06 Feb MJ CASTELLS: I WENT SEARCHING FOR COMMUNITY, AND DISCOVERED MYSELF
I’ve lived in Miami for almost 25 years, and it wasn’t until I found a sense of community that I discovered not only myself but also my city.
My parents moved to the U.S. from Ecuador when I was five years old. Aside from the fact that when I first arrived I couldn’t speak the language, I also had to learn how to make new friends in a place that was completely foreign to me. We lived in California for a few years before coming to Miami in 1995 at age nine. Moving around a lot, coupled with language barriers, made it difficult for me to adjust. Growing up in the closet made it even more challenging.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I came out to myself and my close friends, and I began the process of accepting and loving myself for who I am. It was a rocky start, but I hit a turning point the moment I felt like I belonged and was accepted. I thank Aqua Girl, one of Miami’s (and the country’s) largest women’s events, for this. At the time, I was volunteering for different organizations. I enjoyed giving back, making new friends and discovering the city. Still, I felt like something was missing, but I couldn’t quite figure out what. Then I learned that Aqua Girl was looking for volunteers for one of their biggest pool party fundraisers, and without giving it much thought, I signed right up. Looking back now, it was the catalyst that led me to finding myself – and Miami. There was a time when I didn’t like Miami. In Aqua Girl, I found a community of women who were uplifting and that welcomed me and made me feel like I belonged. It was the final step to truly accepting myself and it pushed me to explore all the good that the city has to offer. I didn’t even know I was looking for community until I found it.
Volunteering was just the beginning of my journey with Aqua Foundation for Women, the organization behind the fundraiser. My role at Aqua is deeply rooted in a sense of belonging and acceptance, and it has helped me develop professionally and personally. As a full-time staff member, I’ve had the privilege to develop their programming and play a part in their involvement with the community we serve. One of my proudest accomplishments is managing our annual conference for the transgender and gender non-binary community, TransCon. The two-day event features a job fair with notable local and national companies looking to hire, as well as educational and empowering workshops, most of which are facilitated by some of our amazing trans community members. This year, we’ll also have S. Bear Bergman, a notable educator and storyteller as our keynote.
TransCon has grown tremendously over the years, welcoming over 300 attendees in 2017 and growing from one day to two days, with not only educational opportunities but also job resources. I’ve seen the direct impact it has had on our transgender and non-binary community. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, ensuring that we handle all aspects of the conference responsibly, listen to our trans community and take a step back when needed. I’m grateful for our partners like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who help us put on the event and allow us to make it free for people to attend. A grant through the GLBT Community Projects Fund from The Miami Foundation and National LGBTQ Task Force, helps us cover transportation for those who need it as well. Most importantly, it allows us to continue a movement that started almost eight years ago and has continued to grow and become a staple for the LGBTQ community in Miami-Dade.
With TransCon, I get to create a community that does for others what Aqua Girl did for me. This year’s event is on March 2nd and 3rd at Barry University, and I invite everyone to join us. It’s vital that we continue to create spaces for folks to feel welcomed and to come together. It is through building community that we will achieve equity and equality for ALL of our LGBTQ+ members and, in turn, continue on our path to making Miami a great city that welcomes and strives for inclusion and diversity.
MJ Castells is the program director for Aqua Foundation for Women and a member of Miami Fellows Class X.