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Conversations with the Inspiring Sheena Kadi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sheena Kadi.

Sheena, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
There are not many women working in political and advocacy work.
And there are even fewer queer women working in political and advocacy work.
And there are even fewer queer, Arab American women working in political and advocacy work.

When I get asked how I got where I am today, Deputy Director at One Colorado, with 15 years of political, advocacy, and organizing work under my belt, I have to be intentional in trying not to smile. I know that I shouldn’t be here today. And it’s because of that privilege that I have dedicated my career to helping to make sure other LGBTQ youth do not have to survive the experiences that I have.

The first solid memory I have is spending Christmas of 1988 in a domestic violence shelter in Hawaii with my mother and little brother while we hid from my abusive, alcoholic father and waited for my grandparents to arrange for flights to the mainland for us.

We moved in with my grandparents who lived in Hillsdale, Indiana – a rural, conservative, unincorporated municipality of about 800 people in the middle of nowhere.

One day, my mother came home from working one of her two jobs and founding me upstairs playing house with my Barbies. Not my Barbie and Ken dolls – two Barbie dolls. That one innocent action terrified my mother, and she had me committed to a psychiatric hospital for six months.

For six months, I was watched twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If I did something that was too boyish, like want to play baseball with the boys instead of drawing with the girls, I was fed a plain baloney sandwich for the next meal instead of what everyone else was having. If I was seen being too friendly or too nice to other girls, I was locked in my room for 24 hours of reflection time. If I was seen making any type of physical contact with another girl, I was locked in my room for 72 hours and all books and reading materials were removed from my room so that I could be 100% focused on my self-reflection. For six months, I was trained to be what other people, especially my mother, expected me to be.

I was ten years old.

When I eventually came home, I did everything I could to fit in. To not stand out. To not make waves. I did everything I could to show my mother that I was a good daughter. Whatever it took to make sure that I was never sent back there. To this day, I cannot eat a baloney sandwich.

My mother ended up remarrying, and our new family moved to Ohio. I continued to focus on not messing up, on not letting anything slip and being the best daughter I could. I excelled in all my school classes, was given lead roles in the spring musicals, placed in swimming, show choir, writing, and science competitions. I joined the Girl Scouts. I volunteered for extra duties at the church. I only made friends with boys because I was too scared to be too friendly with other girls. Anything that I could do to seem normal. The stress and fear of messing up built up, getting to the place where I was having multiple anxiety attacks a day. I spent five years hiding it, being terrified to be sent back to that place. Finally, I couldn’t hide it anymore, and I told my parents.

It was the first time I had ever said the words aloud – “I am gay.” I thought it was strange that my parents didn’t react to the news in the way I expected them to. They seemed indifferent about it. I was scared to ask any follow-up questions, so I went about my life as I had been and acted like the conversation never happened.

A few weeks later, they signed me up for a new young adult class at the church. For an hour before the Sunday midday service each week, we would meet. For almost 18 months, we covered a wide variety of projects. The boys would work on building things out of wood and fixing broken appliances. The girls would learn how to cook and sew. We would read and reflect on a different scripture each week, usually focusing on gender roles, family, God’s omnipresence, and behaving in His image. There were dance classes, where we were partnered with a boy.

I remember the moment my mother asked me the question so clearly. We were on our way to dinner. My little brother wasn’t with us. He was going through this phase where he only ate chicken nuggets, pizza, and cheeseburgers, and we were planning on picking him up something on the way home. We were stopped at a red light when my mother turned around in the front passenger seat and asked me if I thought I was still gay. Before I knew it, the word ‘yes’ escaped my lips. We never made it to dinner that night.

My step-father executed a u-turn and we headed home. No one said a word. When we were all out of the car, my parents said that if I couldn’t live by God’s rules, I couldn’t live under their roof. I was to take my things and get out. I packed what clothes I could fit into the trunk of my 1992 Chrysler LaSabre. Anything of value – my stereo, my little 13 inch TV, my grandparent’s matching gold watches that my grandmother gave me after my grandfather died – was hidden in my backseat on the floorboard and covered with a blanket.

On the weekends, I would crash with friends for extended sleepovers, their parents having no idea that my parents had kicked me out. When I was lucky, that friend would pack me a couple of sandwiches or raid their pantry from anything nonperishable that didn’t need to be cooked that I could take with me.

My parents had kept my social security card and birth certificate, so I was unable to get a job that someone would hire a 17-year-old for. Eventually, what little money I had run out. I found myself surrounded by gangs, drugs, and violence, doing anything for cash. Anything to buy food, gas for the car, maybe rent a motel room for a week so I didn’t have to sleep in my car. I did a lot of things that I’m ashamed of simply to survive another day. I struggled with my parents parting words and spent too much time and energy trying to reconcile my sexual orientation with my personal relationship with God. I thought about it all the time. I was consuming cocaine and pills every day to make myself stop thinking about it and give me a few hours of peace.

I had hit rock bottom.

I credit three people with saving my life. Stephen Canneto, an artist who exposed me to the healing power of art as a vehicle to process my trauma and abuse in a healthier way. Mayor Jack Ford, who empowered me to use my personal experiences to help build power through to change the systems that had failed me. And Sister Ann Carmen Barone, who helped me see that being LGBTQ and being a person of faith were not exclusionary identities and taught me how to organize a diverse group of stakeholders around a common value.

The three of them set me on my path to work to help elect more women, people of color, and those that identify as LGBTQ to elected office, to pass policies and legislation that would help those marginalized communities, and to lift of the stories from those communities in an effort to connect with unlikely allies around shared values.

I will be forever grateful for their mentorship and support.

It wasn’t until I started as Deputy Director at One Colorado – 20 years later – that I put all the pieces together. When I was helping to prep folks to provide testimony for HB19-1129, a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors in Colorado, I noticed many similarities to my experiences when I was 10 and 15 years old. My parents had tried to change my sexual orientation, using conversion therapy from mental health professionals and using religious-based conversion therapy.

One of my favorite parts of working at One Colorado is getting to meet these amazing, affirming parents that are supporting their LGBTQ children. It is fuel for the soul to get to see and experience the love that they have for their kids and to see these kids live their lives as their authentic selves.

I’ve been asked before if I had the power to go back and change things if I would. And as tempting as it is for that 10-year-old Sheena, that 15-year-old Sheena, and that 17-year-old Sheena, I would not. We are the collective sum of our lived experiences. Everything that I have lived through, everything that I have survived has shaped and molded me into the person that I am today. And that person is fiercely dedicated to doing everything that I can to leave things a little bit better than I had it for the next LGBTQ youth.

Has it been a smooth road?
In addition, I was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer in January of 2012.

Being forced to face my own mortality twice in my life, at the age of 17 and the age of 30, makes me appreciate every single day and all the experiences that come with it. And I get to do so married to an amazingly supportive partner surrounded by my chosen family, living my best life as my most authentic self. And there is no better feeling in the world than that.

My advice for women just starting their journey:
1. Be an advocate for what you need. If you don’t ask for help, you’re not giving anyone the opportunity to say ‘yes’.
2. Cut the negative out of your life. Whether it’s negative people or negative behaviors, the negativity is holding you back from living your best life.
3. Live your best life. Life is short and we only get one go at it, so have fun, be happy, and surround yourself with people that make you laugh.
4. Find good mentors that are invested in your development and success.
5. Don’t be so focused on getting to the next thing, the next chapter, the next goal that you don’t enjoy the journey along the way.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into One Colorado story. Tell us more about it.
One Colorado is the state’s leading advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Coloradans and their families.

I’m most proud of One Colorado’s commitment to empowering others to be the change that they want to see in their communities. Whether it is empowering folks to testify in support of a piece of life-changing legislation, or empowering volunteers to talk with voters about the importance of voting and participating in the democratic process; whether it’s empowering medical and mental health professionals to provide quality, affordable, affirming health care, or empowering a young student to start the first gay-straight alliance (GSA) at their school; whether it is empowering a transgender or nonbinary person to obtain identity documents that reflect their most authentic selves, or it is empowering an ally to stand up and defend someone they seeing being harassed or discriminated against – One Colorado is working to empower more than 100,000 supporters across the state to ensure a more fair and just Colorado for all.

It would be great to hear about any apps, books, podcasts or other resources that you’ve used and would recommend to others.
Calm is my go-to app. I start my day five days a week with a ten-minute meditation session.

I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson at least once a year. It keeps me from being consumed by work.

I’ve been subscribed to the Harvard Business Review since 2012. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to work on their leadership development and can afford the $120 a year.

A core group of friends that is comprised of those who have also survived some heavy shit and are still living their best lives and those who can make me laugh. They both remind me that I can survive whatever life throws my way and who doesn’t want to laugh more?

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Image Credit:
Sheena Kadi

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