Standing Together to End Sexual Assault Executive Director Elsa Granados
Paul Wellman

Elsa Granados has such a warm laugh that she’d make Santa Claus envious. Within minutes of spending time with her, you feel cozy and relaxed. Speaking with her is the equivalent of drinking a cup of hot chocolate while sitting by the fire.

“I have no regrets,” she says, punctuated by her signature laugh. “It’s a good journey.”

This coming February, Elsa will celebrate her 22nd year as the executive director of the nonprofit formerly known as the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center. It was recently rebranded under the name Standing Together to End Sexual Assault.

“People thought it was a woman’s issue,” she explains of the old name. “More people are coming forward. Women are highly stigmatized by telling their story, but men are even more so.” Over the years, they also heard from survivors that the word “rape” in the organization’s name was confusing or off-putting because it made them uncertain if their experience of sexual assault fit within the services they provided.

STESA offers both immediate and long-term care. Their crisis intervention services include a hotline, drop-in counseling sessions, accompanying survivors to assault-related appointments, and helping them navigate the justice system. Their long-term counseling occurs on a weekly or biweekly basis, and they also program support groups and education programs.

Elsa speaks passionately about the notion of prevention. “We are in schools, colleges, and civic organizations,” she says. “We do sexual harassment prevention training. We will talk to anyone who will listen about how to prevent sexual assault, as well as how to be more sensitive.”

There’s been a growing awareness because of grassroots movements like #timesup, #wesaidenough, and #metoo. “But survivors of sexual are very sensitive how stories of sexual assault are treated by the community and by loved ones,” she explains. “When high-profile survivors’ stories are treated well, it encourages more people to come forward.”

Elsa Granados was born in Los Angeles. Though her dad was born in the United States, both parents were raised in Mexico. Her parents only spoke to Elsa and her siblings in Spanish. “They wanted to make sure we respect our traditions,” she says. “Imparting their language was essential.”

Elsa attended Garfield High School, where she was taught by inspiring teacher Jaime Escalante, who was the subject of the Academy Award-nominated film Stand And Deliver. Upon graduating in 1980, she studied physics at UC-Santa Cruz. “I had a childhood dream of being an astronaut,” she says. “Astronomy has always been a passion of mine.”

But after three years, she was bored and couldn’t see how her studies would translate into a career. Needing money to stay in school, she started teaching in Watsonville, a Santa Cruz County city with a large migrant population. There was a scarcity of bilingual teachers and Elsa found a purpose.

She also met students who had issues with assault, so she volunteered for a nonprofit called Women’s Crisis Support, whose mission is to end domestic violence and sexual assault by providing services in a culturally sensitive way. They offered her work at their shelter part time, and in coordinating their sexual assault service countywide.

“I enjoyed my work there,” she says. “But I understood if I didn’t go back to school, I couldn’t make the impact I wanted to at a policy level.” She changed her major to psychology and graduated in 1989.

Her partner, Mark Bandurraga, wanted to go to San Diego to get his Master’s degree in engineering, so she got a job with child welfare services there. Three years later, in 1993, she pursued her Master’s degree in public administration from San Francisco State. “I’m a banana slug for UC Santa Cruz,” she’s quick to point out. “And I’m a gator for San Francisco State.” In 1995, she started working for the San Francisco Foundation.

Elsa and Mark found themselves traveling to L.A. at least once a month to visit family. Eventually, they made a pact that whomever got a job either in Santa Barbara or San Diego, that’s where they will move. In February 1997, Elsa landed the job at the Rape Crisis Center.

What’s her secret for finding satisfaction over such a long tenure? “Making a difference in the community,” she responds without hesitation. “I help survivors of sexual assault. People walk in with trauma, and they want to change. They end up seeing their experience in a different way. They feel empowered. I also feel inspired by the people that work with me, the people on the hotline.”

But it does take a toll. “Our work requires a lot of self-care,” says Elsa. “I’ve been learning to fly a small airplane. I’m taking martial arts and I do kickboxing.”

Elsa Granados answers the Proust Questionnaire.

On what occasion do you lie?

I lie when talking with kids about Santa. Although I have guilt about it, I uphold the lie because I also believe in magical moments.

What is your current state of mind?

I feel at peace. I’ve had a good life in the company of people I cherish. I feel lucky each day that I wake up.

What is your greatest extravagance?

One of the ways in which I treat myself is to have a hot tub in my home. Each weekend, I try to make time to soak in it, while watching the stars.

What do you like most about your job?

I like celebrating small victories in the area of sexual assault prevention, birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions. Our staff members get together for a potluck and play a few rounds of Exploding Kittens, Spoons, or Pictionary.

What is your most marked characteristic?

My laugh. People tell me that they recognize my laugh from far away. One time a coworker gave me a great compliment. Every year, I take vacation from work for four to six weeks. One year she said that she knew that I was back because she could hear me laugh from the other side of the building and she thought to herself, “She’s back, everything is going to be alright.”

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I love floating on an inner tube or snorkeling in warm, clear water.

What is your greatest fear?

I fear that humans won’t pay the attention needed to make our planet healthy. I fear that we will continue to ruin nature and animals. That would be sad!

Who do you most admire?

I admire so many people! I admire people who parent well. Of course that’s subjective, but among so many other skills, parenting requires a lot of patience, creativity, and giving of self. I have many examples in my life of people who do this well.

What is the quality you most like in people?

The ability to keep their word. And if they can’t for whatever reason, to say so.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

I dislike a lack of integrity. I respect people who act with integrity even when it may have negative consequences for them.

What do you most value in friends?

I have lots of acquaintances and a few friends. I value their willingness to listen and their willingness to hold a space for a range of emotions, no matter what they are.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Super,” as in super yummy, super cool, super good.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I would love to fly like Superman!

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would like to eliminate any doubts or fears that circumscribe my life.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Having a positive and meaningful relationship with my nieces and nephews. I love being an aunt!

Where would you most like to live?

I would like to live in a place where it rains a lot. I want cold rain, not warm rain.

What is your most treasured possession?

A note from my dad. He didn’t write me very often, but when I was in college he wrote me a short note that contained many essential elements of who he was to me as a person. He passed away many years ago, so I treasure that note.

Who makes you laugh the most?

I have many people in my life that make me laugh. I’m so fortunate in that way. I like jokes aimed at six year olds. One of my favorite jokes is, “What did 0 say to 8? Nice belt!” (I’m laughing now.)

What is your motto?

Show up for your life and show up for the people you love.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I’m most inspired by people who get up every day to work to improve the lives of people they don’t know. I love it when people seek social justice for all of us. I’m in awe by people who help animals, nature, and who produce art in its various forms. I also appreciate Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African American and Native American descent to hold a pilot license.


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