Ex-law school dean follows new dream

Artist Alexa Grodner is working with women at Enlace Comunitario to make tiles that will be part of a sculpture wall that she expects will be completed by next April. (Courtesy of Alexa Grodner)

Artist Alexa Grodner is working with women at Enlace Comunitario to make tiles that will be part of a sculpture wall that she expects will be completed by next April. (Courtesy of Alexa Grodner)

FOR THE RECORD: In this story, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, executive director of Enlace Comunitario, was incorrectly referred to as former dean of University of New Mexico School of Law. In fact, Sedillo Lopez was an associate dean at the law school.

Antoinette Sedillo Lopez had what she considered an amazing, cushy job as a professor and then dean at the University of New Mexico School of Law, specializing in a range of areas, including family law.

Then one day last July, leading a group of law school students on training program in Guanajuato, Mexico, she saw a homeless woman sitting alone.

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To her surprise, she was so touched by observing her that she decided to buy her a box of expensive chocolates, give her a purse with some money in it, and tell her she hoped to see her again.

“She changed me,” Sedillo Lopez recalled during a recent interview. Seeing the woman made her start considering shifting from her career in academia to more hands-on work.

Four months later, after toying with the idea of leaving the UNM job she’d held and loved for 27 years, she decided to apply for the position of executive director of Enlace Comunitario, a nonprofit organization supporting immigrant women who have experienced domestic violence, where she was already a board member.

Her route to executive directorship was circuitous. Enlace co-founder and former executive director Claudia Medina, who decided to move on, had asked her to chair the search committee for a new director after an internal search at Enlace yielded no applicants.

Antoinette Sedillo Lopez in her office at Enlace Comunitario, where she took over as the new executive director in January. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Antoinette Sedillo Lopez in her office at Enlace Comunitario, where she took over as the new executive director in January. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Sedillo Lopez agreed, but still in a quandary about changing her career focus, she had a dream. “I grew wings and put the entire Enlace building in my knapsack and flew away,” she recalled.

The dream was prophetic. “To me, that was a big message that Enlace was going to be part of my future and I was flying, and that’s exactly what happened.”

She switched from search committee chair to applicant and was selected out of a pool of two dozen candidates.

She started the job in January and has loved it since.

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Among the services Enlace provides are free legal representation for battered women seeking a divorce; parenting classes and support groups for women who go on to volunteer for Enlace as community educators for one year; and a peer education program primarily for children of clients, who educate people their age about teen dating violence.

For Sedillo Lopez, 57, the issues she’s handling at Enlace have always had personal resonance. “The domestic violence issue has always been a big issue for me, because I felt, ‘How tragic for someone not to feel safe in their home?'” she said.

The married mother of two daughters and one son said she experienced violence from a former boyfriend when she was a student at UCLA law school in the early 1980s.

Now, Sedillo Lopez, who was born in Chavez, N.M., leads an organization that serves about 1,000 women every year.

“This is an amazing staff and almost every single day something happens that’s inspiring,” she said during a recent tour of Enlace, stopping frequently to check in with some of the 25 employees in English and Spanish.

Working on domestic violence issues in New Mexico is not as challenging as in some other states, Sedillo Lopez said, because New Mexico is relatively victim-friendly, with a high number of hearing officers who listen to restraining order requests, which can be granted for 10 days based solely on a victim’s allegations. Also in New Mexico, victims can represent themselves rather than seeking, and paying for, an attorney.

To the organization that opened in 2000, Sedillo Lopez has brought some new ideas. One is possibly creating a wellness room in an unused 10-foot-square space at Enlace, located near Yale and Gibson SE. “I’d like to find a futon for it, or a bamboo floor where people could either lie down or meditate,” she said.

She has also commissioned Albuquerque-based sculptor and art educator Alexa Grodner to lead in the creation of a 12-foot by 30-foot wall that will be composed of more than 200 ceramic tiles. They will be texturized and decorated by Enlace staff, service recipients and their children. The tiles will then be attached to a metal structure forged by a local artisan.

Each person’s tile will depict her transformation, an experience Grodner, 57, anticipates will be therapeutic. “It’s going to be a long process,” she said, “but the process is also art therapy … and the result will be this amazing wall.” It is expected to be complete in April 2015.

Sedillo Lopez has garnered the confidence of her predecessor, Medina. “She is a great human being, a good person, very smart, very caring,” Medina said of Sedillo Lopez. “She is really passionate about women’s issues and in particular victims of domestic violence … she is doing everything right.”

Sedillo Lopez anticipates remaining in her position for at least four years. “I really do feel like I’m flying,” she said, referring to the dream she had, “having this kind of impact.”

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