Sharing Identity: The Latina Network of West Michigan
May 01, 2019 09:00AM
By Allison Arnold | Photography by Isabel Garcia
“It started with four women in a cafe,” Stacy Stout, one of the founders of the Latina Network of West Michigan (LNWM), said.
Stout, along with Milinda Ysasi, Beca Velazquez-Publes and Allison Lugo Knapp (who now lives in Portland, OR), were connecting over dinner when they realized the lack of groups in West Michigan specifically for Latinas. They had formed a community among each other, but felt the desire to share it.
“Let’s throw a meeting together and see if people respond to it,” Ysasi said.
They didn’t have any preconceived notions for what they wanted the group to be, nor did they know if anyone would even show up.
At the very first meeting, nearly 40 Latina women showed up. The four founders asked attendees questions to gain a grasp of what the group should be and to help shape its future: What do they need as Latina leaders, and what does Latina leadership mean to them?
From then on, the network grew organically, and the large group of
women voted on a name for their collective: Latina Network of West Michigan. The group has grown tremendously since it originated five years ago this September. One can say the growth and success may have taken place so naturally because of the deep need for a space like this in the community.
“Right now we’re in a really polarizing society and affinity groups play a role in helping people understand, de-construct things, be in a space where they can breathe and bring their authentic self,” Velazquez-Publes said.
The LNWM serves as a space for Latinas to come together and build relationships and networks via professional development, self-care and social events. It also serves as a safe space for members to discuss the challenges they face as Latinas, both professionally and personally, and how to navigate these issues.
“[We’re] creating the space to really redefine our narrative of what it means to be Latina, Latino, Latinx — however people choose to identify their Latinidad. I think that has been something that I don’t know if we initially thought would come out, but has really been a need,” Velazquez-Publes expressed.
“We feed off of each other and empower each other and having that has helped me not only become a member of West Michigan and feel like I have a home, but that this is a place where I belong, not just where I am living.”
— Cicely Moore
From the sense of community it provides members to the career advancement many have had as a result, the LNWM has been more than empowering.
“To me, [the Latina Network of West Michigan] means the world, understanding the fact that it’s so hard for us as Latinas to have a voice in the community, and then you find a group that empowers you to have that voice,” Ana Jose, who serves on the LNWM leadership team, said.
“For me, as a transplant to West Michigan, this group is very significant in creating a place of belonging, but also helping me to feel like I am an agent of change, and changing the narrative for what Latina representation is here in West Michigan,” Cicely Moore, a member of the network’s leadership team, said. “We feed off of each other and empower each other and having that has helped me not only become a member of West Michigan and feel like I have a home, but that this is a place where I belong, not just where I am living.”
The LNWM operates under a shared leadership model in which the members direct programming based on what they feel is needed, proposing ideas for professional development events and social gatherings.
“We don’t want it to be prescriptive,” Ysasi said about the future of the group.
The refreshing structure gives members the power to direct the organization in a way that’s reflective of what Latinas need to be empowered.
“It’s a great space that I’m really proud to raise my girls in," Stout expressed. “We’re just normalizing Latina leadership. They’re gonna grow up, like of course we show up; of course we’re in leadership positions; of course we support each other.”
To me, [the Latina Network of West Michigan] means the world, understanding the fact that it’s so hard for us as Latinas to have a voice in the community, and then you find a group that empowers you to have that voice.”
— Ana Jose
The growth and success of this organization demonstrates its importance and ensures pathways to opportunities for future generations.
“It’s not only supporting each other in here but supporting each other out there and making sure we’re each other’s voice,” Jose said.
The LNWM recently became a 501(c)(3) and is continuing to work on providing more structure for the organization amid its rapid growth. Just as in the beginning, the founders are letting the members take the lead.
“Overall, I think what’s clear even five years later is that the need is still there,” Velazquez-Publes expressed. “The whole idea that there is a group in which people have a shared identity and want to support each other and see each other is really powerful, I think much more powerful than it was when we were in the room together five years ago.”
Allison Arnold is a freelance writer and avid adventurer who loves hiking, traveling and trying new foods. She loves writing about food and culture on her blog, For the Love of Tacos.