This girl is on FIRE

Posted: August 31st, 2018 | Featured, Profiles in Advocacy | No Comments

By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy

In the advocacy and social justice circles, the concept of “intersectionality” is often discussed. By recognizing factors such as gender, race, socioeconomic level, ability and more, we can develop a theoretical sense of where we and others fall, regarding opportunity, prejudice and privilege. There are however, some instances when we are faced with the stark reality of the vulnerability of certain intersections, and that hit home when I spoke with advocate and attorney, Anne Bautista, about her work with women who also fall in the intersection of refugee/immigrant, mother and domestic abuse survivor.

Our interview took place shortly after a beautiful victory, when 35 women graduated from the Fellowship for Immigrant and Refugee Empowerment (FIRE) Women’s Leadership yearlong pilot program, developed at Access Inc. Founded in 1967, the mission of Access is “to address the needs of the most vulnerable and underserved populations in San Diego County by promoting self-sufficiency and economic independence through education and employment opportunities.” The genesis of the organization was to serve youth but, as the need became evident, there was expansion to serve the immigrant population, and support small business development in San Diego.

Bautista became involved with Access in 1997, fresh out of law school. She initially interviewed for a position working with youth but, because of her legal background, was offered a position to assist with naturalizing eligible developmentally challenged individuals. It began as a three-week position and, toward the end of her time, she attended a citizenship workshop at Palomar College, coordinated through Access, Inc. Following the presentation, many of the questions and comments from the women who attended, centered around how spouses had control over the filing process, which trapped wives and mothers into abusive situations. Issues such as this, coupled with language barriers and a fear of deportation, stood between these women and the path to citizenship.

While at first, the challenge stumped the presenters, there was a kernel of hope to be found in the recently passed Violence Against Women Act. Armed with the knowledge of this legislation, Bautista used the last week in her position to research organizations, shelters and even churches, only to find that the factor of abuse victims being undocumented rendered them ineligible for assistance. One of the last organizations she reached out to was Operation Samahan and, while they did not have those specific resources, they offered her a space to counsel undocumented women who were experiencing abuse. Upon her return to Access, former executive director Bob Stewart also discussed the fact that Bautista had identified an unmet need that coincided with the expansion of Access’s mission. They provided her office space and clerical support, and she began the process of procuring grant funding to build a program.

As Bautista worked with women who were experiencing this situation, she recognized a need to start addressing the issue before women became trapped, and that this needed to happen within the actual communities where the women existed. This need led to more grant writing and a partnership with License to Freedom, an organization specifically targeting domestic violence in refugee and immigrant communities, and the creation of FIRE.

Funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and McCarthy Family Foundation, this one-year program brought (U.S.) native born and immigrant and refugee women from the Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Latino communities to meet monthly for one year, and learn how to recognize unhealthy relationships, to become advocates, to write a grant to fund a project to improve their communities, and to use their voice in networking and public speaking. Dilkhwaz Ahmed, executive director of partner agency, License to Freedom, was elated with the outcome.

“The FIRE project was huge success for the Middle Eastern women,” Ahmed said. “They built lifelong sisterhoods with one another and learn ways to become leaders in their communities. Creating female leaders was an immediate need in the community. The women were able to share different perspectives and come together to empower one another in their strengths and struggles. We were able to provide them tools to tackle issues of domestic violence. Since the community is growing dramatically, awareness was an essential need.”

Another exciting outcome of the project was an opportunity for playwright Thelma Virata de Castro to write “The Fire In Me” based on interviews with survivors, family members, advocates, law enforcement and community leaders. “I was inspired every month by the perspectives and stories of my fellow Filipino women advocates,” stated de Castro. “With grant support from California Humanities and The San Diego Foundation, I am writing a play to share this issue with the broader community.”

Bautista is often asked why this became her passion and, while she didn’t see abuse in her home environment, she recalls seeing the way that her own Filipino community turned a blind eye to at-risk women.

“‘She was hit again’ was a phrase I would hear in Tagalog, as a form of gossip,” she recalled. “I remember, as a teenager, hearing that at potlucks with my aunts. Everyone sat down when she came in, and she had a black eye. The aunts took her straight to the bathroom and, with makeup and hair arrangement, do their best to cover it up. I could only look at her, while I could feel my aunt willing me not to say anything with her eyes.

“I couldn’t help myself, and walked over, and asked if she was OK,” Bautista continued. “The woman didn’t answer the question, and instead asked about my college plans. Then her husband came in, towering over her by about two feet, put her in a ‘playful’ headlock and kissed her forehead, and then continued the conversation with me as if nothing was wrong. I couldn’t understand how he could do that, and that our community would let it happen.”

Ian Morton

Now the conversation is happening, and women are becoming empowered not to be bystanders, thanks to partnerships like the one that created “FIRE”. These first 35 graduates will be impacting their respective communities, and de Castro’s play will be presented in the spring of 2019. In the words of Rachel Patten’s “Fight Song”: “I may only have one match, but I can make an explosion” — and that’s what these women are doing!

For more information about Access, Inc. and their work in combating domestic violence, go to

— Ian Morton has been in San Diego for over 20 years, working in the LGBTQ and HIV fields. He is currently a full-time student and works with the San Diego Black LGBTQ Coalition and the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ Youth Conference. Recommendations for individuals and groups to highlight in Profiles in Advocacy may be emails to

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