Rise Up California Leaders Reflect on Accelerator Experience

Rise Up’s new California Leaders with Rise Up staff at the Advocacy and Leadership Accelerator in April

Last month, Rise Up launched the Gender Equity Initiative in California with an intensive Advocacy and Leadership Accelerator gathering 20 visionary nonprofit leaders to strengthen their leadership, build their advocacy capacity, and enable them to launch strategies that improve the lives of girls and women in their communities. Read below to learn about three unique leaders and their experience going through the Accelerator.

Sarah Johnston, Central Valley Against Human Trafficking Manager, Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, Sanctuary and Support Services

Sarah Johnston, Rise Up Leader from Fresno County

Growing up on the Central Coast of California, I swore I would never move to the Central Valley. In my mind, the Central Valley was a place of problems, heat, and barren lands so I ignored it for the first 22 years of my life. But as I graduated college and found myself seeking out communities in which I could make a difference, I was drawn to the Valley–its diversity, its history, and the beauty that emanates from the “breadbasket of California.”

Often looked over in terms of resources and funding, the Valley is a forgotten or ignored region that I found myself willing and wanting to invest in. When I heard Rise Up was interested in investing in leaders from California’s Central Valley, I was immediately excited for this opportunity for local social justice leaders and the potential for change that could come from it.

Sarah participating in a team building activity

As advocates in marginalized communities, we spend much of our time building up our clients and communities, pouring time and energy into others and watching them thrive and grow. We spend much less time engaging in our own development and growth. I came into Rise Up’s Gender Equity Initiative Advocacy and Leadership Accelerator with the hope that I would become better equipped to lead my community and movement. What I left with was the tools and skills to be a changemaker, and a community of fellow advocates ready to cheer me on and support me through my journey.

The Rise Up Advocacy and Leadership Curriculum gave us an in-depth step-by-step guide, from brainstorming to implementing advocacy strategies. Not only were we taught these strategies, but we were able to practice them with other Rise Up leaders and staff, solidifying these skills in a safe and inclusive environment.

Rise Up gave me the opportunity to gain tools I never knew that I needed, developing me into a stronger leader and advocate. With the tools and the community I gained at the Advocacy and Leadership Accelerator, I am more determined than ever to make change for women and girls suffering from exploitation and human trafficking and bring that change to a region that has been overlooked for far too long.

Mary Kate Bacalao, Larkin Street Youth Services

Mary Kate Bacalao, Rise Up Leader from San Francisco County

More youth experiencing homelessness live in California than in any other state, and in San Francisco, more than 80% of them are unsheltered. The most important thing we can do for these young people is to provide safe inside spaces—for resting, regrouping, and realizing their full potential in a way that carves a permanent path out of poverty.

I’m motivated simply by being part of a radically inclusive movement. My colleagues inspire me; they’re fierce and fearless, and they see deeply into the interlocking systems of power and oppression that create and perpetuate conditions of poverty and homelessness.    

Being a Rise Up leader imbues my thinking and my professional relationships with so much richness. I remember how at the end of each day of the Advocacy and Leadership Accelerator, we’d circle up and share what stuck with us—seeds, thorns, and blossoms. I’m still carrying those blossoms with me, and I stop to smell them when the work gets tough.

Mary Kate during a session in the Accelerator

 The Advocacy and Leadership Accelerator helped me see my work more clearly. It gave me a framework for understanding advocacy—“speaking up, drawing a community’s attention to an important issue, and directing decision-makers toward a solution”—and its role in what I do, who I collaborate with, and how I get things done. For me, that framework draws the lines, and I can choose to color inside or outside of them with thoughtfulness and intention.

Participating in the Rise Up Accelerator has also helped me see myself more clearly. The Accelerator gave me a deep appreciation for how I show up in my work and how my energy impacts other people. That sense of personal energy and presence roots me in my body and expands my sense of possibility, helping me to stand taller. By standing taller, I can break away from and let go of limiting beliefs such as: “I’m just a grant writer, not a leader. I’m good at paperwork, not actual strategic work.”

Paradoxically maybe, this clarity of inner vision has propelled my focus outward. My vision for the future is to deepen my coalition work, engage people with lived experience in public decision-making, and ultimately build a stronger movement to end homelessness, where truth is not just speaking to power but in dialogue with it. I want my work and my writing to be part of that dialogue.

Julie Ramirez, Management Analyst, Office of Women’s Policy, County of Santa Clara

Julie Ramirez, Rise Up Leader from Santa Clara County

What happens when you put a group of 20 diverse women in a room together for a week to solve social problems? The answer is…magic! Being a part of the first-ever Rise Up Gender Equity Initiative Accelerator in the United States this April crystalized in my mind why I do social justice policy work. And it magnified the power of women leaders throughout Northern California; through tears, laughter, aha moments, quiet reflection, extensive training, and supportive feedback, each person left with a plan to make change in their community.

For a solid week, we were in a space where we didn’t have to expend our energy challenging negative assumptions about women, LGBTQ individuals, survivors of violence, formerly incarcerated individuals, or social justice advocates, as we so often have to do in this world, because those voices were represented among us. We listened to each other, we embraced each other, we believed in and valued each other. It was a space to learn and dream about ways to make our community a safer place, to have our experiences validated, and to have our voices heard.

Julie participating in an exercise with a fellow Rise Up Leader

As an analyst for the County of Santa Clara Office of Women’s Policy, I believe that as women leaders we must use a gender lens to examine policies and programs and also challenge assumptions that are so deeply ingrained in society. We must frequently and intentionally ask, “How does this impact women?” and have confidence in our lived experience, intuition, and hard work to ensure that women are valued and represented at the decision-making table.

As the only government representative in Rise Up’s first cohort of California leaders, I underscored the importance of partnership and collaboration between local government and non-profit agencies. In my work, I have relied on community partners to advocate for policy change and to leverage resources. These partnerships have amplified the voices of under-representative communities, increased funds for victims of violence to unprecedented levels, improved conditions for low-wage workers, and created leadership opportunities among young people. Hearing from my colleagues from Fresno to Sacramento to the Bay Area, I was struck by the similarities in the struggles across our communities, and inspired by the dedication and passion each one of my fellow Rise Up Leaders exhibited.

The Accelerator program emphasizes girl-centered advocacy as a way for us to connect with women locally and across the globe. Rise Up’s investment in local leaders and their visions for change strengthens individuals and entire communities. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this powerful network.