Eliminating Racism, Empowering Community

Born in Peru, Fanny Villarreal has become a well-known name in the Syracuse community with her work to eliminate racism and empower young women and girls through the YWCA.

Aquí está la entrevista de Ortiz con Villarreal en español.

By Tania Ortiz

Before Fanny Villarreal decided to settle in Syracuse, she served as a judge in the Peruvian jungle and overcame heartbreak after experiencing betrayal in a serious relationship. Villarreal had been appointed as a judge by the former Peruvian president, Alberto Fujimori following his election in 1990. Tired of being pitied by those around her, she packed her bags and decided to create a new life in Syracuse. 

“I came here several times before, but just to visit because my sister—my older sister—was here a long time ago at Syracuse University,” said Villarreal. “So, I knew about Syracuse, but I never in my wildest dreams thought to move to Syracuse.”

But she did, in 1993, and experienced major culture shock — as well as racism for the first time in her life. For all her struggles in Peru, she said racism is absent from that culture. “In Peru, I never expect, or I never feel, or I never see anything that has to do with racism,” she said. “Ever.” 

Adapting to the new environment, she noticed that the Latino community was isolated and had little access to what was happening in the city. This prompted Villarreal to create “Nosotros Radio,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, focuses on informing the Latino community. She also helped create and still runs the Latino Festival—which celebrates its 21st anniversary in September.

Villarreal has also served as the executive director of the Spanish Action League and as community development director of P.E.A.C.E. Inc. before joining YWCA as the executive director and CEO. At YWCA, she works to eliminate racism and empower women and girls in the community.

The Stand talked to Villarreal as part of a series on leaders of color in the Syracuse community. To nominate someone for a future Q&A, please contact tortiz01@syr.edu. 

Here’s more of our interview with Fanny Villarreal: 

Q: And what programs and events do you do for the community?  

A: At the YWCA, our mission is to eliminate racism. Empowering women and girls for peace, justice, freedom, and equity. The programs we have are based on our mission; all the programs are intentionally based on our mission. So, we have programs such as in terms of, um, eliminating racism more than programs. We have events where we can advocate, educate, and raise awareness about racism.

We do a one-day event that we call the Day of Commitment to Eliminate Racism that happens at the Marriott Hotel on Apr. 27. From 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., we have workshops that provide information and educate people about what that means (eliminate racism) and how we can create equity in terms of health, in terms of jobs, in terms of opportunities, all around that. And then we ended up with the luncheon. Then prior to that, on Tuesday, Apr. 25, we have a walk from our office [on Douglas Street] to the mayor’s office. We walk and sing peacefully to advocate and to make a call of action to the politicians and the community, and to create an understanding and make sure that we are working until justice just is.

In terms of programming, we have a woman’s residence that provides supported transitional and permanent housing to survivors of domestic violence. On top of that, they are not only survivors of domestic violence, but some of them are homeless, some have alcohol and drug addictions, and they do have mental health issues. We work really closely with them to create an individual service plan so they can reach their goals. The goals are very reachable, so they can start feeling that they can do it so that we can raise our self-esteem.

Then we have the Girls Inc. programming, so we provide services here in the building for girls and in Seymour Blodget and Fowler High School, the West Side quadrant. We picked all these three schools, rather than being all around the city, because we want to make sure that the girls have the Girls Experience Program, which is that we follow them from the very beginning [elementary school] to high school.

Q: I also heard that during the COVID-19 shutdowns, YWCA kept going with the Girls Inc. programming. How did that go, and how did you all make it possible?

A: What we did is we all changed our roles here. We told our staff that we were running the programming to provide the programming through the internet, so they were smart enough to create them. We kept working, so I was the driver of the van, delivering food and packages.

We have another program that we call Soccer for Success. We use soccer to make sure that the kids have the opportunity to participate in those programs. If you look at the soccer programs, they’re costly. The people that live around our neighborhood really don’t have the money to pay for it. We decided to create that and give them that opportunity. We partnered with the Syracuse School District. They record those programs and send them out so students can participate. And for the ones that sign up for the program, we deliver the ball, the shingles, the shorts, and the T-shirts so they can do the program.

With the older girls that they were graduating from Fowler High School, we went to their houses and celebrated outside. We all wore masks, celebrating and bringing the cake. We will have the table ready in a matter of minutes. We were doing that because it was unfair for the graduated students not to have a graduation party. We would go with signs and record the cake, everything, and balloons. And we have a party right there. Then we pick up everything and go to the next party. It was fun.

Q: Within the organization, which programs have been the most popular in the community?

A: People have fun doing the Girls Inc. and Soccer for Success. Those are the programs that people have more fun with.

Q: The programming you’ve mentioned is based on your mission, is a lot of it also based on what you hear from the community?

A: We switch all the programs; the name is still the same, but we see we change according to the community’s needs. For example, the Soccer for Success curriculum we used was healthy eating because, at that point, the parents were concerned that the kids were not eating healthily.

Now what we’re using is social and emotional learning because they’re coming from COVID. We change according to the needs of the women’s residents. We also prepare surveys and we work with the university. They prepare surveys, and they serve without putting any names or anything. They serve everybody that is part of it. And they said, what do you like, what you don’t like, what suggestions you have. And based on that, we switch the programs we provide, training, and workshops.

Q: Have you noticed or seen anybody in the community affected by disinformation in the community, in terms of getting news or information?

A: Scams are everywhere. We always talk on the radio about those letters. Well, one is the texts that they know that you are an Amazon or a Spectrum customer. Then they start texting you, saying your account is on hold because of a missed payment. And they’re like, “what?” The texts say to click on the link when you click (on the link), you’re done because they get all your information. So, we always talk about that (on the radio program).

Q: Through your radio show, have people communicated that this is happening to them, like the scams and not knowing information, and called in to ask questions?

A: Well, people call for three different reasons. One to complain. You always find somebody to complain about, “do you know that this is happening?” and they start telling you stories about this organization and that organization. Second, people call because they want to know something. If I have the information, I will give it to them. I will Google it and try to figure out something. And if I don’t, I will say, next week I will bring somebody to talk about whatever is there. The third one, they call to give me ideas of possible speakers and presenters. The last one was a six-week series with M&T Bank on information about your credit score, how to improve your credit, what credit is, and why it’s important.

Tania Ortiz is a master’s student at the Newhouse of Syracuse University. Her work for The Stand is supported by the Knight Center and its Combatting Disinformation in Communities of Color grant program. 

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