Equality Illinois’ new deputy director talks goals, position and books

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On July 15, Mony Ruiz-Velasco officially started in the new position of Equality Illinois’ deputy director. Ruiz-Velasco is an experienced attorney who has worked for immigrants rights for many years, and has even been the legal director of the National Immigrant Justice Center. She has also worked with Equality Illinois as a community partner and a board member.

Talking with Windy City Times recently, Ruiz-Velasco discussed everything from her experience to a little-known fact about herself.

Windy City Times: Could you tell our readers a little about your background?

Mony Ruiz-Velasco: First of all, thank you for doing this. I’m so excited to be at Equality Illinois and to come into this work after all the advocacy work I’ve been doing for the past 25 years. So much of my work has been with immigrant rights, and working with LGBTQ communities, women, children and other vulnerable communities within the immigrant-rights spaces.

I’m a lawyer; I went to law school in south Texas. I started my career doing immigration work. I then moved to Chicago and have been here for more than 20 years now. I worked at the National Immigrant Justice Center for more than a decade, and then started doing a lot of community advocacy as well as policy work, on the federal, state and local levels. So I’m really excited to come to Equality Illinois and bring my full self in, as a queer woman of color. I want to make sure that communities of color feel included in the amazing work that Equality Illinois does.

WCT: How did this position form?

MR-V: I think [Executive Director] Brian C. Johnson might be better at responding to this question. But the way this came about is that I had developed a relationship with Equality Illinois over the last several years. First, as a community partner, we worked on a bill called the RISE [Retention of Illinois Students & Equity] Act, which opened financial-aid access to undocumented students as well as well as students left out of state and federal financial aid. Later, I joined the board of Equality Illinois, and I’ve been on there for the last year or so.

Also, thinking about the work Equality Illinois has done and wants to do—including [incorporating] communities of color—as well as my advocacy work, I think that’s how my position came about.

WCT: You’ve worked as an attorney for immigrants’ rights. If you could change, say, two things about the current immigration policy, what would they be?

MR-V: Well, that’s a big question. I think that immigration law and policy has been viewed, especially after 9/11, through the lens of terrorism. So there’s this perspective of terrorism/national security instead of being a welcoming country that believes in family unity and protects those who need refuge from being persecuted. I think changing that framework is really critical to making sure we create good policies.

So instead of thinking about one specific thing—and we, obviously, have a lot of immigrants who are incarcerated in private and other prisons—changing the framework is important to benefit communities, in a broader sense.

WCT: And LGBTQ immigrants face additional hurdles, correct?

MR-V: Oh, absolutely. And one of the things we’ve seen in the past few years has been the closing of the asylum system. We see people coming from different parts of the world who have been persecuted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity—and many of them haven’t been able to access the protections that have existed in our laws for decades. Those things have to change.

WCT: You have done a lot of work benefiting immigrants. However, I noticed that, last year, you left your executive-director post at PASO—West Suburban Action Project under some controversy. [Suburban media outlets reported that Ruiz-Velasco’s departure came after seven out of the organization’s eight non-managerial staffers went on indefinite strike citing “abuse of power,” and called for her resignation.] What can you say to assure people who might be concerned that similar unrest may happen at Equality Illinois?

MR-V: I think that, unfortunately, our immigrant communities have been under attack; it was all very magnified. During the years in the Trump administration, there was a lot of trauma in our communities and it hit immigration really, really hard. It’s difficult not only for those who are directly impacted but also for those who do the work every day.

I think there are positive lessons that come out of situations that are difficult and painful. And I think those lessons [include] finding ways to hold each other accountable, but in a more healing way. That is something I will carry with me with all the work I do in the future. It became a positive thing in the end, and I learned a lot.

WCT: You said that situation was painful and last year, of course, was especially painful for people in various ways, because of COVID as well as racial awakening. What did you learn about yourself during that time?

MR-V: It really was a year of introspection, right? Many of us were home more and had time to think about not only what was happening in our communities, but also racial/socioeconomic disparities. For me, it was about the importance of being present every day, not only for my family but for the work that I do—and that’s why I’m excited about being at Equality Illinois. I feel like I’m bringing my whole self in—my community, my identity. How do we open more of those spaces and address those different disparities that exist?

WCT: How will you measure your success in this position?

MR-V: One of the things that’s really important, again, is to make sure different communities are included, like my Latinx community. I really want them to be part of Equality Illinois’ space and mission. Opening those spaces is something I really want to do and, hopefully, I’ll be able to look back and reflect and say that we did that.

Sometimes, it’s hard to bridge those gaps, but I think the commitment is there.

WCT: Lastly, what’s something about you that a lot of people don’t know?

MR-V: [Laughs] Let’s see. Well, my undergraduate degree is in English literature, and I love literature to this day. I love reading all kinds of different books, such as books about the work I do and have done—but sometimes I like reading books that have nothing to do with what I do. I love to read books about magical realism and mythical creatures, such as the novels of Anne Rice.

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August 1, 2021 at 02:20PM

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