Denise Collazo: “Trust your gut”

Trust your gut. When you find yourself trusting ‘experts’ about things that you really know, don’t second guess yourself. Trust your instincts and follow your dream. As a part of our series about Inspirational Women of the Speaking Circuit, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Denise Padin Collazo. Denise Padin Collazo is a social justice […]

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Trust your gut. When you find yourself trusting ‘experts’ about things that you really know, don’t second guess yourself. Trust your instincts and follow your dream.

As a part of our series about Inspirational Women of the Speaking Circuit, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Denise Padin Collazo.

Denise Padin Collazo is a social justice leader, a mentor to fellow women of color, and a family work integration innovator. She is squarely focused on encouraging women of color to lead into their vision, live into their fullest selves, and love past negatives that hold them back. She is a gifted speaker who leaves listeners compelled to take action on how they can act on their purpose. Denise mentors, coaches, and raises funds in collaboration with other women to find the just solutions we so desperately need. By doing this, she models what a woman working with and for women really looks like.

She’s as comfortable speaking with people in their living room or front porch as she is meeting with national political and corporate leaders to advance social change for families. This is a gift she was given by her ancestors.

Denise is the senior advisor for external affairs and director of institutional advancement at Faith in Action (formerly PICO National Network), the nation’s largest faith-based, progressive organizing network, where she has advanced the cause of social justice over the past twenty-five years. As senior advisor she represents Faith in Action with foundation and corporate executives, builds strategic partnerships with organizational executives across the movement for change, and is crafting a national individual membership program to expand Faith in Action to all fifty states.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

When I was a kid, I lived in a trailer park in the rural farming town of Castroville, California — the artichoke capital of the world. During the summer mornings, I’d grab a few quarters from my Dad’s stash. My abuela Lela would watch me while my parents worked. I’d say bye to Lela, slip on some flip flops and ride my bike to the teen center. Once there, I dropped a quarter into the vending machine and out popped a Payday bar. Breakfast was served!

At the trailer park teen center, I listened to music, played pool, ping-pong, and pinball. As the day warmed up, me and my friends swam and played games in the pool.

My parents laid out three rules to follow:

  • Check in with my abuela a few times a day.
  • Stay within the wooden fenced border of the mobile home park. And,
  • Don’t go inside other people’s houses.

This is emblematic of how I was raised. My mom wasn’t around much because she was always working. If I was with my Dad I was tagging along with him at work or watching him play sports on the weekends. My grandma lived with us for several months each year.

As an only child, I learned how to keep myself busy, look out for myself and (mostly) stay out of trouble. Of course, rules are made to be broken. So, while I occasionally broke the three simple rules laid out for me, I was pretty good at covering my tracks.

These days of early childhood freedom zooming down the hill on my bike without a care in the world remind me of how thriving feels.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Fifty years after my Abuela Lela made the gut-wrenching choice to leave her husband and the mountains of Puerto Rico with six kids, I graduated from Harvard University. While she worked days at a garment factory in the Bronx and nights at Bellevue hospital, I wonder if she realized how thoroughly she had transformed our future.

My Dad was born in a tiny house in the mountains of Puerto Rico on April 4th, yet his birth certificate reads April 5th. This is because the town was so tiny, it took a full day for the news to get to the nearest city. My Mom grew up in the area of La Parada 18 1/2 in the city of Santurce, Puerto Rico. When she played outside, the neighborhood prostitutes kept an eye on her. She learned not to stare when she noticed a person sleeping on the sidewalk.

While I was at Harvard, I got to see what real wealth looks like. My classmates had museums on campus named after their families. They took ski trips to places like Switzerland. Many were second- or third-generation Harvard kids who had been given preference for admission due to their family lineage. My fellow undergrads were preparing for work on Wall Street and global leadership in a range of fields. It looked nothing like who I was and where my people came from. On graduation day, I knew I was standing on the tiny shoulders of my Abuela. That day, I was sure my fight was going to be in the streets to demand justice with people like her, my Dad, Mom, and maybe members of your family too.

Since then, I’ve been working to advance the causes of social, economic, racial and political justice.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I learned many of my earliest lessons about fighting for change from Ms. Hannah Watts. She was a freedom fighter and change agent who showed me how to be a leader and share power with others. Ms. Watts had a vision for her community that drove her to fight for housing that was accessible for everyday people, reach out to her neighbors and fight to make the city better.

Ms. Watts envisioned a computer learning center in her community. She and others had identified the location — an old city emergency response center. Now she needed the funds to make it happen. She called her state assemblywoman to request a meeting. The assemblywoman agreed.

As the date got closer, Ms. Hannah had recruited 75 people to come with her to the state capital. I worked with her to help line up all the details. I was caught off guard when I picked up my phone and the blustery Assemblywoman launched into a tirade. There was no way her office could accommodate a meeting of so many people, she insisted. I pushed back, asking how we could tell people that only some people could attend the meeting. When I hung up the phone, I took a deep breath and had a good long cry after receiving that hot blast from a state official.

Ms. Watts brought all 75 people to the state’s capital. Many of her neighbors and friends had never even been to a state capitol building — let alone the large ornate committee room that had been set aside for them by none other than their reluctant Assemblywoman. Needless to say, the learning center received the funding support it needed and served hundreds of youth and senior citizens over the years.

In the end, Ms. Hannah Watts taught me some very important lessons about how power works. She showed me there is room for all of us to participate. Sometimes, you have to push, bring others along with you, and stand your ground.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was just starting out as a community organizer, I was young and didn’t have much money or a car. I would often forget to bring money for lunch. Many days, my boss would end up buying me lunch at the taqueria down the block. Thanks Jim, I still owe you one!

From that I learned to find ways to help emerging leaders. Sometimes, they don’t even know what they need.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

A few years back, I applied to serve as that executive director of our national organization. I didn’t get the job. But the man who did get the job has helped me enter into a phase of intense transformation in my life.

Rev. Alvin Herring invested in me, spent time with me, and was able to see me not just for who I was, but for who I could become. Over the last few years, he has poured so much wisdom, care and love into my life and the life of my family, I will likely never be able to repay him.

By the time he arrived to lead our organization, my face was streaked with tears, dirt and sweat. I had fought many battles. Some of them vital, others, not so much. He encouraged me to take sabbatical and rest from all the years of fight. He cheered me on as wrote the book that was growing in my heart. He taught me how to drop my guard and show more of myself to others. He modeled power and vulnerability.

The most important gift he gave me was insisting that I spend more time in Puerto Rico, my family’s homeland. In fact, in part due to his support, I have made the choice to return home to Puerto Rico and reclaim some of what was lost when my family left.

He is showing me how to truly see myself and see others as well. This is a gift that is already resulting in seismic shifts in my path forward.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Failure is an integral part of success. No-one plans to fail, but when you do fail, It’s not always pretty. I started to get more comfortable with failing after reading a great book by Sarah Lewis called “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery.” In it, Dr. Lewis narrates stories of many supremely talented artists who thought they were complete failures…people like Franz Kafka who compelled his closest friend to promise to burn all his writing once he died, or Alvin Ailey whose approach to dance was initially panned by critics. The characteristic that differentiated these artists was their ability to stick with their craft, for the love of the craft, not for critical acclaim. The famous writer Toni Morrison once said,

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.

Don’t make money your goal.

Instead, pursue the things you love doing,

And then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.

My advice? Follow your dreams and do the things that make you come alive.

What drives you to get up everyday and give your talks? What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?

We are meant to thrive.

When Latinas and all women of color thrive, everyone thrives.

Yet, so often, immeasurable talent goes untapped. I love encouraging Black and Brown women to lead into their vision, live into their fullest selves, and love past the negatives that hold them back. These are the 3 keys to thriving in the fight that I lay out in my upcoming book Thriving in the Fight: A Survival Manual for Latinas on the Front Lines of Change.

For example, my cousin Rosana used to work for Burger King corporation in their Human Resources (HR) department. Today, she is the owner of Up Restaurant and Bar. Rosana’s story is a great example of a Latina who dreamed of owning a restaurant and she made it happen. She took courses to become a chef, she found a location, and when I look at Rosana running her amazing business, I think about how Burger King had her holed up in an HR cubicle. They had no interest in unlocking her imagination. Rosana stuck to her purpose and built a bustling restaurant that has survived hurricanes, earthquakes and even COVID-19. That’s what happens when women lead into their vision, live into their fullest selves and love past negatives that hold them back.

Can you share with our readers a few of your most important tips about how to be an effective and empowering speaker? Can you please share some examples or stories?

People remember stories. They don’t remember facts and figures. But they can remember and retell a good story years after hearing it. Find ways to communicate your message by integrating powerful stories to communicate your business message.

People resonate when you share your own vulnerability. Nobody likes a bragger and authenticity is irresistible. When you talk about your success, people have trouble relating to you. But when you talk about your failures, and how you turned them around, people can better see themselves in you. Dave Chappelle says this, “You’ve gotta reveal people to themselves by exposing yourself with your art.”

People want to be engaged. No one likes to be talked at. People want to be spoken with. I usually try to find time anytime I speak to engage the audience, to give them a chance to discuss in small groups their experience with the ideas I’m sharing. I think people remember things better when they engage the content in multiple ways — hearing, seeing, talking and reflecting. I like to invite audiences to be part of the conversation with me.

As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?

There was a moment in my life when I had become very afraid of speaking in public. I was terrified of being judged or of saying the wrong thing. My colleague Bishop Dwayne Royster who preaches every Sunday and runs a radio show laughed, “Denise, I say the wrong thing all the time.” He encouraged me to worry less about the words and more about the meaning. His encouragement has helped stare down the fear.

I made a decision to become a better communicator by joining a local Toastmasters Club. At Toastmasters I learned that the biggest antidote for fear of public speaking is preparation, practice and a healthy feedback loop. Before I gave my first speech, I wrote it out using a simple opening, body and close format. I made an outline of my key points, practiced in front of others, and recorded myself giving on my iPad ten times. By the time I delivered it, it was pretty good. I felt energized, because they gave me a standing ovation. (I didn’t know they gave every first-timer a standing ovation, but hey!) That was a confidence boost. As I practiced giving more speeches and getting feedback from my peers, I’ve improved. Sometimes, though, fear rears its head in the form of a dry mouth or shaky hands, but for the most part, when I feel prepared, I communicate much more comfortably than I did before.

I have also found that writing and speaking complement one another. When I write something, it solidifies in my brain more than if I just say it. When I give a speech, it can easily be turned into an article or blog post. It has become a virtuous circle for me.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

#1 Lead into your vision. When you have an idea in your head about a preferred future, don’t give up on it. Pursue it.

#2 Live into your fullest self. I have a refrigerator magnet that says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Define yourself as you stretch past your comfort zones.

#3 Love past the negatives that hold you back. If you have been taught messages that hold you back, work to push past them. As Latinas and serve from behind the scenes with no expectation of recognition or reward. Put your head down and do the work. That’s not the path to liberation.

#4 Trust your gut. When you find yourself trusting ‘experts’ about things that you really know, don’t second guess yourself. Trust your instincts and follow your dream.

#5 Be yourself. Because authenticity is irresistible.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

I am having the most fun talking to Latinas and all women of color about the ideas in my book. That is the most interesting thing I have the privilege of doing right now. Whether I speak with scientists, artists, community activists, or religious leaders, women face many of the same challenges across industries. It’s interesting to see the resonance and shared experience in both corporate and non-profit or government spaces. We have set a goal of generating enough pre-orders of the book by February 23, 2021 that the book lands on the NYT bestseller list. This year will be about sharing the message of the book. All net proceeds for the book will be donated to a fund for Latina change agents that is administered by Latina change agents.

At a point in my career when I was feeling my most invisible, I set a 5-year goal. The goal was, “I want to be an established thought leader in this country by October 31, 2022.” I chose that date because it was the date I attended a Thought Leadership Training with Gabrielle Dolan, a global storytelling genius. I was there at the event with another friend Ronda Glover. Ronda is a retired Special Agent for the FBI. She told a great story about how she had marshalled the Halloween Parade in Washington, DC and the only way she was able to do it was to dress up as the invisible man. To me it was so poignant to think of how, 5 years from now, I’d no longer feel like the invisible woman, and that the ideas and experience I had developed over a quarter century of focus on the field of social change could help other people thrive.

I think I may have a couple more books in me. I’ve relocated to Puerto Rico which has been life-giving. I lead national external affairs for the organization where I work.

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

I do all of my external work on Monday through Thursday and I focus Fridays on my own creativity and development. This has been life-giving to take one day to hop off the merry go round of emails, meetings and phone calls.

For the last 5 years or so, I have gotten a massage once a month. This is part of my wellness routine and I look forward to the deep relaxation that comes with a full body massage.

I love to spend time on my bike or walking. Lately, I’ve stopped listening to music when I walk or ride. That way, I literally have nothing ‘incoming.’ Having time on a daily basis to allow my mind to wander is great for the soul. We have so much information coming at us all the time, it’s nice to have a space where the thing coming at you is a butterfly or an ocean wave.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do that. Because the world needs people who have come alive.” Dr. Howard Thurman.

This quote has been relevant to me at key decision-points in my life. I am best when I am thriving, when I am showing up as the fullest, baddest, most brilliant version of me. It’s a lot easier to do that when you are doing something that is deeply aligned with your purpose and mission.

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

That Black and Brown women would lead on the world level. It’s no coincidence that countries that were led by women had lower COVID-19 than countries run by men. Women of color are the bones that hold the flesh of our communities together. Our neighborhoods, families, congregations, organizations, businesses are held up by the work of women of color. If we were to center the leadership of Black and Brown women at all levels, and create space for them to lead in their own way, our world would be a much better place.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She is the most powerful Puerto Rican woman alive right now. And, she was humble enough to talk in her memoir “My Beloved Self” about how her friend teased her about wearing “granny panties.” If she can be that much of a badass and be so humble and vulnerable, so can I.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

Yes. My web address is

Linkedin: DeniseCollazo

IG: DenisePadinCollazo

YouTube: Denise Collazo

Twitter: @FIADenise

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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