Sometimes she notices people looking at her funny for speaking Spanish. Sometimes people expect her to take care of all the Spanish-speaking customers.

For people of color, moving through workplaces and community groups dominated by White men can be an exhausting maze of contradictions, discrimination and microaggressions.

But when Dzoara Ruiz walks into the Ascending Leaders in Color circle meeting, she feels comfortable, speaks like herself, and isn’t shy to celebrate wins. She sees other people of color in leadership positions and feels like she can get there, too.

Being part of the group “just makes me feel proud,” she says. “It makes me want to carry pride in my roots, in my culture and my identity.” 

What’s different about these new Ascending Leaders in Color groups in Tucson is that they’re only for people of color — a place to talk about leadership and career growth that’s not White dominant.

Founder Frank Velásquez Jr. says he’s building the spaces he’s wished he had in his own journey to leadership. He and other advocates in the group say people of color need reprieve from being objectified, tokenized or marginalized. If they can establish that sense of safety it will lead to more integration.

Nolan Cabrera, a University of Arizona professor and the author of White Guys on Campus: Racism, White Immunity, and the Myth of “Post-Racial” Higher Education, says there’s this idea that separate groups could foster more racial separation and antagonism — and actually the opposite is true.

When people are able to get a stronger sense of self, racially, it actually encourages them to work across racial lines, he says. If people of color can have their own space, they’ll create greater inclusion in the larger picture, he says.

If the idea sounds jarring to White people, who might feel like they’re being excluded from participation, Cabrera says that’s likely because they don’t see how exclusionary most spaces can be to people of color. He encourages White people to practice empathy and think about what the experiences of people of color might be like.

The first two Ascending Leaders in Color cohorts started in May and were supported by scholarships from Community Investment Corp. and the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. Discussions have focused on the cost of code-switching and assimilation, and the bias in the idea of professionalism.

The next cohorts are forming next month, and a circle for White allies to talk about anti-racism work is on its way. Learn how to sign up or sponsor a leader.

Velásquez says the end goal is learning to “navigate these spaces while being as close to our authentic selves as we can, knowing we have to start somewhere for change.”

Frank Velásquez Jr.
Frank Velásquez Jr., founder of 4 Da Hood and the Ascending Leaders in Color programs Credit: Becky Pallack

Community focus

If Velásquez had a walk-up song, it would be “My Hood,” by Young Jeezy.

“Every time I do it, I do it for da hood” — the lyrics ringing in Velásquez’s head.

He named his group leadership coaching business 4 Da Hood, and he takes that mindset with him every time he steps up for the Latino community in Tucson.

Velásquez grew up in Tucson and “created a trajectory of working with different people from different backgrounds” when he worked at Disney World in Florida and major casinos in Las Vegas.

After landing back in Tucson, he joined Pima Community College, leading a scholarship program called Adelante, an education experiment in performance-based pay for young Latino men to finish college.

He created platicas, talking circles that were a protected space for the students to discuss their challenges. He says he knew all of the students’ names and something about them. He heard their self doubt and their fear of failure, and also saw them mentoring each other as peers.

“Once I got connected to Pima Community College, I really started feeling connected to my community for the first time in my life,” Velásquez said.

Then he became a CEO at a local nonprofit, leading a workforce development organization. He says he felt a change in himself.

As a first-time CEO and emerging leader, he was moving through a lot of White spaces and he didn’t always feel like his authentic self. 

“In the moment, I couldn’t name it,” he recalls. 

He found himself in a lot of meetings where people were talking about workforce development, and he felt he was advocating for the community, but the community was missing from the conversation.

He would look at the makeup of the room and notice it was a lot of older, White men. After this quick scan, he would have to decide how much of his opinions and knowledge he would share. It was hard to navigate, he says. 

“I wish I had a group of leaders — proactively — that I knew could help me navigate through all of these White, male dominant spaces,” he says.

A handwritten poster reads: Circle Agreements. Listen from the heart. Speak from the heart. Trust the process. Say just enough. Accountability. Share how you centered joy. Share gratitudes. Giving space for hard convos. Confidentiality. Ask for clarity (don't assume). Agree to disagree. Be respectful. Silence is OK. It's OK to be OK.
Circle members came up with their own group guidelines, including “listen from the heart and speak from the heart.” Credit: Becky Pallack

During the height of the pandemic, Velásquez moved on to working with several local nonprofit organizations, including Boys to Men Tucson, which uses the restorative circle model that he’s now bringing to Ascending Leaders in Color groups.

Coming into the nonprofit world and learning about fundraising, Velásquez would go to conferences and see that they were predominantly White crowds.

The typical White family has five times the wealth of the typical Latino family, according to research by the Federal Reserve System. The disparity in wealth is concerning for him not only in its own right, but because that wealth leads to racially unequal decision making power.

Even while navigating these racially unequal spaces, the side conversations he was sparking with the other people of color “were rich,” he says. “They were unfiltered, we could talk freely amongst one another — without White folks saying, ‘I think you’re saying that a little bit wrong,’” and making other microaggressions. 

“I was beginning to create the spaces I needed,” Velásquez says.

Extra burdens

The first thing Cabrera says people need to recognize is that the experiences and needs of BIPOC people in virtually any space tend to be unique relative to their White peers..

“There are times where you just need to have affinity space” — groups that have something in common, like race or ethnicity — “to work through the specific issues and also have cultural validation in the process,” Cabrera says. Those issues can range from simply being heard to who should be a leader.

Being the only person of color in the room can lead to extra responsibility. And the higher up the org chart you go, the more likely you are to be the only one, he says.

Such burdens can be especially straining in situations where you have to think about “whether to rock the boat and be seen as The Angry Brown Man and potentially lose opportunities, or am I going to go with the flow and hate myself later on,” he says.

Everyone needs space to process, strategize, vent, and get toxic situations out of your system, he says. It’s important for people of color to have role models who look like them along their career paths.

Credit: Michael McKisson

“I get it.”

For Dzoara Ruiz, one of the first participants in Ascending Leaders in Color, the program has helped her confront cultural traumas, challenge the status quo, and feel more enabled in White spaces.

Ruiz is already a community leader, although she hasn’t always seen herself that way. As a program support associate at the Community Investment Corp., she works with families who are looking for resources for education and home ownership. During the pandemic, she helped people navigate eviction prevention and get help paying their bills.

She learned about Ascending Leaders in Color from her boss, who encouraged staff members to join.

She was drawn to the name of the group.

“It symbolized the potential of diverse leaders rising to prominence,” Ruiz says.

Before, when she would picture a leader in her mind, she says it was “a White man in a suit and tie, or like the little Monopoly guy.”

The name of the leadership group gave her a different kind of picture: Black and Brown people coming together and celebrating culture, heritage, roots, brotherhood and sisterhood.

In previous workplaces, “there’s definitely been times when there’s been a lot of microaggressions, mansplaining, or you just don’t feel like yourself,” she says.

In the first few group meetings, her group talked about topics like professionalism and assimilation.

“During one of those conversations I realized unconsciously, unwittingly, I was hindering my own career advancement” by trying to change who she was for people who didn’t understand her.

“White people try to make up excuses for the way you feel, or they say they didn’t mean it like that, or they try to justify themselves and they feel pity or the need to apologize,” she said. But when she explains an experience in her Ascending Leaders in Color circle, she says the reactions sound more like “I get it, that happened to me too.”

Five people sit in a circle around a table at an Ascending Leaders in Color meeting.
Frank Velásquez Jr. (center, gray shirt) listens as a member of an Ascending Leaders in Color circle tells a story. Each meeting begins with sharing a meal. Credit: Becky Pallack

Protected spaces

Velásquez encourages Ascending Leaders in Color groups to end every conversation with joy, Ruiz says, making sure participants are “getting the good out of these conversations.”

Velásquez had been inspired by a Kelsey Blackwell essay titled “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People.” In it, Blackwell writes, “In these spaces, we can share stories about the discrimination we’ve faced, and find understanding and support. We can define ourselves on our own terms.”

Now Velásquez is watching Ruiz and the others on their own journey. He listens to them talk about what ideas resonate with them, what inspires, how they want to define themselves, and how they can find solutions together.

“They all have brought their full selves to the conversation, and whatever journey they’re on, I feel like it’s been expedited by the other people in the room,” Velásquez says. “You just give them a protected space and away they go.”

“We’re out there to support one another, grow with one another and really make an impact in our community,” he adds. 

Velásquez told Ruiz she’s going places and that made her feel strong, badass, empowered, she says.

“I’m not the only one who sees it now,” she says. “My energy radiates.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article misspelled the business name of 4 Da Hood. 4 Da Hood is the accurate spelling.


Visuals: Michael McKisson Editor: John Washington

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Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.