By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Thirty-five Augusts ago, a 4-year-old girl and her family fled martial law, oppression, and violence in the Philippines and set foot in Seattle to start a new life. That little girl has grown up to be a driving force behind API Chaya, the Seattle-based nonprofit that supports survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking. On Sept. 22, Joanne Alcantara stepped down from her role as executive director (ED) to nurture herself and her family.
“My mom, Floricita Siong, is Chinese and my father, Demetrio Alcantara, is Filipino. Both were born in the Philippines. As a young family with four children, the rise of violence made them feel unsafe in their homeland,” Alcantara said. “My mom witnessed the horrific murder of someone she cared about and started to have anxiety and PTSD symptoms. She wanted to leave the country,” she said.
Since many of Alcantara’s mother’s siblings were already in the United States, and her father had filed a visa application even before he got married, he was at the top of the list and the family was safely able to immigrate to Seattle.
“The first week, we stayed with my great aunt, who passed away this month at 99 and two days,” Alcantara recalls. Her great aunt took the family in, cared for them, and was the fiercely independent strong female elder that was a touchstone for her.
As with most new immigrant families, Alcantara’s parents were protective of their children and built an intimate network of friends and family.
“They tried to raise us with the cultural values and norms they were raised with, and like most younger generations, we added the American flavor,” she said.
Growing up, Alcantara noticed the gender dynamics that were a part of the cultural values her parents instilled in them. “The girls did more of the household chores and were expected to be home as teenagers,” she said. “As a young woman growing up in the U.S., I noticed these trends in my family, thought about them, and wanted to do something different.”
Alcantara left for the East Coast and studied Women’s Studies at Wesleyan University and also discovered who she wanted to become as an adult.
“Every year I was away, I missed home much more. By the time I graduated, I was ready to come back to Seattle,” Alcantara said.
On returning, Alcantara found an AmeriCorps volunteer year appealing.
“One of the openings was with the API Women and Family Safety Center,” Alcantara said. “I applied for the job, spent some time volunteering with them, and fell in love with it.”
Norma Timbang was the ED when Alcantara joined.
“She has been a career-long mentor and someone I deeply admire and respect,” Alcantara said. She recalls how Timbang brought her into the agency in a way that centered on anti-oppression and not just working to end domestic violence, sexual violence, and human trafficking. “It was about promoting social change in our communities. Her leadership has touched the agency since its founding,” she said.
In 2003, Alcantara worked with the youth and queer network programs on violence prevention with an anti-oppression lens.
“It was rewarding but after some time, I found the work overwhelming, so I took a break to explore other career paths,” she said. She focused on prioritizing grassroots work within the Filipino communities at GABRIELA Seattle.
Absence seems to make Alcantara’s heart grow fonder, and just as she came back to the West Coast, she returned to the agency in 2016. This time, at the helm.
“Every year, experiencing life changes us, but being a queer woman of color ED has been life changing,” she said. “It was my dream job. It’s still the only place I would ever want to be an ED I’m leaving it with a lot of love and choosing to take some time to rest.”
It must have been a difficult decision to make, especially because worldwide, domestic violence is seen as a second pandemic. Spring 2020 saw an increase in child sex abuse when, for the first time, the national sexual assault hotline received more calls from minors than from adults. People being isolated in their homes is leading to more family violence, making API Chaya’s work even more relevant.
“We want to make sure people are looking out for one another, checking up on young people and those in difficult relationships, and just providing support and care,” Alcantara said. API Chaya has also been advocating for ‘WiFi for All’ to make it easier for people to access help.
However, Alcantara feels good to be stepping away, because of how API Chaya has transformed over the last four years.
“It has been about centering care for our staff, clients, and extended communities. We talk a lot about what it means to develop a care network for our clients who are isolated and experiencing violence and within our staff,” Alcantara said, adding that as a leader in that work, she identifies as a survivor, too.
“When I started this job, my goal was to stay for 10 years and I managed four,” Alcantara laughed. She calls to attention the quote by civil and women’s rights’ activist, writer, and poet Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
During her four-year tenure, Alcantara has helped triple API Chaya’s budget to almost $3.5 million and doubled the team to 33.
“Having that many people depend on you, on top of your network of clients, is a deep joy and a gift, but also brings a heaviness to it,” she said. “The world we are in right now is so divisive with so many deep crises. It’s going to become normal for leaders of my generation to have benchmarks in their career and continue to pass on leadership.” Alcantara continued, “I see this as a time to reflect and practice that and not work myself to dust. It’s just to embody and understand we all deserve rest.” She points out that with so many leaders in the movement, it is possible to rest and trust that other leaders will emerge, take the helm, and do good work to ensure the success of the agency so resources for survivors continue.
“It doesn’t have to depend on one person or one small group of people. We are all in it together,” she said. “I think it is about deeply loving our communities so much that we want to be whole enough to do the work well.”
Looking back on her role at API Chaya, the thing Alcantara is most proud of is developing increased resources for survivor leadership, including advocating for living wages for the staff, a majority of whom are survivors of violence.
“We have clients who experience violence and over time build a relationship with the agency. They move from the crisis experience to one of deep connection and care, and from there, they enter a place where they want to make a difference for other survivors,” Alcantara said.
She mentions a current intern, who is a human trafficking survivor. “She has gone through our program and our leadership group, and now she is doing this internship because she wants to have advocacy skills to support other trafficking survivors in the future,” Alcantara said. “It is beautiful to have that pathway from surviving to healing and then working to change the community.”
Though she is parting from the organization, Alcantara still nurtures a long-term dream for the agency and the nonprofit community—to be self-sustaining. “We have a lot of amazing government contracts that fund our work, and we want to do the good work being asked of our nonprofit communities,” she said. However, Alcantara also wants to have room and creativity to do the work communities are calling on nonprofits for.
“API Chaya has been able to build a financial model with a mix of government funding, individual donors, and foundational support, but in the future, I hope we can build out enough financial space so we can immediately respond with innovative programming our communities are asking for without having to worry where that funding is going to come from,” Alcantara said.
The way she sees being able to do that in the future is by relying more on API Chaya as a speaker’s bureau. “The agency is 25 years old now. There is so much brilliance and leadership in the past and present staff, board, and folks who have volunteered or interned with the agency,” Alcantara said.
“Being able to gather that strength to give presentations and go out and talk about domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking, and oppression can create a different revenue stream for the agency and mean more unrestricted dollars,” Alcantara said.
Aside from the power these people will bring, Alcantara feels this move might help corporations, businesses, and government entities that feel the need for more than anti-harassment training.
After Alcantara’s departure, two people will fill her shoes—Sarah Tran as interim executive director and Norma Timbang as interim program director. The board, alongside them, will work on ensuring long-term successive leadership at the agency with an announcement to the community expected in November or December.
Alcantara will continue to stay connected to API Chaya as a volunteer and will help support the annual gala to be held in April next year. “That is a gift I want to continue to give,” she said.
As for her, Alcantara is all set to live the simple life. Her wife, Boo Torres, and she own and run Tribal Electric LLC, a queer-women-of-color owned and operated electrical contracting company.
“My short-term plan has been to be with my 5-year-old as she transitions to Kindergarten and be able to pick her up on time. She has been in day care for all the time that I have been ED Her life was going to be changing and I didn’t want to miss that. I wanted to be in that change with her,” Alcantara said.
The pandemic has meant they have had to redirect and are planning to homeschool their kids now. I have a 5-year-old, a 4-year-old, and an infant at home. I also have two older daughters who have young ones of their own. My grandson will be joining our homeschool, too,” Alcantara said, acknowledging how difficult it is to be a working parent now.
“This year is going to be about weathering this particular storm and providing good care for the kids. We have friends and family that are looking to us for support,” Alcantara said. “We are going to try to provide support to our network and make sure folks feel well held in this year,” she said.
“Our plan is to lead a simple life, take great care of the kids, and be outside as much as the environment allows us to and see life from their perspective for a while.”
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.