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Commemorating Pride Month with Irvine Program Officer, Virdiana Vélez

The Irvine Foundation is fortunate to have talented staff with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and we want to introduce some of our colleagues to you. We spoke with Virdiana Vélez, Irvine’s Program Officer, about how her identity and life experiences fueled her commitment to creating change, what she wishes people understood about LGBTQ+ individuals, and philanthropy’s role in advancing equity. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about yourself.  

My name is Virdiana, and I use she or they pronouns. I was born in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up in Puerto Rico, Ann Arbor, and Indianapolis. I have lived in California the longest — I moved here when I was 21. But what I’d most like people to know about me is that I am proudly Latina, queer, and a mother (of both a human and a fur child). Those are the parts of me that have shaped my experience the most, and so those are the parts of me that I hold most dear.  

My parents moved from Puerto Rico to the Midwest before I was born to pursue their education. Unfortunately, they still experienced many barriers to achieving the financial success they had hoped for by moving to the continental United States. Although we are all American citizens, we experienced a great deal of xenophobia and prejudice due to culture and language. Despite these struggles, my parents have always been deeply committed to racial and social justice, instilling in me a deep commitment to civic service. 

Growing up, I often felt I had to tone down or hide parts of my identity. I frequently felt out of place and misunderstood, so I didn’t come out as queer to my friends or family until after I moved to California. My spouse also identifies as queer — and an essential part of our partnership is acceptance, appreciation, and joy for being ourselves. Today, I am proud of my identity and life experiences. They fuel my commitment to creating change for our communities that are most disadvantaged and have historically been overlooked, and to creating a better world for both my child and future generations. 

How did you get into philanthropy? 

Like many others in this sector, I sort of “fell into” philanthropy. My biggest career goal has always been to unlock doors for vulnerable communities. As a result, I’ve pursued opportunities that would allow me to unlock the most challenging doors and create the most change. I started my professional path working for nonprofit organizations and spent five years in the public sector before joining Irvine. Those experiences demonstrated how important it is for community-based organizations to have an active voice in policymaking and advocacy. I believe philanthropy offers great promise and opportunity to foster partnerships between communities and the public sector.

I learned about Irvine early on in my career and was drawn to its mission of economic advancement for low-income workers in California. So, it feels serendipitous to work for the Foundation today. Supporting worker rights and building worker power, like I get to do on the Fair Work team, is vital to enacting broader social change and intersects with many other elements of racial and social justice.

What does Pride Month mean to you?

Pride Month is about allowing LGBTQ+ people to tell our own stories despite what mainstream narratives may say about us. In many ways, June is one of my favorite times of the year because of how we celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. It’s a time for me to celebrate my own queer identity and show pride! However, it’s also a reminder of how much work still needs to be done so that everyone in the community is safe and protected — not just at home, but all over the world. In all corners of the earth, queer and trans people are fighting for equality — and, in some places, the right to exist. Pride Month reminds us how much further we must go toward true acceptance, equity, and inclusion.

I wish more people understood that LGBTQ+ individuals are not a threat to other identities. We want to live, work, dream, love, and create families alongside everyone else. Pride Month, like other celebrations of cultural and historical identity, acknowledges a painful past while centering our community’s visibility. It’s also an opportunity to explore the multitude of identities that intersect with identifying as LGBTQ+, and the additional challenges that some members of our community face.

What is Irvine’s role in advancing equity?

The philanthropic sector has great potential to advance equity. I am especially inspired by how some funders, like Irvine, are explicitly thinking about centering racial equity and recognizing the importance of addressing systemic racism to advance broader racial and socioeconomic equity. I’m hopeful that, as a sector and as a foundation, we can continue to be creative and nimble in supporting workers whose needs aren’t necessarily solved by current policies and programs.

Because it’s Pride Month, I think about the experiences of those who continue to face disproportionate barriers to quality jobs and lack certain federal protections from workplace discrimination. For instance, transgender and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to hold low-wage employment with fewer advancement opportunities and workplace protections. This illustrates the importance of uplifting marginalized voices, and ensure they are heard and captured as we think about solutions to systemic inequities. Philanthropy can support these voices by funding organizations that are deeply embedded in the communities they want to serve. These organizations are often smaller, grassroots, and BIPOC-led organizations that have historically found it challenging to access philanthropic dollars. I believe there is a tremendous opportunity to center these kinds of organizations in our grantmaking while sustaining the network of organizations that have leveraged grant funding to effect significant policy and systems-level change.