Denise Collazo: “Writing the book is just the first of many steps”

Writing the book is just the first of many steps. Once you tackle the monumental challenge of turning in the manuscript, that’s when the real work begins. You’ve got your message and ideas down on paper, now you have to get them out into the world. As part of my interview series on the five things […]

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Writing the book is just the first of many steps. Once you tackle the monumental challenge of turning in the manuscript, that’s when the real work begins. You’ve got your message and ideas down on paper, now you have to get them out into the world.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Padín Collazo. Denise is a leader in social justice, a mentor to fellow women of color and a family work integrator. She serves as Senior Advisor for External Affairs at Faith in Action National Network. Her book Thriving in the Fight: A Survival Manual for Latinas on the Front Lines of Change launches on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 and is available now for preorder.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

When I graduated from Harvard College, I knew my fight would be in the streets for social, racial, economic and political justice with people like my Abuelita Goyita, my Abuelita Lela and so many others in my family and in yours. The red brick, white towering spires, and frozen winters were not made with me in mind. I grew up in a mobile home park in Castroville, California — the artichoke capital of the world. And my family comes from deep poverty. My Abuelita Goyita worked on the Miranda farm in the mountains of Puerto Rico. When her husband died, she was pushed off the land and left homeless and destitute with 6 daughters to raise during the First World War. Because of these incredible women and the legacy they left me, I have had the privilege of working with the women and men in communities who will never stop being leaders. Writing a book to honor their contribution, share my experiences, and hopefully energize emerging change agents seemed like an important thing to do.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I was the first woman and the first woman of color to be a community organizer at Faith in Action national network to raise a family and stay in the work of activism. Before me, young women would come to work for the organization, but often leave when it was time to start a family. In essence, early in my career, I tested myself and our network to see if it was actually possible to be a Mom and be a professional community organizer. This tested me on so many levels. It was a financial test, a test of how many things I could do, and a test of my marriage. It caused me to live into a future vision of what was possible that was based in my beliefs, but not in a pattern that I had actually seen before. Other women tell me that I helped pave the way for them. I do like thinking of myself as a waymaker. Now, in our organization there are babies and families everywhere. Seeing this gives me great joy and satisfaction.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

The hardest part of writing a book was deciding to do it. I attended a thought leadership training led by Gabrielle Dolan, a global storytelling genius. I was intrigued by the concept of thought leadership even though I didn’t really know what it meant. Also, I had met Gabrielle at an international women’s training a few years prior. In the training, she said, “You’ve been in social justice for twenty-five years. I imagine you have something to say about that.” I realized, “Yeah, I do have something to say.”

Two years later, while on a solo train ride across Canada, I spent hours on end each day reading, writing, and shuffling papers. As people would walk by me they’d ask, “Are you writing a book?” And I’d say, “No.” Yet the seeds of writing a book had already been planted. Once I started opening up to the idea of writing a book, I dug into my own pocket and signed myself up for an author academy by Kelly Irving that promised to help you write a book by the end of the year. It was July. During the first session, she invited me to tell other people I was writing a book. I made the decision in September 2019. By December, I had drafted several chapters and found myself in negotiations with an independent publishing company. Telling people I knew that I was writing a book paid off. My book proposal was accepted two months later. The book itself is launching on February 23, 2021.

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?

Early on in the book writing process, my editorial coach was helping me sharpen the way that my thoughts in the book would be organized. A couple of days before the book proposal was due, I re-organized everything, thinking I had made it better. I sent my draft to my publisher and got a really quick rejection letter. I was crushed! Later, I learned that there had been a miscommunication. I quickly huddled back up with my coach and we reworked it and made it stronger. In essence, I had the book rejected and accepted by my publisher. Lesson learned: Stick close to your advisors.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am working to envision a sustainable future in which women of color who work in the nonprofit sector can do meaningful work, and have time to live fully into their purpose as a person. I believe that when women of color are thriving, our impact goes up exponentially. Meeting with women around the globe who are anchoring their communities is one of the biggest privileges I’ve ever come across. The book I’ve written has opened up new conversations with incredible leaders from throughout the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Johana Bencomo is an emerging star in the movement for social change. Recently, she ran for city council in Las Cruces, New Mexico. On election eve, she, her mother, and grandmother were driving around talking to voters in a wealthier section of her district. She approached a house and spoke with the voter. As she was walking back to the car, a gentleman who had been painting the house asked her in Spanish, “Daughter, are you looking for houses to clean?” She described the moment as being both magical and heartbreaking at the same time. She felt buoyed by the support of her mom and grandma, but disheartened that members of her own Latino community couldn’t imagine a pattern that they hadn’t yet seen before. The next day, she won her election for city council.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Those of us who are on the front lines of change need everyone who has an interest in shaping a more equitable and just world to get into the fight for social change. In order for Latinas and other women of color to thrive in the fight for social, economic, racial and political justice we need to: 1) lead into our vision, 2) live into our fullest self, and 3) love past the negatives that hold us back. On the other end of the spectrum from thriving is ‘surrendering.’ When you find yourself surrendering in the fight for change, you find yourself 1) wishing for a future reality to emerge, 2) wondering where your limits are, and 3) waiting for permission and answers to come from others. So, lead, live and love, don’t wish, wonder, and wait. In order to adequately confront the giant challenges coming after our families, we need to be at our best, most creative, brilliant selves. This version of ourselves is much more likely to show up to confront the challenges we face when we are thriving.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Writing the book is just the first of many steps. Once you tackle the monumental challenge of turning in the manuscript, that’s when the real work begins. You’ve got your message and ideas down on paper, now you have to get them out into the world.
  2. You are your own book salesperson. My Dad used to tell me, “If you don’t sell yourself, no one else will.” This advice has proven helpful as I’ve thought about how to get the message of my book out there. From very early on in the process, I started engaging a core group of people to help me with reviewing drafts, choosing a name, helping select cover art, and more. As a result, there is an entire community of “book doulas” who are helping share the energy and excitement of this project with others.
  3. Don’t expect anyone to read your book or buy it. Write it anyway. When I started talking to my publisher Berrett-Koehler, I was given an entire packet of materials on how difficult the book market has become. With the changes in the world of book sales, and the growing volume of self-published books, there is a lot of noise. This freed me up to pour my heart and soul into writing the book I wanted to write, not the book I thought people would buy. Maya Angelou says, “You can only become truly accomplished at something that 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.” That has been a guiding principle that got me through the toughest parts of the book writing process.
  4. Writing is a team sport. At one point, I got really scared and I shared with my Thriving in the Fight Advisory Board that I was terrified that this whole project would fail. The incredible women I surrounded myself with during the process didn’t even blink. I said, “I feel like I am staring failure in the face.” One of my board members said, “Then stare back at it!” Another said, “Then give it a dirty look!” No pity party was allowed with this crew. Just love and support and reminding me of why we embarked on this journey together.
  5. Writing well is mostly about writing many drafts. As Latinas, we know how to work hard. Our mothers have worked hard. Our grandmothers worked on farms, in factories, and sold things by the piece. I realized that there is no magic about writing well. A colleague suggested I read the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser. The basic message is that writing is about using as few words as possible, and about relentless editing. That freed me up to put my ideas down on paper and trust that over time with many, many chances to edit the work, it would get shinier.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Most people would say that I’m relentless. Once I make a decision to do something, I usually carry it through.

Being relentless was part of it, but also getting into the discipline of writing even when you don’t feel inspired. My godson Jair is an incredibly gifted high school baseball player. He spends hours every single week practicing. He plays in the infield and has invested countless hours since he was a small boy practicing how to hold his glove, fielding ground balls, practicing the movements of fielding without the ball to improve his muscle memory. He’s growing tall and strong as he is building his craft. He and his father/coach/trainer Yahir Marta have taught me a lot about perseverance, discipline and the long term steps that are important to achieving a big goal.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I love to read both fiction and non-fiction written by women of color authors. One of my favorite books is The Rise by Sarah Lewis. I also love autobiographical accounts that include humor and vulnerability. For example, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor was both heartwarming and funny. Right now I’m reading Caste: The origins of our Discontents by Isabelle Wilkerson which is blowing my mind.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Centering the leadership of Black, Latinx and all women of color on a global scale is a way of tapping into deep wells of wisdom that have been developed over centuries, but not yet shared widely across distance. This could make our world a much better place for all of us.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: DeniseCollazo

Twitter: @DeniseThriving

YouTube: DeniseCollazo

Instagram: @DenisePadinCollazo

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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