Equality’s Advocate

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As the development director for Equality Texas, Marianne DeLeon exemplifies the spirit of community while working for justice and equal rights for all Texans.

For some people, discovering a career path is effortless. This is particularly true when one is drawn to a certain occupation because of a sincere passion. Such is the case for Marianne DeLeon, the development director for Equality Texas, the Austin-based nonprofit organization that works to eliminate public policy discrimination that’s based on sexual orientation.

Though DeLeon is young and unencumbered by the jaded attitude that overwhelms many in the nonprofit sector, she is remarkably experienced and highly spirited. As the daughter of Cuban refugees who immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s, DeLeon is well-versed in hardships and adversity. Her grandmother, Cecilia Maymir, an activist in her own right who DeLeon calls a “total firecracker,” also influenced DeLeon to pursue a life of activism.

A native of Florida, DeLeon and her family moved to Texas when she was a child so that her father, a chemist, could further elevate his career. While attending college at the University of Texas as an arts and English major, DeLeon began thinking about how she could change the world for the better. And after receiving her master’s degree in history from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she took the first big step toward a new, more meaningful life and joined the Peace Corps.

“The Peace Corps is a good building block for going in to the nonprofit sector,” DeLeon says. “I knew I wanted to work with charities that I felt socially drawn to, and that was a good start.”

For more than two years, DeLeon worked on women’s reproductive health issues in Moldova, helping to run a contraception clinic and working on abolishing the alarming problem of human trafficking. While there, she helped raise more than $200,000 for women’s programs, and began to understand how a little hard work could make a huge difference in the lives of others.

“That earned had a real impact on me,” DeLeon says. “I learned what it meant to be able to ask for money for an organization I truly believe in, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

After returning to Texas, DeLeon was inspired to continue working in the nonprofit world, so she began working for the International Rescue Committee in Dallas, a refugee-settlement agency that finds homes for displaced people, involves them in job training and helps them adjust to a new life in the U.S. DeLeon spent three years at the organization. The job, she says, was an opportunity to help others in the same situation her own family had been in years before.

Though she was dedicated to her development position at the IRC, DeLeon eventually gravitated toward another nonprofit group run by a man who would quickly become her mentor.

“At that time, the Resource Center of Dallas was run by Paul Scott, who really drew me in to that organization,” DeLeon relates.

The primary GLBT and HIV/AIDS service organization in North Texas, the Resource Center offered DeLeon a new opportunity for advocacy. Again, she worked as the group’s development director, raising money to help fund a local gay and lesbian community center, health programs for HIV and AIDS patients, and educate the community about GLBT issues. The job, in which DeLeon often was faced with the task of broadening potential contributors’ perspectives, was an important step in her advocacy vocation, particularly since her next career move would catapult her in to the tumultuous world of politics.

After only a year in the position, DeLeon was recruited to Austin by Scott, who had left the Resource Center to lead Equality Texas, the influential statewide political advocacy group that works to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation. Scott says it was DeLeon’s passion, honesty and support of GLBT programs and rights that first impressed him.

“She has a unique quality to draw people in when she speaks, while communicating the needs and importance of the organization,” Scott says.

DeLeon joined Equality Texas in January 2007, and though her official title is development director, she wears many hats. With only six employees and a hefty workload, the organization does quite a lot with very little. Often times, DeLeon can be found organizing an upcoming fundraising event, on the phone with other equality-rights groups, or keeping up with the relevant political proceedings at the Texas Capitol. It’s a tireless job, but one that DeLeon has taken to quickly and with a lot of heart.

Currently DeLeon and the rest of the Equality Texas staff are working on the Texas Safe Schools Initiative. The group hopes eventually to pass legislation that protects Texas students from being harassed for, among other things, their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.

“Marianne has enhanced the ability of the organization to develop relationships with supporters across Texas,” Scott says. “She has enabled Equality Texas to expand our Texas Cabinet monthly giving program by 50 percent in her first 10 months, developed a series of house parties and events across Texas to inform Texans about the great work of Equality Texas, and she has professionalized our development program to be more attractive to national funders.”

DeLeon admits that working to reach such a lofty ideal as equality can be challenging, but she takes inspiration from those who have helped pave the way. She points specifically to her boss Scott, who she says has been “one of the greatest gifts in my life,” as well as Atticus Circle founder Anne Wynne, Austin City Council hopeful Randi Shade, and incomparable lobbyist Bettie Naylor.

While DeLeon has been with Equality Texas for only a year, she plans to stick around, and hopes to become an expert in her field, an ambition that will no doubt come naturally to her.

“Doing something for somebody in need makes me feel good,” DeLeon declares. “There’s a fine line between working in the nonprofit world and activism. I’m not on the front lines but I am empowering people to go to the Capitol and effect positive social change. At the end of the day, that’s very rewarding.”

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