Melissa Borja: Activist and Social Entrepreneur

Making the Corner safer for LGBTQ+ individuals.

If you watch Charlottesville local news you may have recently noticed a student being interviewed. Her face would have been affixed with the passion of a dedicated disruptor. Melissa Hannah Borja is a first-generation college student, an activist, and has recently become a social entrepreneur. Whether it be shattering the UVa bubble or protecting undocumented students, Borja’s passion for helping those in need is resolute.

prideinterview

Borja being interviewed by CBS19 in regards to Pride.

Borja’s path to entrepreneurship has been riddled with both challenges and successes. Her current project is titled, Pride on the Corner. An endeavor in social entrepreneurship, Pride, (as Borja likes to call it), is dedicated to creating an inclusive space for LGBTQ+ individuals on The Corner. Borja isn’t looking for a short term solution either. She wants, “The Corner to be safe for queer people all of the time.”

Borja argues that the Corner is not friendly to those who identify as LGBTQ+. As a heteroflexible cis-gender woman, Borja has not directly experienced sexual discrimination. Her first exposure to this issue came through her connections to the University’s queer community. According to her, many openly queer students actively avoid The Corner. After learning about the challenges facing the queer community on The Corner, Borja was struck by inspiration.

Last summer, Borja worked as a server at Eddy’s Tavern. A standard slow day at Eddy’s Tavern took a surprising turn. An outwardly simple thought entered Borja’s mind:  the queer community needs a space on The Corner and Eddy’s needed customers. Seemingly simple, it would have been impossible to see a solution without exposure to the queer community and Eddy’s. The idea had merit. Queer individuals would be more likely to go to an establishment that was planning on welcoming them. Borja was uniquely positioned to leverage her connection to the LGBTQ+ community and Eddy’s to bring about needed social change. On that quiet day in Eddy’s, Pride was born.

pridelogo

Pride’s official logo developed by Borja.

It began as a simple idea, but quickly developed into something more. At first, Borja was not focused on social entrepreneurship, just activism. According to Borja, before this semester, she would never have considered herself an entrepreneur. When faced with the question, are you highly entrepreneurial, Borja would have initially responded with, “L-O-L”. Before now, her focus had always been socially-driven activism. After identifying the challenges The Corner presents to the queer community, she realized that social entrepreneurship could provide an optimal solution. Starting a non-profit could allow Borja to achieve sustainable long-term cultural change.

Many students would first turn towards a university-centric approach, but not Borja. She recognized that starting a social venture, rather than a Contracted Independent Organization (CIO), would allow her to achieve the cultural shift she desired. To her, a CIO would make it more difficult to involve members of the Charlottesville community. Borja argues that even though a large number of students visit the corner, many community members do as well. Borja believes that Pride should not solely focus on the well-being of queer students but also the larger queer community.

Another major concern of Borja’s is organizational sustainability. Her goals are not limited to simply an annual event promoting queerness. During the interview Borja made it clear, “I want the culture surrounding queerness on The Corner to change.” Culture cannot be changed overnight. Social entrepreneurship offers more stability than the C.I.O. approach. Running Pride as a non-profit will allow Borja to insulate the organization from weak leadership or other diversions commonly faced by student-run organizations. Borja has only run Pride for one semester, but she has already faced steep challenges.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge was the closing of Eddy’s. Several weeks after starting Pride, the owners of Eddy’s decided to shut down the bar due to declining revenues. Like any successful entrepreneur, Borja did not let this stand in her way. She believes that this presented her with an important opportunity to critically examine what the next stage of Pride could be. Eddy’s closing made her focus on the importance of sustainability. When Pride comes back, Borja hopes that it will no longer be tied to a single bar but could move up and down the corner. Involving more businesses would stop Pride from being tied to the fortunes of a single enterprise.

Another challenge has been pushback from individuals that do not share the same views of LGBTQ+ individuals. One student expressed a preference to avoid the corner when Pride was going on. Borja also stated that a preacher once stood outside Eddy’s reading bible verses during a Pride event. Her experience with activism has helped her ignore these challenges. It appears that a thick skin is necessary for anyone seeking cultural change.

Success has also greeted Borja’s efforts. She considers hosting The Corner’s first ever drag show as one of her proudest moments. Watching a community coalesce around her early events made her realize that this cultural change was possible. Outside recognition has also rewarded her efforts. The A.N.G.E.L.S. Society, a secret society that recognizes those who contribute to the university community, left Borja a message. The message (pictured below), recognizes her efforts to improve the experience of queer students on the corner. In that moment, Borja knew that all her hard work was having an impact.

angelsletter

A letter addressed to Borja and Eddy’s by the A.N.G.E.L.S. society.

Borja’s future plans for Pride and herself incorporate her passion for helping those in need. Pride’s long-term future may even involve opening an establishment on the corner. Borja’s dream is to invest in the corner and the larger Charlottesville community by opening a queer friendly restaurant or bar on the corner. Borja imagines a staff composed of students and community members in defiance of the UVa bubble. Borja has also not ruled out higher education. Her work with immigration law has inspired her to attend law school. Apparently, tackling oppressors of the less fortunate is easier with a fancy law degree. She also made a point to mention her 60-year goals, retiring to her mother’s ancestral home of Puerto Rico, “with rum in my hand and hope in my heart.”

Pride will be coming back this semester in a major way. Borja is working hard to build relationships with local businesses. She is satisfied with last semester’s successes but wants to continue to push for cultural change. If you have any skills to contribute, reach out through Pride’s brand new website here: https://prideonthecorner.com/

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