It’s been 4 years and 4 months: What I learned and am unlearning from working full time in immigrant rights organizing.
This is a love and accountability letter to the people who currently work within United We Dream (UWD) and who are committed to the work of liberation. I see you and acknowledge the ways in which your constant leadership has created the space for organizers, staff, and all people who connect with and build alongside UWD to have the tough conversations around harm, the non-profit industrial complex, restorative justice, and accountability among others so that as an immigrants rights movement we continue to grow, shift, heal and do better with our collective power. It is with this in my heart that I thank you and share my experience.
I vividly remember the day I got the invitation to join UWD as their Dream Educational Empowerment Program Coordinator. I was excited as I had just graduated with my M.Ed. and I was being offered a job that allowed the opportunity to grow in my organizing and educational policy work. I was going to be able to share my knowledge on higher education, community care, curriculum building and training with immigrant youth across the nation. Just as I vividly remember the day that I was offered the role, I remember when I was told that I was no longer going to work for UWD. This day was hard. I remember having lunch at one of my favorite local restaurants in Maryland while I waited for my new supervisor Eli Cuna to arrive so that we could check in. I thought we were checking in about the work moving forward given that we had just learned about 45’s administration coming in and about how I was doing. This was not the case, I was told that UWD needed people committed to the organization and that they could not have anyone on contract. I was told that I had a week to transition out. I remember being shocked and confused about what “being on contract” meant since I was a full-time staff. I was scared of what was to come next for me, felt alone, and worried about the youth that I was working with and for. While the offer letter that I had signed with UWD when I started working outlined that I could be let go of at any time, I thought I had established relationships with senior staff like Julieta Garibay as my previous supervisor in a way that deserved the transparency and proactiveness that I had led with when I shared with Julieta that my goal was to transition out of the organization by the summer of 2017. I had shared my transition plan more than six months in advance, started gauging youths interest in leading the work and had began to train folks to support and grow the work.
While I was devastated at how things had unfolded I was one of about six people in the organization who had transitioned and possibly been pushed out during the last six months of my time working for UWD. I knew there was underlying things like silence, gaslighting, and private conversations happening within the organization that I could not and still do not fully understand. While I tried to process this uncertainty for myself, I knew I had to advocate for myself. I was angry and sad that I had to advocate for myself within an organization and with people that were supposed to be fighting and taking care of people like me.
*November 2016-March 2017*
I had to put my ego and pain aside and advocate for what I needed. At this point in my life I had already transitioned into being my parents full-time financial caretaker. this meant that I had been paying for all of their expenses ranging from medical to mortgage to food and more, in addition to my own for about three years. I needed to be financially stable for them and me. I also needed more time to transition relationships and projects within the network because I wanted the youth and colleagues that I had been working with across the nation to know that I was not simply leaving and that they had what they needed and that I could provide on short notice. I worked with human resources and asked for an extension of my health insurance so that I could schedule final check-ins and appointments because I didn’t know when I would next have access to healthcare. I asked for paid vacation and salary that allowed me time to figure out next steps. I asked for an exit interview because I knew that I wanted my experience documented even though I wasn’t asked to do this, In fact, I have yet to be reached out to by Eli Cuna, Julieta Garibay or other senior staff, most of whom I know have transitioned out of the organization for an exit interview or general check in on why my transition out shifted so drastically or how I was doing. I share this not because I need this, but because at the beginning I wondered if anyone noticed patterns of staff leaving or if this was how community care looked and felt like. I don’t know what their experience was but I know it didn’t feel like community care.
The next few months were full of grief, letting go, resting, and coming back to myself. I grieved the relationships that had been a part of my life for 3+ years and the ways they had become my family. I grieved the community spaces with organizations like ScholarshipsA-Z, Connecticut Students for a Dream, Kentucky Dream Coalition and others that I got to build with, grow alongside and that held me during difficult times. I grieved the projects I was not able to see come to fruition, and the illusion and relationship that I had built of UWD both as an organization and the people who co-led it.
I let go of the need to justify my work and the gaslighting that I experienced. I let go of the need to be a spokesperson for an entire group of people, the constant need to produce and yet not be recognized for my work through community care and higher salary. I let go of the annual community spaces and retreats led by senior staff Julieta Garibay, Cristina Jiménez Moreta, and Greisa Martínez Rosas that never felt safe or brave because we weren’t ready to acknowledge the harm we were all playing a role in and building power off of. It was hard leaving the toxic relationship that I had with UWD as an organization and with the senior leadership. It was also hard to let go because while I was no longer a full-time staff, I was still being asked for support and information by the staff. I knew this was not okay and at the same time I wasn’t ready to let go. However, I knew better so I asked to be paid for my labor and was hired via a contract to transition the person that would lead the education equity work. After about two months I had to let go and I did.
This is where I upheld cancel culture, I unfriended people that reminded me of the harm, the organization and asked for my picture to be taken off of marketing materials. I wasn’t looking for restorative justice or accountability, I wasn’t ready to hold myself, the people involved or the institution accountable. This was not okay and I’ve been working on this. This is the purpose of this letter to invite folks to reflect and have these conversations and to keep myself accountable as a part of my healing process and constant growth journey. I don’t want to uphold cancel culture.
I also rested and released. When I returned to my parent’s house for the December holidays I slept and just laid on the couch. I ate homecooked meals, and listened to music for two weeks. I quickly realized how much my body needed this. I hadn’t slowed down in over 3+ years to truly rest and connect to myself and my family. I pushed myself to not think about looking for work or potential projects that would lead to financial stability because I needed to sit with it all and hold my grief, body, and rest.
I slowly started coming back to myself. I started running again, singing out loud, looking for ways to continue to build community in the DC metropolitan area, cooking, and doing workshops and consulting for a full year as a way to establish financial stability. This was only possible because of the relationships that I had built within my work. I was being held and still am by community and for it, I will always be grateful. I was slowly stepping into myself, my voice, and power. It was then that I started to move into a place of accountability. I was reflecting on the ways that I too upheld white supremacy and capitalism by not speaking up against it and expecting people to produce. I reflected on the ways I reinforced patriarchal behaviors as a woman of color. I acknowledged the way I had put people on a pedestal and not held them accountable to their humanity and opportunities for growth. I reflected on the ways I played into the good and bad immigrant narratives and the ways I held privilege and power over people. I was slowly but surely healing and coming back to myself, to my values, to my humanity and my accountability.
It’s been 4 years and 4 months
A lot has happened since I transitioned out of UWD. I have continued consulting, have worked for the University of Maryland and have also transitioned out of the university where I also experienced similar things like growth, grief, healing and unlearning. What I hold most deeply about my transition out of UWD and would like to share are the following:
I learned that if I didn’t produce what was expected that it was normal for me to feel like my work was not important or good enough. I am unlearning the ways I perpetuate capitalism and put profit over people, growth, and community building. This is hard and heart- work every day.
I learned that centering community rarely included me as a part of the community. This looked like and I still see many organizers in immigrant rights spaces skipping meals, leaving, work past 9pm, and working months straight without weekends off. I am unlearning this and putting myself first, I am a part of the community I want freedom for and need to take care of myself alongside community. This is hard and heart- work every day.
I learned that if I didn’t speak up or perform in the ways “real organizers” did via civil disobedience, taking up space through chanting, working and not resting, performing interviews that glorified trauma and perpetuated power dynamics; that I wasn’t down for the community. I am unlearning this and learning that the way that I show up best has to be aligned with my values and that it is enough. That I am worthy because I am alive and that there is always space for different strategies because we need all of the strategies and visions for collective freedom and liberation. This is hard and heart- work every day.
I learned to normalize being ignored and then being gaslit. It was either my fault for not speaking up or my fault for going against the organization or senior leadership even thought this was accountability. I needed to be better, organizers could do better and the organization needed to lead by example. Regardless of my attempts folks were always busy, had more important things to do, or were in back to back meetings and events. There was never enough time to build relationships and practice accountability or restorative justice with each other and for community. I am unlearning this by building these conversations and spaces in the work that I do now with youth and into my daily routine. By reflecting and moving away from being inclined to ignore a comment a colleague or student said or something I heard or that I did because I have a task list or meeting to finish. This is hard and heart- work every day.
There are so many other things that I learned and am unlearning both from my experience working within organizing and higher education spaces that I work on every day. There are also things that might not have come up for me yet and that will as my healing and accountability journey continues. The biggest lessons that I take is that it is about me and organizing spaces like UWD but not only about me and organizing/higher education spaces like UWD. This work is beyond these structures and the people within them as we live within systems of oppression and perpetuate them in other areas of our lives. For me it has shown up in my relationship with my parents, my relationship to myself, my partner, in folklorico and more because I, as all Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are living under white supremacy and terrorism. Because I live on stolen land as a settler and because I have been socialized within these systems for more than 27 years. I acknowledge that I too am toxic, that I too whether intentional or not upheld and on some days uphold these systems of inequality because there is a lot of unlearning to do. I too am at fault and I continue to take accountability in how I move forward in my life journey and in the ways I show up in my life’s calling.
My commitment to myself, my family, my ancestors, the generations after me and the undocumented and immigrant community is that I continue to unlearn these systems of oppression and practice restorative justice. That I challenge my ego everyday so that there is opportunity for growth and the building of a new earth. That I continue to break intergenerational trauma that comes and is built of off these systems and build spaces for courage, releasing, and the building of intergenerational joy.
If you are someone who is an immigrant and or undocumented or formerly undocumented OR someone working with currently or formerly undocumented youth who want to talk more about these experiences in organizing, higher education, within your family, community and or immigrant rights spaces; I invite you to join me.
Let’s talk about them, lets hold each other accountable to our growth as people part of these communities. Let’s unlearn these and learn ways of being that align with our values. Let’s share what is working for us and isn’t and tap into the abundance that we already are. Let’s disrupt these cycles, practices, thoughts and ways of leading and being that uphold white supremacy rooted in colonial, capitalist patriarchy. Let’s dig deeper into all the systems we are fighting against and sometimes for, like citizenship. Having people to talk to about these and hold me while I grieved and engaged in my healing journey made all the difference. Having community to hold me accountable to do better has helped my healing and growth process and if you want to have a brave space for this, engage with me here.
I acknowledge that you might not know me, I am a Mexicana, previous first generation and undocumented student (high school through my masters degree prior to DACA) who is currently living on Nisenan peoples land. I work with undocumented students and am part of a mixed-immigration status family. I love food and exploring the outdoors and movement with my body. I am currently learning how to roller-skate and learning that walking is just as important as running. I am moving through vulnerability and accountability to myself and others, I am love, I am enough. I am human.
Thank you for allowing me to release and reclaim my experience and purpose. If you want to talk about this, can’t wait to share space with you.
In community and accountability,