The following post was written by Brenda Marrero, CLS’s Deputy Director of Operations and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, to cap off Hispanic Heritage Month.
I didn’t really understand what “belonging” was until I didn’t have it. I moved away from my family and friends in the summer of 1998, to attend law school 3,000 miles away from anything and anyone familiar to me. I remember the first day of orientation sitting in this big auditorium, looking around at all of my fellow 1Ls and feeling very lost and alone. I grew up in a city in East Los Angeles that was filled with people like me. As an immigrant from Nicaragua, my family had our own circle of friends also from Nicaragua and that’s who I remember growing up with. At school, from elementary to the small liberal arts college I attended in L.A., I didn’t ever feel like the “other.” So in that auditorium, for the first time in my educational career, I felt very simply, alone in a sea of white. Very much an “other.”
I learned quickly that there were about a handful of us, and I soon made friends with the law school crowd of Latinos. From there, I learned about the Latino American Law Students Association (LALSA), the Hispanic Bar Association (HBA). I attended events and got to know people. I met my mentor, who is a woman of color, late in my third year of law school and I managed to carve out my own little village of people that felt like me, that gave me a sense of belonging during a pretty difficult time in my life.
But that doesn’t mean that throughout my journey I didn’t encounter plenty of times when I just did not feel good enough, like I just did not belong. Law school was not easy. I had a hard time connecting with professors; I wished I had more professors who were people of color. I didn’t understand one bit the law school culture. Nobody in my family attended law school in the United States. I had nobody to tell me how to map out the complex web of internships that lead to a job, and I remember many of my Latino friends not knowing either. Sometimes we figured it out, other times not so much. But at least I belonged, in that circle of friends.
I had to figure all of this out while navigating the big life stuff. My abuelita, back in L.A., was getting more and more sick by the year. I was graduating law school and she could not be there to see me walk. I barely landed a job a month before graduation, and then I had to work full time the summer I took the bar exam because I simply could not afford not to. But it did not stop there. Life handed me more heavy stuff—the loss of my beloved abuelita and failing the bar exam all within weeks of each other. I remember at that time in my life, I didn’t really know where to truly belong as a Hispanic law graduate with a feeling of failure clouding me. So I had to find a way to overcome things like my employer losing confidence in me, finding another job that spoke to my real passion of serving others, and still being 3,000 miles away from my family when I felt once again lost and alone.
When I reflect on that long journey and see where I am now, what I know in my heart is that having a sense of belonging made all the difference for me. I have seen the effects of not having that. I appreciate the immense value of your boss having confidence in you and how horrible it feels when they don’t. I also appreciate and try to not ever take for granted that your work space should make you feel like you can be yourself—that my authenticity, who I am, where I came from, how my lived experiences shape how I connect with others, matters.
With all honesty, it’s not all spring and roses. I didn’t always feel like I belonged at Community Legal Services (CLS), and at times I still struggle with that. I had to find opportunities in the midst of many challenges. I pushed myself to see myself in the best light, that I was as smart as the other people in the room. My voice is a quiet one, I am by nature very shy and quiet, something that surprises people when they learn what roles I have at CLS. But many times I do more listening than talking and sharing, and I have to feel very comfortable with you to really tell you how I feel. That’s not easy when this work, the work of Diversity and Inclusion, in my humble opinion, does require vulnerability in order for it to have a real impact. So the power of vulnerability became part of my journey. If I can’t be vulnerable when discussing sensitive topics like race, privilege, and identity among others, I can’t expect others to come to the table with trust. It’s an evolving skill, one that I work on daily.
I fuel my lived experiences into my new role as the first ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at CLS, and the first Latina to hold a Deputy Director position. I recognize that my voice carries huge responsibility for my fellow Latinos and Hispanics, many of whom I have the privilege of calling friends and colleagues, and for some, truly family. The journey is not a simple one, but I love that challenge. Vulnerability has a natural friend, which is humility. I have learned that with every new challenge, you can’t tackle it alone; it’s ok to say “I need help,” and it’s ok to say “I don’t know everything there is to know here, “and it’s ok to ask “will you take this journey with me?” I can say that and do that in my workspace because I do feel like I belong here, in this role, in this work. My ideas may not be perfect, and my perspectives always have counter perspectives, and that’s totally fine by me. I always think back to that young, naïve, alone 22-year-old girl sitting in that auditorium, wondering why in the world life brought me to that place, so far away, at that time in my life. I never thought I’d stay in Philadelphia, and I never thought I’d find myself working for the most prestigious legal services organization in the country (I will admit my bias on that!). But now, I say, well why the heck not—I do belong here, and I do deserve to be here. The journey of finding where you belong, and recognizing your sense of belonging, can be very powerful. To me, it is a constant and has no end point. As a Latina woman doing the work of diversity, equity, inclusion AND belonging I just hope that my journey can help the role become part of the fabric of CLS along with the whole village of amazing people who are walking it with us. Let’s do this!