Diana Gorham knows what it’s like to be an underdog. That’s why she’s spent her career fighting for underdogs as executive director of the Austin Latina Latino Lesbian and Gay Organization from 1991 to 1993 and for the past two decades for YWCA Greater Austin.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Houston in 1973. After teaching two years, the Corpus Christi native moved to Austin with the idea of pursuing a master’s in education. Instead, she taught eight more years before switching gears, earning her MBA from St. Edwards in 1991.
In its 108th year, YWCA Greater Austin provides specialized mental health counseling for women and their families, prevention services for high-risk youth, and professional training for licensed clinicians. It also is working with Nonprofit Vote 2014 to sign up Austinites by the October 6 registration deadline and to encourage them to cast their ballot in the November 4 election.
YWCA Greater Austin is working with Nonprofit VOTE to register women, youth, and people of color. Why is it important to encourage voter participation among these groups?
Most nonprofits work with populations that are not adequately represented at the polls. Not as much women anymore, but elders, youth, and communities of color, and it’s their decision to make. I have run into so many women in their early 20s who say, “We’re just not interested.” It’s hard not to shake them and say, “Do you realize how hard women fought for this?” But it’s not about shaming. It’s about engaging in conversation and really encouraging them to go to the polls. Regardless of what comes out of their mouths, we want them to find their voices. We want to encourage it at the risk that these voices may counter our personal positions.
Who are you having conversations with?
I asked someone looking at our bulletin board, “Are you registered?” He said, “Yes I am.” We started to talk, and the next thing I knew, he said, “I promise you I’ll vote.” And I said, “Will you put it in writing?” He signed a pledge card. A couple of women said to me at one event, “When I go vote, I’m going to see your face there.” This gentleman started talking to me about how he’d seen this rally—that’s what you want them to start talking about: their personal experiences watching politics happen in their neighborhoods. That is what ignites more interest.
How are you getting that word out?
Five of our board members and seven staff were deputized. The county registrar’s office tells the entire community of deputees where they need voter registrars. For example, every single location of Thundercloud Subs is registering voters all day on October 6.
You mentioned the pledge card. Is that something you do with everyone you register?
It is not mandatory. We just engage with them: “The laws have changed. If you fill out this form, we’ll send you all of the updates on what to take with you.” That way when a person goes to vote, they’re not going to be stopped by any changes they’re not aware of.
How long have you lived in Austin, and what changes have you seen to its political landscape during that time?
I moved here in 1975. The environment was much more open. Today we’re so incredibly polarized. And I include myself in that. I am so polarized that I can’t even understand why the opposition, or in my viewpoint the opposition, can’t embrace the issues as easily.
So, yes, it’s a very different place today, not to mention how much the city has changed demographically. I lived for 30 years in East Austin. I-35 was intended to separate the Latino and African-American community from the rest of the town, and it worked. It was definitely poor. But it has been entirely gentrified. The African-American community has dwindled. It comprised about a third of the city when I first moved here, but it is now less than 10%. And the majority of the Hispanic Latino community—it is just scattered all over town. We no longer have our neighborhood. We don’t have our barrio anymore.
How do you feel about that?
I lament it, interestingly enough. And Austin doesn’t have a gay community. I lament that. We don’t have to actually live there, but there’s something about having an area of town that is yours. That applies also to a barrio, a community where we know that’s ours, where the restaurants are owned by little old men and families. They’re gone now.
The crux of the YWCA’s mission in the United States is to eliminate racism and empower women. How does YWCA Greater Austin work toward that mission?
We are funded to provide certain services. We have contracts, for example, to provide counseling. We cannot bring agendas into the counseling session. But counseling is always based on a particular theory, and the theory that is the foundation for the counseling we provide is the relational cultural theory. It came out of the Stone Center in Wellesley College during the 70s and is based on the feminist and social justice movements of psychology. It’s very justice-focused and it’s very focused on how women operate in this world. We also host racial justice dialogues. We average anywhere from 30-45 people every last Friday of the month.
As a Latina lesbian, what words of wisdom do you have for other gay and lesbian people of color as they navigate life?
My first response is, “Who the hell am I to give words of wisdom?” My mantra was, stay angry. Do not get complacent, because before you know it something will be taken away. I can’t find the right words in English because the word is coraje in Spanish. Coraje has dual meanings: courage and anger. It’s one word in Spanish.
How do you stay angry without it eating you up?
That’s a very good question. You don’t carry it constantly because it does eat at your core, but at the right times it serves as a good shield. If you have felt exclusion of any kind, sometimes it’s that anger that keeps you moving. But you’re right, we just find a way to balance that and still function in life. Part of what helps me is to surround myself with similar people, where you don’t have to explain why you feel that anger.
You’re retiring next year. What plans do you have?
I am one of now four sisters and two brothers. We’re very close. Traveling together is something we’re planning to do. My partner is from Nicaragua and I have established relationships with her family, so we will definitely do extended visits. I want to try fostering a newborn, if not more than one. I’ve even dreamt it. But I don’t want to work, because I tend to want to take over, and I don’t want to do that. If I work, I want to work in a flower shop or a nursery where I will resist the need to say, “Why don’t we try it this way?”
Interview by Jana Hunter