Cheli Mohamed reflects on inspiring a generation of volunteers at Pride
Hutton Marshall | GSD Assistant Editor
After nearly a year absence, San Diego LGBT Pride is about to get Cheli Mohamed back.
Mohamed left her staff position overseeing Pride’s volunteer and leadership programs in February of 2013, just before what would have been her 20th year with the organization. To honor her many years of service, Pride later named her “Champion of Pride” of last year’s event.
Although she won’t return to her full-time position, Mohamed will train, oversee and empower Information Center volunteers at this year’s Pride Festival in July. That last verb, “empower,” may sound a little out of place when referring to a volunteer coordinator, but it’s not only an integral part of how Mohamed operates, it’s how she views the world.
There’s an activist inside all of us, according to Mohamed. In leading her volunteer programs for Pride and other LGBT organizations, she instills in those that volunteer with her a sense that they can change the world simply by unabashedly being who they are and following what they believe in. Because of this, much to her confusion, volunteers working with Mohamed end up thanking her, rather than the other way around.
She first developed this ideology more than 20 years ago as a UC San Diego student, long before it could boast having the largest LGBT support center in the region. There, she and three other students started the Gay and Lesbian (now, LGBT) Peer Counseling Program under the umbrella of UCSD’s Psychological and Counseling Services. Through this, she began showing fellow LGBT students the power of being open about your sexual orientation.
To Mohamed, being honest about your identity is not only good for personal empowerment, it can fuel social change.
“You don’t have to be anybody but yourself,” Mohamed said. “That’s how true change happens — you allow people to see who you are as an individual, as a family, as a student.”
Not one to shy away from controversy, she even helped to develop a “leather-phobia” workshop to educate students about leather fetish and the culture that surrounds it, visiting dorms on campus with a “leather daddy” to educate and display during their carefully planned two-hour workshop. This was after a lengthy process of proving its educational value to several professors, of course.
The counseling program was just one of the many endeavors done by Mohamed and her UC San Diego comrades. The young, newly open group of students, led by activist Tony Valenzuela, took hate crimes, discrimination and neglect, and waved it in front of the school’s administration. Amid protests, rallies and picketing, Valenzuela and Mohamed formed a yin and yang. While Valenzuela roared in the streets at rallies and protests, Mohamed preferred to get to know people one-on-one, to have the chance to build an understanding and a connection. Valenzuela encouraged this dichotomy.
“[Valenzuela said] ‘I’ll be out on the streets protesting with signs and bullhorns, and there’s going to be a board meeting going on up on the 10th floor,’” Mohamed recalled him telling her. “’They’re going to close the blinds and shut me out and they’re going to turn around and who are they going to find at the table?’”
Being a visible, yet relatable member of the LGBT community is a powerful way to change the world around her, she said, because the LGBT community, making up roughly ten percent of the population, doesn’t have the numbers to change legislation. Mohamed fosters understanding because it takes the entire community, not just the LGBT community, to foster societal changes.
“That’s when [Valenzuela] taught me that activism wasn’t just picketing and carrying signs,” Mohamed said. “Being an activist is being simply who you are and being truthful about that and allowing people to get to know you.”
Last year, after working for Pride, the AIDS Foundation, The LGBT Center and several other prominent LGBT organizations, Mohamed left to take a job, of all places, at the California Police Athletic Federation (CPAF) as its corporate and operations manager.
When asked why, after working so long for LGBT organizations — what appears to be her life’s work — she would leave to work at a place as seemingly un-LGBT as a sports league for police officers and fire fighters. Surprisingly, Mohamed said the organization’s conservative nature was exactly what drew her there.
“Do I make more of an impact working at The Center as a lesbian or in a roomful of policemen and firemen as an open lesbian?” she asked rhetorically. “I’m going to stand out the most there.”
She said the experience at her new job has been overwhelmingly positive so far. When she was named “Champion of Pride” last year, the CPAF was extremely supportive.
“Every single board member, who’s a straight, white older man, emailed me said congratulations we could not be prouder of you representing us,” Mohamed said. “I feel like I’m making such a change.”
Changing the world by being who you are is the philosophy she continues to live in her new role, and now, volunteers will once again have the chance to share in this feeling with her. She didn’t know she would be returning after last year’s departure, but it was, of course, her volunteers who ended up pushing her.
“The most wonderful thing was when I later learned it was a group of volunteers that had submitted my name for consideration [to return as a volunteer coordinator],” Mohamed said. “The lead volunteer sent me a copy of what they had submitted: It was a history of my volunteer service in the community.”
While her inspiring approach to volunteerism is certainly a draw to those who choose to spend their free time working for her, she also has several rules guaranteeing her volunteers are treated with respect: When volunteers show up, that’s when the employees should be there too; Never ask a volunteer to do something you yourself wouldn’t do; Make sure everyone knows the value of what they are doing.
Her approach appears to be very successful, as she’s developed quite a devout group willing to follow her to volunteering ventures all throughout the region.
Case in point, the Facebook page “Volunteer with Cheli” — which just kicked off at the beginning of January — already has a couple hundred “likes.” There, Mohamed simply posts volunteer opportunities and usually a dozen people will take action.
“They trust that I take projects that are fun, where they’ll be taken care of, and that will really impact the community,” Mohamed said.
This year, Mohamed will oversee the Information Center at the San Diego LGBT Pride Festival, which takes place July 18 – 20. Volunteer registration starts on March 10. Those interested can reach Mohamed directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, on her Facebook page “VolunteerwithCheli” or at volunteerwithcheli.org.