Casimiro Pena applies his passion for activism and community organizing to his role as a Soulforce board member.
Soulforce is an organization that works to end the political and religious oppression of LGBTI people through nonviolent resistance. Soulforce states in its values that their goal is to "turn this world upside down and inside out in the name of justice and equity for folks across all marginalized racial, sexual, and gender identities. We seek to do the kind of collective activism that makes our souls burst as we free ourselves from spiritual violence."
Pena's father and grandparents originally him in the Los Angeles area in a Mexican-American household. Pena is half Mexican and half Vietnamese. He said the household was religious, and that he and his family attended church. In 2011, he graduated high school and went off to Azusa Pacific University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in sociology. It was also at Azusa Pacific where his experience in community organizing began. Pena explained that Azusa Pacific is a Christian, private Evangelical institution, known for what some have called prejudicial, discriminatory practices and policies that specifically target queer students and faculty.
In college, he pushed himself to be a good student and was heavily involved in political activism as well as student government and student life—planning different events around campus. The two things that stood out during his experience at college, Pena recalled, was his role as the president of the Latin American Student Association and as the co-founder of a coalition called Activate, which brought together all four ethnic student organizations on campus to create a campaign-based movement across campus to advocate for specific policy changes.
Pena describes himself as currently a spiritual person.
"I don't know if I fall under the Christian umbrella anymore, but I am a Christ follower," Pena said.
"For a lot of organizers and a lot of activists, it boils down to the stories that we hear," said Pena of what drives him in his activism. "Both our own story and the compilation of stories from other students. During my time at Azusa Pacific there were just so many incidents where we saw students on the margins at this university really experience awful things and then the institution not be held accountable."
Adding he once had a college professor remark to the class that gay people were viler and more dangerous than child molesters, rapists and gang violence. Everyone in the class, Pena said, stayed quiet, but he spoke up and as a result angered the professor.
"It was moments like that I knew we needed to work with students to make sure that they feel their stories are legitimate and also work toward creating policy change on these campuses," said Pena.
"A lot of queer students wind up at Christian institutions in that we want to go to these places because we've been instilled with certain ideas that have been branded in our minds," said Pena who identifies as gay. "I know I arrived at Azusa Pacific hoping that I could pray the gay away and find some type of cure or fix for my sexuality and I was really lucky to find activists. Honestly, Soulforce was that first group that was like this light in a really, really dark place that I found out on my campus."
Pena graduated in 2015 and moved to Chicago in summer 2015 for his master's degree at DePaul University, graduating in 2017.
Before Soulforce, he served as a community organizer for DePaul University for a year then did two fellowships with Chicago Votes, a non-partisan, non-profit, democracy- and youth-focused organization. He also worked as a grant writer for Accion Chicago.
"Chicago has been a really great place to help me get plugged in and while I was at Azusa Pacific I really tried to be very, very involved and I am now trying to integrate what I learned there into a much bigger role," said Pena about his interest in politics. "Chicago Votes was one of my favorite experiences in the city of Chicago being very young, they are radical, they are grassroots and they are about getting people to vote and strengthen democracy."
Some concerns Pena has in the current political climate also include the future of title IX, climate change and immigration issues.
Pena was onboarded with Soulforce in August 2017. He described the experience with Soulforce as exciting, stating he was thrilled for the opportunity to be able to plug into an organization that match with his values so closely.
"I'm so excited to be a part of a board of really awesome, remarkable, intelligent people," said Pena.
When asked what advice he would give to his younger self or struggling students, Pena said it really does get better.
"I would say for students at these institutions, dealing with their sexualities or genders, it really does get better and you will find that community, that space that you need on those campuses," Pena said. "I would also say 'you are fully loved.' I think so many queer students arrive on these campuses thinking they're not loved, that they're broken, that they're disgusting, because of ideas that we're instilled with. So, knowing they are fully and holistically perfectly made and that they are wonderful, that in of itself can be such an empowering thing to hear and to understand you are beautiful because of your queerness, you're beautiful because of your gender, you're beautiful because of your sexuality, you're not beautiful in spite of or despite of [these things]. Those are the things God made us with that make us beautiful and we belong on those campuses. We are a part of creating that God-honoring diversity."
For more information, visit Soulforce.org .