A Bittersweet Goodbye: An interview with Salem Acuña and J. F. Lyles

After five years of organizing at Southerners On New Ground, Salem Acuña and J. F. Lyles are transitioning from their staff roles at SONG. We interview them here to gain valuable insights and lessons from their time at SONG and to hear about how they’re planning on making waves next.
On SONG and Transition
We’ve been so lucky and grateful to have you both on staff here at SONG. Can you tell us more about how you came to SONG and what role/s you’ve played over the course of your time on staff?


SA: I came to SONG as a volunteer/baby queer in early 2011 through Hermelinda Cortés who had just been hired as a Virginia Field Organizer for SONG in the fall of 2010. Hermelinda and I had known each other peripherally through similar activist circles we were part of in Richmond, VA. As SONG was just starting to do listening sessions and base-building work, Hermelinda reached out to me wanting to have a one-on-one to talk about SONG and her role. I remember we made dinner together one night and I started learning all about this organization that centered LGBTQ people in the South who were undocumented, people of color, working-class, rural or otherwise came from marginalized communities, and I was in complete shock. I finally felt like I had found a place that recognized me as a whole person.

After that night, I remember telling myself (and Hermelinda) that I was ready to throw down and do whatever SONG needed of me. After several months of volunteering my time, I was asked to join a “Summer Organizing Drive” that SONG was taking a part of in collaboration with Project South and other movement orgs in the region. It was a paid internship type of thing. At the end of the summer, SONG Co-Directors at the time, Paulina and Caitlin, asked me to join the SONG staff as a Virginia Field Organizer.

After a couple of years of doing base-building, outreach, political education and leadership development work in Richmond, VA, I transitioned into becoming a Regional Organizer with SONG where I got to do similar work but across the Southeast. Throughout my six years at SONG I had the incredible privilege of supporting campaign organizing work, engaging in direct action, expanding our language justice work and building long-lasting, powerful relationships with hundreds of LGBTQ people in the South.

I was fresh out of college, living in Charleston, South Carolina, doing feminist and youth empowerment work when one day, I got a message from someone I had never heard of named Paulina who wanted to talk to me about LGBTQ organizing in South Carolina. We met at a coffee shop in downtown Charleston and I was struck, first by the babely Black butch–bodyguard? girlfriend?–named Ashe who wore very cool sunglasses and did not take them off as she escorted Paulina into the coffee shop, then by her giant colorful earrings, and then finally by her description of this mysterious organization called SONG, which fought for something called queer liberation across the South, and saw racial justice work as an integral part of that fight.

I had a hard time fathoming that something like that already existed in the South, and was in fact almost as old as I was. It blew my mind. I said “We need that here! How do I get involved?” but what I wanted to say was “Oh my god!! Take me with you!! Stay forever!!” She told me that SONG was hiring for a South Carolina Field Organizer. A few months later, I found myself in a little apartment living room in Goldsboro, North Carolina. I was there with Lulu Martinez, who had also been hired on as a South Carolina Field Organizer, and this very friendly white dyke named Caitlin Breedlove, who struck me first with her strange shoulder tattoos and secondly with her erratic stick figure big paper explanation of the gay rights movement and how it came to focus on gay marriage. She tried, mostly in vain, to explain to us what we were signing up for, but really nothing could have prepared me for the wild and beautiful ride that ensued over the next years, first in my role as a field organizer and then as I transitioned into full time fundraising for this organization that had saved me, given me purpose and room to grow, and allowed me the opportunity to fall deeply in love with movement work.

People often use the word “transition” when people change roles or move on from organizations. Sometimes the word is interpreted as a coded way to to say that people have quit, have been fired, or that there is something shady happening. What does the word mean to you in your relationship to SONG?

SA: I feel so blessed and honored to be able to transition from SONG–my political home– with feelings of gratitude, joy and deep respect. The word transition, to me, means a sense of transformation and growth. It feels similar to when I left home after high school to go to community college and to learn about what the world had to offer. It can be a scary and anxious thing to do but you always have a sense of being able to return to the place that raised you and nurtured you. SONG will always be my political and spiritual home and I am so grateful to be able to claim that. I suppose in this instance the word transition also has a very simple and literal meaning to me: transition from staff to a very committed member-leader and Forever SONG family member.

JFL: One of the biggest gifts that SONG has given me has been the ability to understand myself not first as an employee of SONG, or any one organization, but as a committed worker inside of a larger movement. Similarly, we don’t understand SONG to be a world in and of itself, but a strategic vehicle inside of a larger movement ecosystem. For me, transitioning out of SONG does feel like leaving in some ways, because to be on the staff of an organization like SONG embeds you so deeply within that organization’s leadership and day-to-day work. But what a deep privilege and relief that I now get to be a part of SONG from a different seat, as a member, and as part of the circle of people we call “Forever SONG”–those of us who are committed to SONG for life. Ruby Sales recently said, “We think we leave home, but we never really go anywhere.” SONG is my political home, and so transitioning to me means making room for new leadership, going out to learn new skills and make new relationships, and being willing to play different roles in this crucial and precious formation–all things that are necessary for SONG’s long-term vision.

Share with us a lesson or story that comes to mind from your work at SONG.

SA: We are not the first to suffer. Our cynicism weakens our ability to build dynamic movements that center wholeness and complexity and hold political nuance. Ideological and political fundamentalism (even on the left) will not be the way we win organizing fights or win over the masses of people who are looking for a place to call political home. These are all lessons that I’ve learned while at SONG and sometimes I had to learn these things the hard way because of my own political naivete and shortcomings, but I am grateful for those lessons. I am where I am because people and leaders within SONG were willing to be patient and generous with me and we should always be looking for opportunities to offer the same to others coming into movement as newcomers.

JFL:  SONG taught me that ancestral/generational memory is not only a perfectly legitimate tool in our efforts to dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, but one of the most important ones we have. We must not forget what was done to our ancestors, and we must not forget what our ancestors did to other people. Anyone who tries to invalidate what you know in your blood, bones, and soul is trying to neutralize your power for one reason or another. If we forget who we are and who and where we come from, we are much more easily made tools of a larger political agenda to control and destroy, because we can pretend that we were never destroyed, never betrayed our own humanity in search of control, never destroyed the dreams and families and bodies of other people. We are part of a much longer story than what we ourselves have known or will experience in our own lifetimes. Our charge is to channel everything we have towards a vision of liberation, and that includes our spiritual inheritance.


On Political Home and the Political Moment
How has SONG been important to your personal and political development?

SA: I always jokingly (but also seriously) say that SONG raised me personally, politically and in movement; and in more intimate moments, I’ve also shared that in many ways SONG saved my life. I was young, angry, depressed, and isolated before I came to this organization. As a young, undocumented and queer person I was feeling at a loss for what my future would look like.  SONG not only took me in but gave me an opportunity to transform all of those very real and legitimate feelings into something empowering and useful. I am so grateful to have been trained and skilled up as an organizer through a southern movement tradition, and I know that I will be taking all that I have gained with me into other movement endeavors. My time as a staff member of SONG has been one of the most important and critical experiences of my life and I’m so grateful for that.

JFL: SONG’s importance in my personal and political development over the past five years simply cannot be overstated. The hours of time and the deep patience, generosity and trust that various individuals inside of this organization have given me is a gift I can only repay by “gaying it forward” and doing the same for other people. I just didn’t know that it was possible to be a part of an organization and family like this–it was something I imagined and maybe read about in anarchist zines in college, but the reality of it seemed distant. The grace that people have shown me as I’ve grown and lurched from gear to gear has allowed me to become one of many imperfect humans who are part of an imperfect organization whose members are defined chiefly by our stubborn unwillingness to give up on each other and the possibilities we know we can actualize if only we keep moving.

SONG is often described as a political home. What does that mean to you?

SA: Political home is where you to go grow, learn, skill-up, build consciousness and throw down for our communities. It’s also a place where you go to challenge yourself and be challenged; it is where you are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. It is where you can ask questions and be ok with not knowing how to do something. Political home is where you can exist as your full self in a personal, political and spiritual way without ever needing to feel isolated, underappreciated, or tossed aside. It’s that space between our most intimate vulnerabilities and our wildest dreams and desires. I am so incredibly grateful to know that I have a place in this organization that has never been about working for a non-profit but always about offering people the beautiful gift of being able to feel connected to something bigger than our individual selves.

Why do you think SONG is important as a political home in a time when the right wing is rearing its ugly head with such ferocity?

SA: As we resist the current regime that has taken over the government and the emboldened right wing, it is so crucial that we build institutions that people can find sanctuary in. As LGBTQ people–we have been the targets of some of the most insidious attacks from the Right. We have been demonized and vilified and it has cost many of us our own lives. As LGBTQ people of color, that harm has been even deeper because white supremacy continues to move effortlessly all around us. When organizations like SONG make a political decision to create home for our people, we are not only directly confronting the divide and conquer politics of the Right but we are also showing them that we are courageously capable of transforming deep isolation and oppression into something fierce and powerful enough to break and dismantle the chains, cages, walls or bans they want to impose on us. As LGBTQ people, in a multi-racial formation, we are so well positioned to take on this challenge of WINNING; and do it fabulously!

JFL: What the right wing always tries to make us believe is that we are too broken, too different, and too wrong to be valuable to ourselves or each other. Their chief strategy is a spiritual one–to break us. When we have a place where we can look each other in the eye and remind each other that we are worthy, that we can be whole, that there is nothing wrong with us and that in fact we are unbelievably fabulous and powerful, it means we can begin to fight back the isolation, fear, and cynicism that so often plague our lives as LGBTQ people. We need each other to survive. SONG is important right now because all of us are under attack (though in vastly varying ways and degrees). We need organizations that embolden us to live and fight to our full potential. We also need formations that are nimble and can hold the contradictions and variety of challenges that people face when doing movement work.

Tell us about what your hopes are for SONG and what you see your role as in SONG in the future?

SA: I’ve always said that SONG needs to exist for a long time and we have a responsibility as individuals and political actors to support and lead that building and scaling up. My hopes for SONG is that it will continue to do what it does best: find the people that are looking for us and welcome them into a political home where they can grow into resilient, badass, southern queer organizers and leaders. I want to see SONG grow in numbers and scale because we need membership-based organizations in this time more than ever.

JFL: We need SONG to continue to grow to a different scale–not growth for the sake of growth, but growth for the sake of meeting the vastness of the challenge before us. My hope for SONG is that we transform the waters we swim in and by doing so transform ourselves and what is possible for our lives.  I see my role as a member as one of supporting other leaders and trying to anticipate what may be needed from me instead of just waiting to be asked. I also see it as a part of my role as someone who comes from an upper middle/owning class background to continue to resource the everyday operations of SONG with cold hard cash. Shout out to the fabulous “Make It Rain” membership team!! Join us and help us resource this work!!


On Imagination and Spirit
We’ve been talking a lot about the need for both urgency and endurance in moments when our communities are being attacked from every angle. Have you found this to be true? Why or why not? How have you cultivated that as an individual? How do we cultivate this collectively? What practices and rituals have helped you tap into your imagination and/or spiritual grounding?

Absolutely. I think we’ve always needed urgency and endurance in movement work and certainly now is the time to really hone in and master the art of both. The attack on Black, trans, queer, immigrant, Muslim, disabled bodies and communities is an urgent matter; a crisis. As we respond to these attacks we must always stay vigilant and fight back like our lives depend on it, because they do. At the same time, we should seek to find a place where we can find our strength and grounding. We need to develop our endurance muscle so that the urgency feels more like source of motivation–or an urgent love for our people–rather than a sense of despair and chaos.

JFL: I think we are in a difficult time, because many of us have been operating in ‘rapid response’ mode ever since Trayvon Martin was murdered (and many long before that), and now the dial has been turned even further up. I’ve learned the need to cultivate my own capacity for endurance, which I am still working on. I’m cultivating it by trying to find my own political and spiritual center, and moving from there. I think the biggest thing for me is just deciding, every day, to trust that I am enough, that our people are enough, our movements are enough, and to trust that we have what we need to do what we must do in this moment.

What gets in the way of movements being able to utilize imagination and spirit in our work towards liberation? How do we combat these plagues?

JFL: There are a variety of factors that can make it rather difficult to utilize imagination and spirit in our work–one, I have to say, is grant deliverables and ceaseless insulting hoops that leaders of color are forced to jump through to attain the same level of legitimacy and financial backing that many white leaders get just for showing up to the game. The nonprofit industrial complex is real and it is siphoning the lifeblood out of some of our most brilliant leaders and strategists, and that only makes it harder for us to win. However, we need to utilize the 501c3 structure in this moment, because it enables us to do things we can’t do outside of it (just like working outside of it enables us to do things we can’t do inside of it).

I think our own cynicism and fear of failure gets in our way as individuals often. You can’t move from a place of imagination and spirit when you are too afraid to mess up, or be criticized, or learn by doing. We have to have a willingness to trust the process and one another in order to access our imaginative and spiritual potential.

SA: I agree with Lyles. I think sometimes the level of infrastructure that exists around nonprofits actually hinders groups and movements’ abilities to dream the impossible in order to actualize transformative change. In many parts of the world, movements aren’t build through nonprofit infrastructures and while that may have challenges it also has allowed for courageous, visionary leadership. The belief that people can, in fact, transform themselves in order to transform the world has made it possible for movements to topple dictatorships, fascist regimes and regressive governments.

As movement folks in the U.S. we must learn from movements outside of our own context. If we can learn to see that we do not always have to “play by the rules” of a nonprofit, and that if we are willing to push against those rules and limitations then we may be able to unleash our political imagination to a place we could have never dreamed of. Maybe once we do that, we will be able to push even further into the world where we can all breathe, taste, touch, hear and see liberation in our lifetime.  


On What’s Next
Tell us about your greatest ambitions! What else will you be working on?!

SA: I’ll be taking a very tiny and much needed break! I’ll be spending nearly a month back home in Chile for the first time in 20 years and I’m feeling incredibly grateful for that opportunity. I’ve also been in conversations with the amazing and badass folks at Mijente about possibly  building out some work with them, which is very exciting. I’m looking forward to coming back from the homeland with some renewed energy and to continue organizing and shutting it down for my communities.

JFL: My greatest ambition is to get in where I fit in in this movement, over and over as times and conditions change, and honor the legacy of freedom fighters who have gone before us by never giving up on the possibilities that have given me hope in some of the bleakest moments (like right now for example, but also many other times). I’m thrilled to have joined the staff of Groundswell Fund, where I am continuing to build resources and infrastructure for crucial women of color-led movement work, primarily in the reproductive justice world. I’ll also continue to support the work of Girls Rock Charleston in a volunteer capacity–shout out to the epic after school program they are building to divert youth from the school-to-prison pipeline in South Carolina!

How/can people get in touch with you?

SA: Email me! salemacuna@gmail.com or come hang in DC!

JFL: Folks can reach me at jflyles@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you!

Is there anything else you want to share with SONG members?

SA: A huge thanks to everyone I’ve met along the way. The generosity of spirit that everyone has offered has been incomparable, and I am so glad that I get to experience this organization with so many brilliant, joyful and kind people.

JFL: My deep and lasting gratitude for allowing me to be a part of the leadership of this organization–each of you make #queermagic out of the time and tools you have, and I’m so lucky to get to be a part of that.


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