Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Veronica Colón, executive director of Puerto Rico Women’s Foundation.
What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
I wish I knew how small accomplishments and experiences were leading to big changes. I’ve had quite diverse professional experiences, from a research assistant to prominent investigators at NIH, to executive assistant to a Chairman of an international telecommunications company. There was a point in my career life, where I thought the multidisciplinarity of my background would hurt me in finding the space where I wanted to be, when in reality, it has given me the tools I need for this new endeavor. Our Foundation is relatively new and though it started in a good position, there is still a lot to do to build its presence and continue its growth. Now I have the necessary skills to get us there. Trust the process.
What is your current greatest professional challenge?
My greatest professional challenge is lack of data. There is a big problem for us and many organizations in Puerto Rico that are trying to write excellent arguments about the impact of their work beyond the data that they can provide from their own reports. It’s hard to come by with data that has to do with gender equality in Puerto Rico and the research that is out there is mostly anecdotal.
For example, the CENSUS tells us that there are more women than men in the workforce, but the Department of Labor does not collect information on salaries, thus it’s hard to measure the wage gap on the island. A professor from our local public University found that the higher the degree a woman holds, the wider the wage gap. Yet again, it was a survey conducted by his students to a large sample in Puerto Rico. Because of our colonial status, we are often forgotten in national studies about gender issues, since we are neither independent nor fully part of the U.S. It’s a big challenge, but we are working hard to change that reality.
What inspires you most about your work?
Our grantees, each day and everyday, no doubt. We support mostly emerging organizations, and that means, small budgets and projects run on volunteer time. A lot of the most successful projects we’ve supported are led by women in their free time and with a full-time job. With limited funding, they have done wonders. I can’t wait to see what they would do with more funding and support.
How does your gender identity inform your work?
It does and it doesn’t. I identify as a Caribbean woman from a small town in Puerto Rico. That means that I know a different reality of the island. It gives me the experience of a woman born and raised in an extremely conservative and rough part of the island, making gender norms stricter and sometimes traumatizing. I’ve seen violence against women firsthand and I’ve also seen the shade and shame from family members who opt to look away and avoid “conflict” always protecting the agressor and re-victimising the victim. My mother did not believe women should aim for higher education and that our greatest achievements are as caretakers and wives. In that sense, it fuels my work to achieve gender equality so that the young girls behind me don’t have to endure those beliefs.
At the same time, it doesn’t because my experience as different as it is, is still one experience as a woman in Puerto Rico, and does not inform me on the struggles non-conforming individuals, trans women, and other femme-identified people have to face in Puerto Rico. Their voices are vital in my work.
Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?
In some ways, yes. I’ve had some bad experiences in environments where a woman’s voice was not taken into consideration. A man once told me in front of a board meeting at a previous job, that he was impressed that a woman, particularly a woman coming from where I came from, had such eloquent language and spoke good english. I’ve also been silenced in spaces dominated by men and told my opinion was irrelevant. Those spaces affected me in the way I perceive my worth, something I daily work on and support other women in doing the same.
How can philanthropy support gender equality?
We need to be realistic and mindful about the funding gaps that exist in philanthropy. A lot of us know that only a small fragment of philanthropic giving goes to women-led organizations, and that fragment gets smaller when we talk about women of color and the LGBTQ+ community. A lot of the challenges that our grantees face have to do with strict funders and lack of a flexible budget that allows them to cover operational costs. So not only is the funding limited, but very restricted. For example, by 2022 a lot of the organizations that work with gender-based violence victims in Puerto Rico are at risk to stop operating because the government has limited the funding and also made the process of obtaining funding very cumbersome.
I believe we are at a great time to change the script and make philanthropy more feminist. To think about the organizations we support as our partners, highlighting that horizontal relationship and getting rid of the power dynamics. With these changes, the organizations we support can focus on doing the groundwork that’s so much needed for social change.
In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?
We have seen dramatic changes in gender equality since the 1970s in terms of education, economic empowerment, representation, inclusion, among others. That itself gives us optimism about future generations and foreseeable changes in gender norms. However, this is the same narrative that is being used by conservative individuals to justify that “haven’t we had enough” or “we are where we should be”. We need to keep pushing for institutional and cultural change, to shift the narrative, so in 10 years we can look back and say, we never let our guard down and here we are.
Learn more about the Puerto Rico Women’s Foundation here.