I get the question "How do you do it?" all the time. I never have a clear answer because you've been asking me the wrong thing. You've never asked me "Why do you do it?"
A huge driving force for most of my adult decisions in life have been slightly informed by this tiny guardian angel named Angelina. Angelina was a real person, in fact, she was a force that I met in college. We never had classes together but we were recruited to the same student government group, the first ever UC Davis legislative Gender & Sexuality Commission (GASC). Like many of my life experiences, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was there to learn how to be an ally for a family member who had not yet come out of the closet in 2002. We were responsible for reviewing relevant legislation, creating awareness campaigns and events with focus on LGBT education, sexual assault and public health on campus.
I was jealous of Angelina at first. While was just starting volunteer jobs at the radio station and at the library, Ang was already drumming in the marching band, driving the school busses, interning at the LGBT center and being an all around ball of joy. In addition to all of that, she was not competitive but exclusively welcoming--it drove me insane.
Here are few moments and lessons that brought us closer together:
- While organizing an event, she complained to me that no one acknowledged her emails. It was the very first lesson in "productivity" that I learned. Acknowledge action items in emails, even if they aren't done yet.
- Learn when to step up for what you believe in and when to step down to let others speak. Even if we were outnumbered in a room full of fervent Davis College Republicans, she'd encourage us to step down after we've said our piece. I've grown much respect for many of the leaders I met at that time because we were able to have mature conversations.
- Accept the responsibility AND the possibility to create change, even if you are one person. I used to feel powerless when it came to impacting things at the national level. But when one of our resolutions was read by the state capitol and I got a letter back from Barbara Boxer, I was elated and felt unstoppable.
- I remember being nominated for an award with a few confused friends. We found out that Angelina had nominated all of us for our teamwork on a campus project. It's super important to recognize great people and great work. Lift them up and let others know why.
I have such a vivid memory of graduation week. A few of use chuckled at the senior awards ceremony because Angelina was probably the one that nominated us again. No one noticed her empty chair until they shined a spotlight to recognize her as an assistant to the Chancellor. I texted her and thought to myself, "Oh, she's probably running around the chancellor's office...running a little late."
It was a time of passing torches, responsibilities onto the next set of enthusiastic classmen. We were beginning a radio station meeting when my friend Steven took me aside, "Do you want to have a cigarette?" I looked at him funny because I wasn't a smoker. We stepped out discreetly to his front porch and he told me that Angelina had passed away that morning in a car accident. The feelings were very real and guttural. I crumpled to the ground, "How unfair! Why her! Why not me? Why not me?" I put it together in my head. She wasn't at the ceremony and she wasn't answering my texts. She was gone.
I didn't feel worthy. For all the good she was to do in the world, I felt a huge responsibility to try. To try and give a fraction of what she would have given. She was one very powerful individual and she made national impact when it came to moving and motivating people. During the memorial services, a piece of her writing was shared with all of us:
I went on an adventure this summer, to Washington, D.C., where the grown-ups and politicians play. I was chosen as an organizing fellow for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and I was going to make the most of my experience. I remembered to pack my positive attitude, my smile, my camera, and my bottom line to facilitate growth and change in myself and others."
"Within the first week on the job, I was sent to New York City to take part in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Celebrations. As I marched down the historic streets, hundreds of thousands of strangers smiled back at me as I offered them hope for equality. I handed out stickers to willing strangers, urging them to “Create Change.” Then, in the middle of my jaunt down 5th Avenue, my co-workers started shouting for me. “Hey Angelina, somebody in the crowd is asking for you.” Me? I don’t know anybody in New York City! I have never even left California! Excitedly, I raced around to the opposite side of the parade, and sure enough I found a familiar face in the sea of my beautiful community. I saw my mentor, the student leader who embraced me and showed me how to rise up on campus three years ago. The student who taught me how important it is to fight for gender, sexual, racial, ethnic, class, religious, and any and all other forms of freedom and equality. In that moment, I realized that his guidance is what eventually led me to the New York City Pride Parade on this random day in June. He had influenced me to take risks like going to Washington, D.C., or even to become the Student Assistant to the Chancellor. And here we were, together, experiencing the progress of the community, our lives, and our connection."
"Experiences like these are genuine and reaffirming. They remind me that we are all connected. I believe we all have the capacity to impact each other. Just like the stickers I distributed at the parade, as individuals we must accept the responsibility and the POSSIBILITY to create change. Then, as a community, as UC Davis, as students, the impact is far-reaching and tangible. Join me in believing in the power of your impact as a mentor and a teacher and an individual in this world."
And so, now you know why I give generously, act selflessly and believe genuinely. It never matters how I get something done. It gets done. I miss Angelina but my tribute to her is in my work, my faith in humanity and belief that I, too, can change the world.