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October 13, 2021

Movement Maker Profiles: Kalayo Pestaño

Kalayo is Co-Director at API Chaya supporting the self-determination, safety and wellness of survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking. API Chaya builds power by mobilizing Asian Pacific Islander and immigrant communities to end abuse and exploitation, creating a world where all people can heal and thrive.

Who are your people?

I love this question and I love how it can be so constant and yet also shift over time. My people are from the islands, from the Philippines, and everywhere in the diaspora. We are connected to the land and the sea and the moon and stars and have a deep relationship to all the elements around us. I’d say that my people are also workers everywhere in the world carrying labor, doing a lot of different types of work that are very much undervalued, but I think it really makes this world go around, really makes this world a better place for everyone.

I think we really take care of each other and everyone else around us and come from a generosity of spirit that I feel really, really proud of. My people are also trans and queer and non-binary, Black, Indigenous people of color who are surviving. At times, also thriving here on Duwamish Land in the Pacific Northwest and creating a place for us in a place that has felt very unwelcome, creating a home for us and our families and the ways that we define family and also creating our own means of owning our own labor. Making sure that all of us have the things that we need to feel cared for as we grow in our community and grow older.

What brings you to this work?

I think a lot about lineage. My mother and my grandmother are very much women who just did what they had to do to bring their children into a better situation. Whatever they had access to, they were able to really bring more of that for their people. Also the lineage of survivors in this work, I think there’s been a lot of interpersonal domestic violence in my family. There’s been a lot of sexual violence.

I have such an affinity as a survivor of child sexual abuse around bringing to the surface what society and our families have kept hidden. Being able to surface these things is so critical to our healing. Critical to our survival. I want to make sure that our people have opportunities to really thrive, to be our full selves, and to face our humanity. All of the ways that we’ve been dehumanized by colonization and the different forces that continue to be oppressive in our lives.

We’ve also been part of violence towards each other, towards our own people. I think it requires facing that for us to be able to truly create something new, a world that can hold a space for all of us.

What aspect of your movement work brings you the most joy?

Definitely food as the first thing! I work for API CHAYA, an API immigrant and refugee organization, and we are like, “Everyone must be fed.” It’s very serious, but it’s also so much joy. There’s so much just that we are able to share about ourselves, about our own family and culture when we bring food together and there’s so much love that goes around and stories and all of that. I think that’s central and that has been true for all of my organizing work too, that the movement has fed me in so many ways and that in turn, I like to be able to offer some nourishment to the movement and to everyone around me.

I also feel a lot of joy through being surrounded by music and art and sharing your stories in that way and creating our own meaning and our own exchanges. Whether that’s just sharing our favorite songs at the moment, or it’s actually making music together. I love being able to communicate in different ways and to show each other love in that way.

What moves are you making to end violence?

I really want to move survivors into meaningful and supported leadership. There’s so much to learn from the ways that survivors have really been the core of this movement. There’s so much wisdom from the ways that we have learned to survive. So much wisdom in vulnerability, in our mistakes and in the hardships of the decisions that we have to make. Bringing our story behind what we do and also the type of connection and intimacy we have with each other.

As we’re talking more about leadership, we’re talking more about what it means to be in crisis and survivors know about crisis. We’ve lived through crisis all our lives or most of our lives and yet that hasn’t defined us. It doesn’t define what is possible in our joy and our abundance. I think that really moving survivors into the center of these conversations, of the way in which we both can wield power and yield power.

It’s so important, our relationship with power, it’s so dynamic. It can be problematic. It’s just very complex. I think survivors understand power and you can really dig deep into that. I also think that there’s something about being non-binary or trans and the way that just brings a different quality of what it means to explore yourself and all of our glory and multitudes. And also being able to hold complexities in how we show up and how other people perceive us, and in all of the future ways that we hold gender that also existed in the past. Bringing that kind of expansiveness into the future creates so much more for our people.

How would you describe your leadership strengths?

I talked a lot about what it means to be in community, in this really intimate space with survivors that I work with and that I’ve been in community with that I feel accountable to, in this work. I think the ability to be vulnerable to admit when you’re wrong, to learn from mistakes, and also not be afraid to fuck up. Just to try. So much of movement building, especially thinking about what we’re creating with abolition. It’s just like, “We just got to try things and see what happens.”

There’s so much pressure in leadership and even more so when you hold different identities where having to be perfect or everything that your people need is so intense. It really keeps us from just trying different things and figuring out if that works and being humble enough to be like, “That didn’t really work. Let’s try something else.” I want to lean into that more as a leader.

My co-director and I came into a co-directorship just in the last few months. Part of why we were compelled to do it felt like– the types of relationships we have with each other and with the people who have been working there is what is needed right now. It wasn’t for some grand leader who has all the skills to come in and be like, “I know what to do.” It’s what we know we can work well together and we know that we care deeply about this organization and the communities we serve, and we know we can be accountable with just whatever might come up. That felt important and what was needed in this moment.

I hope to be the kind of leader that people feel they can just talk to. Someone was like, “I know you might not know Kalayo, they’re someone who I’ve worked with for a long time, and they are actually very approachable and you just talk to them.” I was like, “Okay, I like that.” I really hope that that’s what I’m offering into the space.

What keeps you in the work?

I think it’s really getting to know myself, getting to understand my own motivations, which I think have really shifted over time. I like the ways that I’m growing in this work and this movement. This is so hard. It’s so hard to be a co-director. It’s challenging in a way that is really pushing me to grow. That keeps me going in those moments where I’m like, “Why did I sign up for this?” It’s really important to be able to admit that, to be able to own that too. There’s so many ways that I carry my people into this work.

We also have to be doing this work for us and there has to be aspects of it that’s also keeping us going because we enjoy parts of it, hopefully. Because we’re being nourished in the ways that we need to be as humans and that we feel supported and seen in this work. I think that is happening and it’s keeping me going.

I feel cautious about the other side of that, where all of the things that’s fucked up are keeping me going (or makes me feel like I can’t not keep going), because I feel like that can last forever. It’s hard when that’s the fuel and that’s definitely been true for me in many cycles where I’m like, “I just gotta keep going because this shit is not going to stop,” which is true, it’s absolutely true. But it is even more critical that I am tuned into what is feeding me in this work.

Art by lizar_tistry