitions Specialist. During the workweek, she is helping consumers transition from facilities back into the community, and on weekends you can find her rock climbing, cycling or doing something fun in the outdoors!

What inspired you to be in this role?

Roma: After becoming disabled, I really appreciated TheCIL in helping me with all my acquired disabilities and how to thrive. I spent a lot of time doing travel training with Heidi Cash. I appreciated it so much when they said they understood how I felt, or that they’ve been through the same things I have. I also really appreciated Robin Earth for supporting me and helping me navigate my acquired disability peer support group. Knowing firsthand how important TheCIL services were for me, I wanted to be a peer counselor for others.

What’s your favorite/most invigorating part of your work? And what do you like to do outside of work?

Roma: The most invigorating part of my work is learning about all these transitions resources, and being able to help people find and navigate these options that are available to them.

Outside of work, I enjoy going rock climbing once a week. I also like to cycle and in general figure out how to do outdoorsy things. I also host an acquired disability peer support group through TheCIL.

Helena: Oh right! How has the group been going?

Roma: We just had a meeting [last week]. One person who showed up, I had not seen in a few months which was really awesome. Some others who couldn’t make it emailed me too. Everyone is active and connected, so it’s been great!

Lastly, do you have any women/femme disability activists or women and femmes in your life that inspire or influence you?

Roma: Bonnie Lewkowicz and Lori Gray at the Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program (BORP) come to mind. A peer shared with me Bonnie’s A Wheelchair Rider’s Guide to San Francisco Bay and the Nearby Coast, and my outdoor options exponentiated drastically. Lori leads BORP’s Adventures and Outing program, and I have gone on a lot of outings with her group. One of the most awesome trips was going camping, and she taught me so much on what to bring and prepare for camping! I’m inspired by many of my peers. Lots of people that are disabled go through so much but are nonetheless so positive and jubilant.

Helena: How would you say these positive personalities influence you?

Roma: Their positivity really inspires me and reminds me that they are dealing with so much on their own but still doing so much work around disability activism or for their own joy, and they just keep going. They bring me energy and hope and remind me to keep pushing forward.

Woman outside with curly hair.

Nadia Polizotto (She/her)

Nadia joined TheCIL as the Executive Administrative and Organizational Assistant in 2021. Nadia helps facilitate TheCIL’s important conversations both internally and externally, providing immense support in all facets on the organizational level. Off work, you can find her participating in different research labs or painting with watercolors!

What inspired you to be in this role?

Nadia: During my undergrad at UC Berkeley [Helena: Go bears!], I majored in psychology and participated in a lot of research. I also took a few gender and women’s studies courses, which made me realize there’s a lot of very basic and systemic work that needs to happen before any of the science and research could make any sort of difference. Through my jobs at Berkeley’s Basic Needs Center and the Disabled Students Program, I found out that mental illnesses were also considered a disability; as someone who has various mental illness disabilities, I ended up finding a community and home there.

After graduating, I was lucky enough to find TheCIL’s job listing for the Executive Assistant position and thought it would be a great fit and opportunity for me to experience different elements of the disability community.

What’s your favorite/most invigorating part of your work?

Nadia: I’m meeting lots of organizations outside of CIL, like CFILC (California Foundation of Independent Living Centers), other independent living centers, and governmental agencies. It’s eye-opening because I didn’t realize how vast this network is.

Helena: Totally! Was there a particular meeting you attended or organization you met that was memorable?

Nadia: Starting when Stuart was the executive director, we began having monthly meetings with Google’s accessibility. They wanted to get more feedback on their hardware and technology for the disability community in the developmental stages. It was inspiring to see Google being willing to reach out to our community and host these focus groups since Google is such a big name and giant tech corporation and can seem unreachable.

What do you like to do outside of work? What feels important to share about you?

Nadia: After graduating, I continued to work with a couple of research labs. At the Berkeley Personality Research Lab, we analyze the emotional processing methods with individuals. I’m also currently working on a study about people with dementia and their pronoun usage at Berkeley Psychophysiology Lab, and am excited to share the results when they’re ready.

I am currently helping close family friends start a nonprofit organization called the Molley Lanham Foundation in Indiana, where I grew up. My good friend, Molley, was tragically killed in 2019, and her family has been dedicated to creating an organization to help homicide survivors gain resources, support systems, and support through the legal processes.

Do you have any women/femme disability activists or women and femmes in your life that inspire or influence you?

Nadia: I feel like growing up in a small midwest town, I wasn’t exposed to a whole lot of disability activists. But I realized that most of the women in my life have at least one disability, and I was able to grow up seeing the innate strength of women being tightly intertwined with disability. We often joke that my family is a matriarchy, starting as early as my great grandmothers; so I grew up never letting men push me around or feeling like I was less than them.

Molley Lanham Foundation is mostly started by women as well. It’s so powerful to see how they’ve navigated this space. Not only did they create room for their family to grieve and fight for Molley’s justice, but they also continue to expand this space for others to join, feel included, and be empowered to fight for their loved ones as well. Starting a nonprofit takes a lot of work, and they’re doing it gracefully. Without them starting this nonprofit, I don’t think I would have had the strength to move forward in the same way.

Helena: After joining TheCIL, have you been exposed to or met any women/femme disability activists that really inspired you?

Nadia: Recently we’ve had a lot of new staff members. They’ve all picked up their roles so quickly and expanded past that to make their programs and work their own. That’s been super inspiring to see.

Helena: I couldn’t agree more, and it’s truly an honor to get to work with everyone here! Finally, below is a list of other wonderful disabled activists you should definitely follow and learn more about. Let us know what other activists you follow in the comments below!

  1. Alice Wong (she/her), founder and director of Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture.
  2. India Harville (she/her), founder of Embraced Body, which centers embodied disability justice praxis for collective healing.
  3. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (she/they), a queer disabled nonbinary femme writer, educator and disability/transformative justice worker.
  4. Patricia Berne (she/they), co-founder and artistic director of Sins Invalid, a disability justice based performance project celebrates artists with disabilities.
  5. Reyma McCoy Hyten (she/her), the first Black woman to serve as the US Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner for the Administration on Disabilities.
  6. Shayda Kafai (she/her), Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at California State Polytechnic University. Watch her Ted Talk on the Language of Madness.

Work Cited

[1] Steinmetz, Katy. “She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today.” Time. 20 February 2020, https://time.com/5786710/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality/#:~:text=She%20Coined%20the%20Term%20’Intersectionality,%2C%20on%20May%2010%2C%202018. Accessed 4 March 2022.

[2] Maranzani, Barbara. “How a Horrific Bus Accident Changed Frida Kahlo’s Life.” Biography, 17 June 2020, https://www.biography.com/news/frida-kahlo-bus-accident. Accessed 4 March 2022.

[3] “History: Who Was Vincent Chin?”. American Citizens for Justice. Archived from the original on 6 July 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20150706100619/http://www.americancitizensforjustice.com/history/history.html. Accessed 8 March 2022.

[4] McFadden, Robert D. “Grace Lee Boggs, Human Rights Advocate for 7 Decades, Dies at 100.” The New York Times, 5 October 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/us/grace-lee-boggs-detroit-activist-dies-at-100.html. Accessed 3 March 2022.

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