Fourth-year Ivelis Colòn is the 2018 recipient of the Alianza de los Amigos Martin Ortiz Fellowship, which she has used to research the lives of incarcerated women in the LGBTQIA+ community, and whether or not religion supported them. With her major in Social Work and a second major in Religious Studies, she combined her two studies with her research to fight for social justice.
According to whittier.edu, the Alianza de los Amigos Martin Ortiz Fellowship is a fellowship at Whittier College that directs to Hispanic Poets to provide opportunities for first, second, or third-year students to complete a research project that aims for the economic development and “the general improvement of the human condition.” The Ortiz Fellowship granted Colòn $4000 to stay in Los Angeles (having come from Chicago, Illinois), to continue her research in the social justice of incarcerated women, titling it “A Woman’s Worth.”
“I really just wanted their voices to be heard and their stories to be heard because it is [meant] to expose the problems that are perpetuated in prison with the LGBTQ[IA+] community,” said Colòn. “Often times they are victims of sexual abuse because of the stereotypes that they fall into, and they are mistreated because that is a community that has been often mistreated. They think that they can perpetuate that in prison because it is a system of punishment and not a rehabilitation.”
One of the initial questions Colòn’s research addressed was how religion affected incarcerated women from the LGBTQIA+ community. “Often times, the church history has tended to ostracize, or discriminate, upon LGBTQ[IA+] people,” said Colòn. “Also, the population of people in prison sometimes will, most usually, turn towards religion when trying to find a purpose in life.” By working with centers and the women’s probation rules, Colòn interviewed both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to hear their individual stories of how religion did, or didn’t, support them while they were in prison.
“These women were phenomenal,” said Colòn as she described the results of her research. “They found that sense of worth; they found it through, what I call an accepting God.” Most of the women she interviewed were of Christian or Catholic faith, though, any other religion would not have changed Colòn’s intention for her research, as it was open to all types of spiritualities.
The women of her survey shared a strong faith in their God. “They were like, ‘My God loves me. My God accepts me. My God saved me, and that’s why I’m here. And he doesn’t care who I’m interested in. He doesn’t care about my sexuality,’” said Colòn. “That was really inspirational to hear, and I wanted to make sure their voices were heard.”
Colòn’s research did face some challenges along the way to being the complete document that is being reviewed by her Whittier College advisor, the C. Milo Connick Chair of Religious Studies Jason Carbine. The first obstacle Colòn faced was rejection. Having applied to other fellowships and being rejected previously was not easy for her.
In times of distress, she turned to Carbine mentorship. “He’s been my ride or die since the beginning,” said Colòn. When Colón came to him after another rejection, Carbine would continue to motivate her to keep pushing herself, to keep applying to more fellowships. “Some people give up on the most brilliant ideas because they were rejected, or someone told them ‘that’s not good enough,’ or ‘that’s not exactly what we’re looking for,’” said Colòn. “That was almost me until [Carbine] was like, ‘you need to apply to another fellowship. You’ve got too much going on in that head of yours that can be put out into the world.’”
Another struggle Colòn faced was gaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval to ensure her research proposal and interview questions were ethical by IRB standards. This background check process took about half of her summer before she could begin her research. “I might think I’m the most ethical person here, but it’s not ethical according to the books,” said Colòn. This process pushed Colòn to develop her researcher’s lens. As her research developed, so did she. Colòn changed from accepting one truth, to looking for the facts behind that truth.
“There’s so much more to one story. There’s a history of things that are behind one statement, or one policy,” said Colòn. “And so, knowing that, I never could hear something . . . thinking that’s the truth. No, I need to hear that thing and know what has led up to that.”
“Now, I overthink, and overanalyze, but that’s how you change the world,” said Colòn.
“That’s how you change policy; that’s how you let people voice their testimonies that could change you as a person, and also help me change others.”
Colòn has had several supporters through her research journey. Working at the Office of Equity and Inclusion, she has gotten support in becoming a familiarized ally for the LGBTQIA+ community. The Alianza de los Amigos Ortiz program provided a sense of Hispanic cultural support as well as the funds for her research. Her advisor Carbine who helped her to continue to push herself, being mentor familiar with research process, gave her advice on the research journey.
On Oct. 13, Colòn introduced “A Woman’s Worth” at Whittier College’s forty-seventh annual Tardeada in honor of Martin Ortiz. The applause and cheers of “¡sí se puede!” from the Ortiz Program supporters gave Colòn a familiar, heart warming encouragement of her dedication in her work. “I haven’t gotten that sense of Hispanic vibe and support in a long time, to be honest,” said Colòn. “There’s like a difference when it comes from a cultural support. You could have the support from the school, and you could have the support of your Hispanic community, and that’s what I really appreciated.”
“A Woman’s Worth” is not the end of Colòn’s journey in developing social justice. During the research, she interviewed a woman who faced the dangers of being pregnant and incarcerated. Colòn then researched the illegal and violent acts against women like her, an entirely different research topic that she hopes to bring light upon in the future with another fellowship or an independent study. “I want to keep researching. I want to help create policies or dismantle policies, that discriminate against people, or repressed people,” said Colòn.
Colòn aims to attend graduate school, and apply to master’s programs in social work. Her dream school is California State University Long Beach. Colòn aims to further be a “direct help” to minorities and women who need their voices heard.