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Policy & Advocacy in Action: Episode 27: Dismantling Racism and Ableism – Centering the Margins

Policy & Advocacy in Action: Episode 27: Dismantling Racism and Ableism – Centering the Margins

[MUSIC]>>NOTARIO: Welcome to
Policy & Advocacy
in Action NRCDV Radio’s new podcast channel. I’m
Heidi Notario and today I will
be exploring the intersections of racism, ableism and violence
against women. We will also
explore issues related to wellness and self-determination. [MUSIC].>>NOTARIO: Policy & Advocacy
in Action
brings new perspectives to the issue
of doing our work
intersectionally. My guest today is Renee Lopez, a
self-advocate and activist that
does national and local work. Good morning, Renee.>>LOPEZ: Good morning,
how are you?>>NOTARIO: I’m doing well,
thank you, I’m so glad you’re
here today.>>LOPEZ: Thank you.>>NOTARIO: So we
really wanted to spend
some time talking about the importance of doing
our work intersectionally. So
really taking into account the experiences of people and paying
attention to all of the
intersections of their identities. And in this
particular case, we wanted to
highlight the experiences of people with disabilities and the
intersections of violence and
racism. I’m really looking forward to having this
conversation with you. So to
start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
How do you identify?>>LOPEZ: Well, my name is
Renee Lopez,
as you mentioned. And I am a woman
who was born with
a disability. In 1961. And it was a very rare disease
called arthrogryposis multiplex
congenita, AMC for short. So I’m also born of Hispanic origin.
My grandparents were from
Mexico. And so I identify as a Mexican-American woman
with a disability.>>NOTARIO: Okay.
Thank you.
So in listening to that, you’re talking about being
a Mexican-American,
having a disability, being a woman, and
I’m really interested about how
those identities or those intersections show up in your
life. So can you tell us a
little bit how ableism and racism show up in your life?
>>LOPEZ: Well, ableism is
something that has been part of my life for so long that I
didn’t even know it had a name. I
think what we used to call pity is now referred to as ableism.
But it’s primarily a way of
telling people with a disability how they should live their
lives. As if they cannot make
the decisions on their own. I know better than you do. And
it’s a form of oppression. And
one thing I’ve experienced throughout my life is being a
woman, a female, in a Hispanic
society or community where women are not as high on the ladder
as men are, has put me in a
position where I really thought I was lesser than. And so when I
was being told what to do
because I was a woman, and then being told by the white society
what to do or not do or what I
am capable of or not capable of because I’m Mexican was also
there. And then there was the
ableism where people would tell me what I can and can’t do.
Because I have a disability. And
those three things all became an extreme oppression to me. And
I know that in my teen years, I
went through a period where I didn’t even want to live
anymore because
I just didn’t know how I was
ever going
to get past those barriers.>>NOTARIO: So I think
you’re talking about
three layers to the person that you are. So it’s
a fact of being a woman.
>>LOPEZ: Yes.>>NOTARIO: You are using the
term Hispanic to identify
yourself. So the child from immigrant parents from Mexico.>>LOPEZ: Yes.>>NOTARIO: And also have a
disability. So there are three
pieces. Uh-huh. Go ahead.>>LOPEZ: Yeah, I was just
going to say,
because I was thinking about this earlier.
That I always
struggle with identifying myself because
sometimes I feel as if I’m being
asked, what labels do you want to put on your forehead? Because
I was struggled with what do I
want to refer to myself as when it comes to having a Hispanic
origin. So I could say Hispanic.
But then you know it’s a broad umbrella but then Latina is an
even broader umbrella and then
Mexican-American is much closer to who I really am because I get
to honor my heritage when I say
I’m a Mexican-American female. And because I live in Texas I am
— to say Mexican-American is
very common. Because we’re so close to Mexico. And so many of
us do have our heritage from
Mexico. And like I said, my grandparents were from there. I
grew up speaking Spanish. I was
very brought up in the Mexican culture. Even though my parents
wanted us to assimilate because
they thought that our lives would be better if we were more
white than Mexican. So I had to
speak English most of the time. And my parents, like I said,
were very assimilated into the
American culture because they thought life would be easier for
us if we did that. And then
there was also a shame to being Mexican. Because so many people
think that we are all aliens. We
were called wetbacks. And we were considered trespassers. And
you know, really we never were.
Because the country that I’m living in right now or the state
that I’m living in right now
was Mexico. We never really went anywhere. We never really
crossed the river. You know, we
were always here. But I was too young to understand that. And to
be Mexican was to be something
to be ashamed of. And of course we were called, you know, spics
and greaseballs and wetbacks and
all of those derogatory terms. And so I remember there was a
short period of time in my life
when I told people I was Italian because that seemed more
acceptable. And — but I didn’t
go very long with that. Because, one, nobody believed me anyway.
And second of all, I felt
really bad. Because my parents and my grandparents were very
proud people. And there was
nothing to be ashamed of. And I had to learn to be proud of my
heritage. And not fall into the
trap of feeling like, you know, I wasn’t a complete person just
because my heritage is from
Mexico. So I struggled with that. And being here in Texas I
like to refer to myself as a
Mexican-American because I now embrace my heritage. I’m very
proud to be a Mexican. And even
though I was not born in Mexico, I like to embrace that as my
heritage. But on a broader
spectrum I like to call myself Hispanic. You know, that’s just
the word we use here. Latina I
always thought of as something that’s even a bigger umbrella.
It can refer to someone from
Cuba or Puerto Rico. And because those cultures are further away
from me I usually don’t call
myself a Latina. But when I want to be a part of the group like
something like this, I don’t
mind being called a Latina, because I want to be a part of
the entire umbrella of the
social oppression of people with — who come from a
Latin background.>>NOTARIO: Thanks, Renee,
I think you
are touching on a lot of interesting points about
there’s a pressure,
as you said, to choose a label. I think
ultimately you said a personal
journey that a lot of us go through. And the decision
between one term or the other I
think is incredibly personal. So I really appreciate you sharing
some of the as you call
struggles in trying to identify and learning about those pieces
of your identity. I also find
very interesting listening to your point about whether
Mexicans came from somewhere but
the reality of how that all happened. And as you pointed
out, you were already here. So I
really appreciate all of that.>>LOPEZ: Yes.
>>NOTARIO: So you shared with
us pieces of that journey. And I’m now interested in hearing
about — you talked about being
proud of being Mexican-American. And you’re proud of your
heritage. And I know that with
your life, you’ve done a lot to dismantle oppression as you are
describing here. Can you tell us
a little bit about your passion and activism? And what is it
that you feel passionate about,
the work that you do every day? [CHUCKLES].
>>LOPEZ: You know, it took a
lot of inner work, as you say. It was a very personal journey.
To break from those chains of
oppression. Because — I don’t know if you have heard the term
internalized oppression. I’m
talking to the audience. But I realized that I internalized all
of those labels of oppression
and made them my own. And then as I became an adult and as I
started doing my personal
spiritual journey, it was actually more of a spiritual
journey, I started to realize
that I am not those labels at all. Those oppressive labels
that were placed on me I don’t
have to accept. I have a choice. And I decided to do away with
them. And all of those labels
that made me feel like I was less than human, not worthy,
don’t belong, different but in a
bad way, those things I did not want on me because those things
were keeping me oppressed and I
realized that as long as I held onto them and made them my own,
I was never going to grow as a
person. And I was never going to be the valuable person with the
valuable experience that I have
come to have in my 58 years of life. And when I started just
throwing them off, you can
picture someone throwing off bales. I found my strength
inside. And realized that I do
have a voice. I’m a very strong woman. I’ve overcome many
obstacles. Societal and
physical. And I developed a sense of self and a sense of
pride. And I think when you
develop that within yourself, you have to share it. You just
have to. It’s not something you
can keep. And I think that’s what — it’s sort of a love for
my people. A love for society. A
love for my fellow man. That got me into the passion of
self-advocacy. Because I now
work in many different arenas that deal with women and people
with disabilities. And I am
particularly passionate about ending violence against people
with disabilities and ending
violence against women. I’m also passionately involved in ending
violence against Hispanic women
in particular here in Texas. Because it occurs so much. And
it’s a silent epidemic. Both in
the disability community and in the Hispanic women community.
And I like to give a voice to
that. I am very articulate in both English and Spanish. And so
I figure I would use that gift
of being bilingual to bring across issues to the Legislature
or wherever
my voice is needed in order
to bring
those issues to light.>>LOPEZ: Yes. Yes.
And I know you’re
very involved in policy advocacy.>>NOTARIO: Can you share
a little bit —
you talked about ending violence
— against people with disabilities. And you talked
about the — you called it a
silent epidemic and the fact that a lot of the work that is
being done and has been done for
many years to end violence for disability rights work, we have
seen a lot of victories over
time. A lot of good things have come out of the disability
rights movement, the violence
against women movement, but what we see today is that some of
that work is not intersectional.
So we see a lack of visibility and analysis around what — the
topics that you are talking
about. The intersections of violence in the lives of people
with disabilities. Who may also
be people of color. So can you share when you talk about your
commitment to ending violence
what some of the things are that you advocate for in the
Legislature? Things that are
bigger that have to do with economic justice, things that
keep people with disabilities
oppressed at a societal level but then are also connected to
violence against people with
disabilities. What are some of those things? Can you give me some
examples of what you are advocating
today for in the Legislature? >>LOPEZ: You know when
I first got started
in this work and being — I started being an
advisor to the SAFE which is
Stop Abuse For Everyone here in Austin. I became part of the
Advisory Committee for
Disability Services. And I did that because I was well aware of
the fact that many people with
disabilities were part of the silent epidemic. There was no
voice to people with
disabilities on getting help. And a lot of it is because of
the lack of awareness from the
organizations that are doing great work. But I think they
forget about people with
disabilities. Not intentionally. It’s just that I think there’s a
belief in society that that
doesn’t happen to people with disabilities. I think people
don’t realize what a vulnerable
population this is, especially if there’s an intellectual
disability. In particular if a
person is not able to speak. In particular if a person is so
physically disabled that they
cannot fight off a perpetrator. And that sometimes even when you
bring it to the consciousness
of organizations, there are still people who say, oh, you’ve
got to be kidding. That could
never happen. Who would do that to somebody who is disabled?
What they don’t realize is that
perpetrators look for vulnerability. And that’s one of
the things that is so — what
do I want to say? So easy. It becomes easy prey to
perpetrators. Because just like
we hear in the Catholic Church how the priests abuse young
boys, well, they put themselves
in a position where they can do that without anybody realizing
that that’s what’s being done.
It’s very hidden. It’s very quiet. And many times the people
who are being abused and they
can’t speak, they end up showing that something is wrong by
behavior problems. And instead
of trying to understand why that person is behaving that way,
they tend to think that that
person is just behaving badly and the person gets punished. As
I said, I was aware of all of
that and wanted to bring that to light. And in particular
there’s — you know, we’ve
gotten rid of a lot of the physical barriers, architectural
barriers. That’s what we had
really done. And that’s what the Americans With Disabilities Act
has taught about in our
society. I don’t worry so much about rampS and accessible
bathrooms anymore. But I think
that there’s violence in many ways. One of them is to bring
about the fact that there’s a
lot of institutional violence. And that brings — for example,
the violence occurs in state
schools and in state hospitals and in group homes. And in
places where there’s, quote,
nobody watching. And then you take that further into society
and we have greater what I
consider to be institutional violence by the way that society
sets up governmental things for
people with disabilities. For example, if you require
Medicaid, you are so limited in
the amount of money you can make that you almost have to depend
on other social services in
order to survive. You need to in an apartment that’s Section 8.
Or HUD housing. And you have
Medicaid which means you’re limited to the kind of
healthcare you get. And the
amount of money you get you can’t spend so you’re not
perceived as a person who is a
consumer in society. And before you know it, we’re considered
the takers of society. And that
puts us, again, in a negative light. And there’s further
institutional violence in what I
consider to be oppression. By these things that are set up.
Like Medicaid and not being able
to go to work because if you go to work, then you lose your
Medicaid. But how many people
are going to make enough money to live independently unless
they get a college degree? Where
you’re able to pay for a home and attending care and
transportation. You know you
would have to make a lot of money. Most people with
disabilities can’t do that.
There’s also employment. Many employers don’t want to hire
people with disabilities because
they are not going to be fast enough or they are perceived as
they are not going to be good
workers or they are not going to be — they are going to miss a
lot of days of work because they
have a disability. And that’s actually not true at all. People
with disabilities make some of
the best employees around because we’re so committed. And
we’re so grateful to have a job.
And the cross-sectionality, also, deals with, particularly
here in Austin, when it comes to
the Mexican-Americans, if you are Mexican-American and you
have a disability and you are
being abused, you not only have to overcome the oppression of
being a female but the fact that
— I — well, okay, let me backtrack. I’m going to give my
experience as a person growing
up in that my parents were very intimidated by the medical
society. I had to see a lot of
doctors. And my parents were really intimidated and terrified
of doctors. And were afraid to
speak up. Because their Islam is God. And they were all white
men. And that was even more
intimidating. And it got to where I was — I was very scared
of white men. They held a lot
of power. And I saw my parents feeling — sort of cow tailing
to them. So I felt the same way.
And I think that’s one of the things is that when you’re
taught to be oppressed, when
you’re taught that you are not of equal value, then when you
receive services, that are even
for your own benefit that you don’t really trust it or you
don’t really feel that you
deserve it. Because those doctors, those white men
doctors, have a lot of power.
And so I think you know that came from being Hispanic more
than from having a disability.
But it put us into that situation of having to deal with
the medical community probably
more than most people.>>NOTARIO: Thanks, Renee. I
think in there you are talking
about a lifetime of interactions with systems, with so-called
professionals, with others that
directly or indirectly contribute to your experiences
around oppression. Whether you
needed an assistance medically but also I think you’re making a
distinction there around the
amount of power that some of these people held in your life
and in your family decisions,
right?>>LOPEZ: Right.
>>NOTARIO: So I wanted to
share with the listeners today that we are part of a group, a
national coalition, called
Uniting to End Violence Against People with Disabilities. Which
is a collaboration between the
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and the Vera
Institute of Justice. And you
are a member of that coalition alongside with otherself-advocates
and disability rights advocates
and anti-violence advocates.>>LOPEZ: Yes.>>NOTARIO: In that context,
we are doing
some of the work that you are mentioning here
around also
doing the internal work of dismantling internalized
oppression or internalized
superiority. And I think that has been difficult work. Hard
work. That we all have been
doing alongside our goals of policy advocacy and education.
So I am very glad to have you
there as an active member, who is really educating the entire
group on some of these policy
advocacy strategies and priorities. So I wanted to
mention that here. And speaking
of policy advocacy and strategies, one of the things
that comes up a lot for people
with disabilities is the topic of affordable and safe housing.
And that is also part of the
issue.>>LOPEZ: Right.
>>NOTARIO: So according to the
National Council on Disability, affordable, accessible and
appropriate housing is an
integral part of making any community more livable for
people with disabilities. Yet
the gap between demand for adequate housing and
availability continues to grow.
Many of those with disabilities remain on housing wait lists for
years, with countless others
having the lack of options available to hem. Affordable and
safe housing, as well as
accessible, does that exist, in your opinion?>>LOPEZ: No.
[CHUCKLES].>>LOPEZ: But let me
give you a little
background. When I was in college, and I was an adult,
deemed —
I was over 18. I had to live in Section 8 housing
because I didn’t make any money.
I was a student. And when I finally got a full-time paying
job that paid me well, I then
had to go in search of an apartment that I could live in
comfortably that was accessible.
And I had to search and search until I finally — I did find
one. Excuse me. But I had to pay
more money because I had to pay for an apartment that was a one
and a half bedroom because
everything was bigger, including the bathroom, rather than being
able to live in an apartment
that was more affordable and smaller but I wouldn’t be able
to get around in because it
wasn’t accessible. So sometimes you have to go bigger just to be
able to fit, especially if
you’re in a wheelchair. And at some point after I had worked
for a while, I decided to buy a
house. And I was dating — well, I was going to live with
someone who was also in a
wheelchair. And we must have seen about 60 houses before we
settled on one that would be
comfortably accessible, even though we still had to make some
adjustments. And so that’s my
— my history is that I’ve always had trouble finding a
home that’s accessible and
affordable. Now, what I want to bring up is that currently in
Austin, Texas, there are
buildings, apartments and condos going up like wildfire around
here. However — and they are
accessible. They are — they do have a few accessible
apartments. However, they are
not affordable. Because we’re talking about $3,000 a month.
And many people with
disabilities, especially if you’re on Medicaid or you know
disability benefits, that’s your
whole check, if you even get that much. So they are not
affordable. So they may be
affordable to people with disabilities who are
professionals. But how many of
us are? When you’re not even able to get to that point
anyway. And one of the things
that I fought for with my colleagues, with my disabled
colleagues here in Austin, was
trying to get these apartment complexes to accept vouchers,
housing vouchers. So that people
with disabilities would be able to live in these beautiful
apartments that are going up
that are accessible if they would just accept the Section 8.
And they absolutely would not.
The entire renters association — I may not be saying that —
Realtors Association was totally
against it. We had to go before the City Council. My friends
and I talked about how we lived
in housing. We were great tenants. And I can honestly tell
you that some of the best
tenants you’ll are have people with disabilities. Because once
again, we’re grateful to have
what we have. What we’ve been able to get. And — but they
were adamantly opposed. And we
lost. So now there’s thousands of apartments and condos in
Austin. All downtown. All
beautiful. All brand-new. But not one person with a disability
can live in them. Or maybe at
the most there’s one. I lived in an apartment complex that was
— would be considered a high
rise or ritzy. I was able to live in it because of, you know,
the money I made because I am a
professional. And I was the only person with a disability
that lived there. I mean, the
only one out of I don’t know how many apartments. Because it was
a huge building. And I was
grateful that I was able to do that. But trying to get my
brothers and sisters with
disabilities to be able to live the same way was just — it just
didn’t happen. And it still
isn’t happening. And however, the good news is that I’m also
on the Board of a nonprofit
organization that we started here in Austin. And we call it
Accessible Housing Austin. And
through donations and grants, we’re now breaking ground on a
27-unit apartment complex that
will be integrated, accessible and affordable. But it’s only 27
units. And it took us ten years
to get the funding for it. We are breaking ground. And we
already have a waiting list. So
you know, we’re just a drop in the bucket to what is needed in
our community.
>>NOTARIO: Thanks, Renee. I think just now you touch on a
lot of I guess things that are
interconnected. And the ways in which people with disabilities
are kept in poverty by some of
the ways in which we do things. The things that are prioritized
and who is deemed worthy of
certain access to particular industries. Housing
is a human right,
right?>>LOPEZ: Well, you would
think so,
right? [CHUCKLES].
>>NOTARIO: Uh-huh, exactly.
So with that, and in listening to the examples that you shared and
your advocacy also in that
context, what would you tell disability rights advocates,
anti-violence advocates, housing
advocates, about centering the voices of people of color with
disabilities in their social
justice work?>>LOPEZ: I think that the
first thing you have to do is
recognize that the person may have a lot of internalized
oppression. And it may come from
the family because sometimes the family is also subject to
the same oppression. Beliefs
that are trickled down from our society, from Government. I know
I’ve run into a lot of people
in my life that believed that I was not worthy because they
heard the same thing. That, you
know, oh, you poor thing. Or you poor cripple, you’ll never live
on your own. You’ll never have
anything. You’re always going to be on disability. And you’re
always going to need help. And
your poor parents. So I used to wonder, where did that belief
come from? How do you know that?
Well, of course they are subject to the same messages
that are sent, you know, from
our society. And so I think be aware of your thoughts when you
run into someone who has a
disability and may come from a background that is not Anglo
American, you know, like I’m
from Texas so it’s primarily Mexican-American. But around the
country there are other
communities that are entrenched in certain areas. Asians, Middle
Eastern. It just varies. But
there are cultural oppressions that are involved with people
with disabilities. And a lot of
ostracism, for example. A lot of shame. And those are things
that we need to be aware of when
you think culturally of a person. And then be aware of how
much might have been
internalized. That person may actually would have come to
believe it. And the other is to
be aware of the fact that people with disabilities, we do know
— we’re very aware of what we
can and cannot do. We know what we want and don’t want. We know
what life is about. It’s not a
secret. Don’t be afraid to say wheelchair. I have people
sometimes they don’t know what
to say because they are afraid to offend. But you know, we have
pretty much heard it all. And
don’t be afraid to ask. Like you did, Heidi. Just how do you
identify yourself? What would
you like for me to refer to you as? And I know that those things
are necessary to do until we
get to a society where the only thing you ever have to ask
someone is their name.
>>NOTARIO: Thanks, Renee. I would add to that from my
perspective as an ally to people
with disabilities, it’s also paying attention to our own
ableism, our own racism and our
internalized superiority in that context to be aware of. That I
think sometimes people who have
been doing this work for many years believe that they have
arrived and they are true
allies. And I think this journey on being an ally or a
co-conspirator like some of my
colleagues like to use as a term because it sounds more active
and committed is really
something that you receive from those who are most marginalized.
It’s not for us to say, hey, by
the way, I’m an ally. So that’s why I think the work requires
so much effort and attention and
intention. So what –>>LOPEZ: Yes, I just want to
add that I do like the word ally
myself. And you know, one thing that just blew my mind wide
open was when I — because of
the work that we had done with our coalition is when I came to
realize that how much — how
embedded those ideas of ableism and superiority and oppression
are ingrained in us. That we
don’t even know we have it sometimes. And I commend so many
of the allies that are part of
our coalition. Because they stepped back and realized the
internalized superiority that
they have. And I had to step back and realized the
internalized oppression that
I’ve had. And through that we grew tremendously as a coalition
and I think because of that
understanding that we had, the willingness to understand, see
and accept the things that we
are, the things that we have accepted about ourselves. And we
have been able to work through
them. And accept them. And heal them. That I think is the reason
we are such a powerful
coalition. So I’m hoping that that goes further out. And
that’s one of the things I would
say to other organizations. When you want to be an ally to
really take a good look at your
own beliefs on ableism. As you said, superiority and your
beliefs about other people of
different cultures. Racism.>>NOTARIO: Thanks, Renee. So
what makes you happy?
>>LOPEZ: Oh, there’s so much that makes me happy now because I
don’t worry so much anymore
about what people think about me. And that’s been extremely
liberating. But basically what
makes me happy is hanging out with my friends. I derive great
joy from seeing changes when we
advocate for something like our 27-unit integrated accessible
affordable apartment complex
brings me great joy. That was a lot of work. And you know, right
now I’m happy to be alive. I
really am. I think it’s a good time to be alive. It’s a time in
our society when we’re all
having to stop and take a look at our own ideas of racism and
ableism and all of these isms
that have infiltrated our society that we once took for
granted but I think we now have
to really take a look at so we can heal it and become the
society of one that we are meant
to be.>>NOTARIO: Oh, thank you, Renee.
Thank you so much for joining
us today. And thanks to all of you for listening. We’ll keep
moving forward with this work.
Thanks, Renee. Have a great day.>>LOPEZ: Thank you.
Thank you
very much. [MUSIC].>>Thank you for joining me
today for the first episode of
Policy & Advocacy in Action, an NRCDV Radio podcast production.
You can follow us on Twitter,
Facebook and Instagram at NRCDV. To hear more NRCDV podcasts and
to access additional resources
on gender-based violence and related topics, visit
>>Policy & Advocacy in Action
is an NRCDV podcast production brought to you by the National
Resource Center on Domestic
Violence. Support is provided by the Administration on Children,
Youth and Families, Family and
Youth Services Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services. Its contents are
solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily
represent the official views of
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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