Gaylon Alcaraz, executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund ( CAF ) , grew up in Chicago and graduated from Queen of Peace High School on the far southwest side. Her experiences as a minority African-American student in this all-girls school set her on her path fighting for social justice.
"There were only about 30 Black kids in my class. It was the 1980s and there was still a lot of racism, a lot of isolation, separation. I remember being targeted in certain classes," explained Alcaraz, who credits her family for much of her naturally outspoken spirit.
"The high school environment was very traumatic for me, but it was a powerful learning experience. It wasn't easy, but it made me in a lot of ways. Seeing what is right and what is wrong and not backing down from that and refusing to have my voice stifled."
Alcaraz began as a community organizer, educating low-income renters on HUD regulations and other housing issues. Mother of two ( Nicholas, 21, and Zoe, 16 ) , she has worked with local school councils, neighborhood organizations and numerous youth development initiatives, as well as sexual minority, gender equity, anti-violence and race and culture issues. Is there one issue that stands out for her as being more important than another?
"If a gay person doesn't have healthcare, or a job that provides healthcare, that's economicplus gender, plus LGBT. It is all intertwined," she said. "All the issues hold high importance. When everything is not balanced the way it should be in society, you have a lack of justice. I could leave CAF someday and work in affordable housing because it is all tied together."
For Alcaraz, even the experience of coming out as a lesbian became connected with her activism. "I had left an abusive marriage. I did not get involved with women because of this, but after leaving the relationship I found I was attracted to one of my co-workers," she said.
Nothing romantic ever became of that crush, but it opened Alcaraz's eyes and heart to the possibility of an orientation for which she had no framework or reference point. She went to People Like Us bookstore looking for answers.
"I gathered up books and all the free newspapers," she said. "I found Blacklines [ which was merged with En la Vida to form the online publication Identity ] and read it from front to back. I called every number in the resource section that seemed like it was for Black lesbian women. The only one that called back was Affinity, and that's how I became involved with them. I went to a meeting, scared to deathdrove down from Lincoln Park to 62nd and Indiana. My life was changed from that point." She became a volunteer for the group, writing their newsletter and undertaking a myriad of other duties. Most recently she served as board vice president. "I did not come out in the bars. I came out into activism," she said. Relationships followed.
Alcaraz, 42, returned to college after joining CAF in May 2005. She enrolled in DePaul University's School for New Learning, designing a course of study in organizing marginalized communities. She finished her undergraduate degree two years ago and is now pursuing her master's in applied professional studies/reproductive-justice issues.
"You can come into social justice work early or late," Alcaraz said. "I landed this first executive director position without a degree, but I had a lot of experience, a lot of passion, some skills and I was given a chance." For those wanting to follow a similar path she suggests volunteering, taking classes and networking: "Go to events, meet people, get outside your comfort zone. And follow your passion."
Alcaraz writes about the history and ongoing struggle to protect women's reproductive freedom at chicagoabortionfund.com/ed_report.php.
Alcaraz and 24 other activists were honored Wed., March 24, at the Chicago Foundation for Women 2010 Impact Awards.