Empowerment reinforces, fuels, and preserves community. Our words and actions can be used for creating real changes that bring justice to marginalized groups. This month’s Do-Good Dozen Winner is Mónica Ramírez, social entrepreneur, civil rights attorney, author, activist, and Founder of Justice for Migrant Women. Mónica has had her writings published in TIME Magazine and created the first legal project in the US to address discrimination against farmworker women. She inspires other women to get involved in advocacy and demonstrates the importance of persistency in any field of work. Mónica’s diverse skill set and heart for others is evident in her daily work. Read her interview below to learn more about her journey with advocacy, overcoming doubts, and advice for anyone looking to make change and step into their power.
Tell us about your daily work as a social entrepreneur involved in various organizations, a speaker, activist, and author.
From a young age, I was drawn to advocacy work and started nurturing a passion to make a change, specifically within the gender equality space. It became a part of who I was, and really bled into every effort I have ever pursued professionally. Years ago, I was an attorney helping to fight against gender-based violence and for immigrant’s human rights. Then, back in 2003, I started focusing the conversation more around farmworker women. This turned into creating the first legal project in the US that specifically was addressing discrimination against them. It started as a state-based project in Florida that I named Esperanza.
I later turned this into a national initiative that became known as Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of Southern Poverty Law Center. Since, I created and founded Justice for Migrant Women to not only continue to start the conversation around migrant women and the daily issues they face, such as workplace sexual violence and unfair wages, but also to help provide support to political leaders, influencers, and advocates who want to help tell the story and change laws for the benefit of migrant women and children in the US.
Through my work, I have the opportunity to speak out on behalf of women who are both discriminated against and harmed daily, whether it be through physical or sexual violence, or economic harm. Having spent many hours and years walking alongside these women and being in community with them helped me to channel their voice and experiences in pieces like Dear Sisters in TIME. This letter was created and written on behalf of farmworker women whose interests are served by Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization that I co-founded. The purpose of the letter was to help support and stand beside all women in Hollywood who have been sexually abused in the workplace.
Being an advocate for migrant women around the country, including being the Director of Gender Justice Campaigns for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has allowed me to be a part of key projects that help ensure that all women workers - from the most marginalized and least visible to the most privileged and most visible - are seen, heard and considered.
Writing has taken a big place in your advocacy work – a well known example being your “Dear Sisters” letter published by TIME that helped spark the Time’s Up movement, and now the #QueridaFamilia letter. How have you seen this form of advocacy make a different kind of impact?
Through the power of words, we are able to connect on a deep human level we need to unite and rally around crucial change. Most recently, the #QueridaFamilia letter, which I helped spearhead with America Ferrera, Eva Longoria, Diane Guerrero, Alex Martinez Kondracke and Olga Segura, completely shifted the national conversation following the immigration raids and mass shootings to refocus the conversation on love, solidarity, ally-ship and resilience. More than 200 activists and leaders signed on to the letter, allowing the reach of the letter to extend far beyond where it was published in The New York Times, El Diario, El Nuevo Herald and La Opinion and resulted in over 1 billion impressions. This form of advocacy will always be a critical way to reach the hearts of people about the issues I’m tackling.
How have you had to change your approach to advocacy over the years?
I have always been used to doing the majority of the work by myself because I have often worked for organizations that are under-resourced or volunteer run. This has helped me be very flexible and grown my skill set, but it can also be pretty taxing to be thinking about the communications plan, the social media, the policy proposals and all of the other work that is required to run an organization, especially when the work is on a national scale.
Over the years, I have had to think a lot more about how to zoom out and really think about the most impactful, strategic moves that can be made with the resources that we have on the largest scale possible.
However this is often not the more hands on, groundwork that I grew up doing and really enjoy. This is a challenge, personally, because I think that all of our work should be informed by folks in communities and on the ground, but it’s difficult to maintain that approach and style with a small team and limited resources because we want those engagements to be sustained and meaningful. So, I have had to learn to adjust over time to strike a balance.
You’ve been involved with some extremely important work responding to the border crisis and ICE raids. Can you share about what this has looked like?
The response has been two-fold. First, we want to simply meet immigrants, Latinx community members, and others who have been under attack and terrorized by many different policies, including immigration policies. We must, and have been working really hard to acknowledge the collective pain of our communities, along with the sadness and the horrors of these events- from immigration detention, raids, and all of the other ways that have undermined our humanity and diminished our value. My goal has been to spread a different message - one of love, empathy, and solidarity. This was embodied in the #QueridaFamilia letter, as well as other actions that we have been taking.
The second key response has been by aggressively reaching out to vulnerable community members using every means possible, from on the ground outreach in places like farmworker camps and educational fairs in Ohio to inform people of their rights, to community events in places like Washington state with the United Farmworkers and other groups, to planning and holding large scale social impact campaigns on issues like the widespread sexual harassment against migrant women through projects like The Bandana Project.
While these atrocities are heartbreaking, I am motivated by the work that Justice for Migrant Women does to help immigrant community members know that they are not alone, that they are loved, that we see them and hear them whether they are on the border or the interior of our country.
This is especially important to me in the midst of all of the pain and fear that so many of us are witnessing and feel.
What are some of the doubts you’ve had to overcome in your life to be where you’re at now?
I continually struggle with the doubts that I think a lot of people confront. I deal with imposter syndrome, like I think many people do. I question whether I am smart enough, do I belong in the rooms that I am being invited to be in, am I prepared enough, am I the best representative of my community. I just push through and I ground myself by remembering that as long as I am acting with a pure heart and pure intentions to do good then I am exactly where I should be, even if it might be places that I never dreamed of finding myself.
What is your approach to empowering other Latina women to speak up and make a change?
Latinas and all people have their own power. I think some people may have decided to take risks or to take action because they see me modeling what it looks like to stand in my power; to use my voice; to challenge norms, institutions, and people for the good of others; and to lift up others while doing my own work.
Latinas and other people have told me that seeing me do my work has helped them feel like they, too, can make a difference and should get involved.
What compelled you to become an activist for this specific community of women? What encourages and motivates you to continue?
Growing up, my parents taught that it was important to be proud of my culture and my family’s history as migrant farmworkers. They also taught me about justice issues in the US, including issues confronting farmworkers, and the importance of giving back to the community. It was their influence and compassion that inspired me to do my work to educate the world on the issues that migrant women face and the steps that are required to provide a safer, equal working environment for them.
As I continue this work and push for equality, I always keep my family and culture at the forefront of my mind.
It is what grounds me and keeps me centered on my mission.
Can you share about how The Bandana Project started, and where it has evolved to today in the impact it has made in the lives of farmworkers?
I started the Bandana Project in 2007 when I was leading Esperanza at Southern Poverty Law Center. I have continued that project since then and it is anchored by Justice for Migrant Women today. It was created to help raise awareness about the rampant sexual violence against farmworker women and to send a message to these women that they are not alone. Ultimately, the project aims to diminish sexual violence in an artistic and visible way. For years, I was hearing from farmworker women that they use their clothing, including bandanas, to protect themselves from unwanted advances, specifically from their employers. They were suffering silently, and I wanted to change that.
Our organization provides white bananas for people to decorate and make their own, really allowing others to show their support for migrant women who have stepped forward and held their employers responsible for the sexual violence they have faced. We have partners around the country who are hosting Bandana Project events and supporting the project through social media, lending their voices as validators to the work.
When people post and showcase the bandanas, they are standing behind the women and even children who face this violence on a day-to-day basis. This allows farmworker women to know that they are seen and that we value their lives and their work.
The mantra for the project is: No one should be forced to give up their dignity in order to feed their family.
And as a result of The Bandana Project, no one will have to suffer in silence. If you want to learn more about how you can participate in the Bandana Project, you can always check out our website at justice4women.org.
What recommendations do you have for women who want to get involved in advocacy? Where do you start?
I always recommend figuring out what you love and what you’re passionate about, and finding an organization either locally or nationally that you can support through volunteering and engaging in a tangible way. If you feel as though there’s nothing that has already been created, start your own. Even if you’re meeting with a small group monthly, educating people about issues, or even just creating posts on your personal social media that inform your following about things that are happening in the world, all advocacy starts somewhere and no gesture is too small.
There are people in your circle and community who need your voice and need your passion. There are people that you can reach that no one else can.
We need you to help get these important messages and information to them, too.
Who are some individuals in your life who shaped you into the woman you are today?
There have been many. First and foremost, my parents. They raised me to value the work and struggle of migrant workers. They also helped me understand my individual responsibility to do something to help make things better. My sister, Luisa, who recently passed away shaped me into who I am today. She was both a protector and a champion for me and my work my entire life. I started my first legal project because of my sister. Through her, I understood what it means to survive violence and how it can have a lasting impact on your life. She often counseled me on how to be the best advocate and helped quell some of my misgivings. We all need champions to help us keep going and, without a doubt, my sister was always mine. If it were not for her, I might not have been brave enough to create the various initiatives that I have started. I do my work in her honor.
How can we all keep the conversation around marginalized women going?
It is our job to make people understand that if we are not talking about the experiences of marginalized people and solutions to problems that they face, then we can not really say that we are trying to solve these issues for everyone.
Access to justice, rights, food, clothing, work, dignity, and so many things should not only be available to the privileged.
If we do not center those who are on the margins, then there is a great risk that we will be excluding them and perpetuating some of the ills that we seek to address. Among these most marginalized, it is our duty to do what we can to educate the people around us on what happens to migrant women and children on a day-to-day basis. Sharing with family, friends, co-workers, and other students in your class is a great way to start. Sadly, not many people are aware of the inequality that migrant women face in their workplace, and I’m convinced that we can do our part by teaching what we know to the people we love and are surrounded by.