Becoming a More-Effective Social Justice Activist

Angel Mendez on EFC’s Follow-Up Programming

Angel, we have a unique chance to look back on your recent EFC experiences and connect the dots of how the various follow-up programs have changed or strengthened you as a more-effective social justice activist — would you speak to that?

The Encampment for Citizenship is the main catalyst for my personality today. When I first participated in 2014 [University of Illinois, Chicago], I was shy and quiet and sheltered in some ways. The EFC gave me a push to get out of my bubble and see other perspectives, not just my own. It helped me see that I am not the main character and yet, I felt that people were really listening to what I had to say in our discussions. I started speaking my mind about what I thought was right. I also saw the value of hearing everyone out before saying something. One story in particular illustrates how I had to get out of my comfort zone. A discussion arose with Ms. Jane [Sapp] & an Encamper who was more liberal with the word about the use of the “N” word. I could have cut the tension with scissors, but I noticed they got to know each other better through this conversation. These conversations are hard, but they have to be had.

In 2015 [at Tougaloo College, MS], I became more of a leader and a witness, building on my previous experience. Ms. [Elizabeth] Summers’s theater workshop had a huge impact on me. It pushed us out of our comfort zones. Her message is: This [Theater] is an art and when you do art, you give it your all — yours is an important story and no one can tell it better than you do. Rehearsing was so much fun! And, although I didn’t understand at the time, there was a deep and meaningful message about colonization as we acted out a scene with colorful masks for the native world and white masks for the colonizers.

In addition, where we were that summer was a former plantation — one of Ms. Summers’s friends found her ancestor by looking through the plantation records of the slaves who lived there. Now, through Ms. Summers, that person is someone I know. It gives a different perspective on why historical context is so important. What we do now is going to affect what my children will experience.

When I went home, I worked through Farmworkers Self-Help, under the leadership of Margarita Romo, to engage the youth in my community and discuss the struggles they face and how to solve them. I started an open mic in the community for youth to gather and express ideas and feelings through music, acting or in any way they want. The idea behind the open mic is to invite people from outside the community who may have a negative view of our community, to witness the love in it. Hopefully, these events will help to take away the negative stigma the community carries. We also lobbied successfully for KidCare to be extended to undocumented youth in Florida, and we worked on the campaign for in-state tuition so undocumented youth could afford to attend college.

I received an award for my work for and with the immigrant and undocumented community at a city council meeting that was attended by two state representatives and two senators. I never would have done this if I hadn’t come out of my bubble, went through the discomfort and found my voice at the Encampment.

I also was involved in the Dreamers Teatro Crew, a theater group based on the teachings of Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. The theater group teamed up with Florida State University to start a dialogue within communities, using theater exercises as a tool.

2016 was my first internship, and I learned how to notice the opportunities that come up for learning and for building community. For example, we had a section about indigenous/immigrant experiences and we were planning to go to an immigration court, but the discussions beforehand made people feel overwhelmed with emotion and information, so the suggestion was made that maybe it was not such a good idea to go. The staff encouraged a presentation from Encampers from immigrant families about why it was important to go. Also, Black and Hispanic Encampers saw how their experiences/struggles are similar and worked together on the presentation, which led to a vote and a decision to attend the immigration court. That was a difficult experience because we saw how people are hauled into court and don’t know English and are being told legalities without a lawyer. Because immigration is considered civil matter versus criminal, the court is not required to provide lawyers. Judges talked to us about how a lot of the issues did not start with them but with the policies. The court is where the policies are put into practice, but we have to fight the policies.

Clockwise from upper left: Angel (2014 Chicago), upper right (2015 Mississippi), second from left (2016 Massachusetts, far right (2019 Ventura County).

In 2019, I became a senior Intern. I did a lot more than all the other years: handled logistics and headed social media efforts, led conversations, and built leadership with all I did. For instance, I advocated for the Encampers to have a conversation without the adults. The Encampers were not looking at the roots of issues — not digging deeper. What we realized was that they couldn’t go deeper because there was tension within their own community and they were distracted. That discussion had to happen first and from experience, we knew that the best way seemed to be have a conversation without staff. They needed to take leadership/ownership of their community. I led them with questions to dig deeper and instead of being bored by the discussion, after the allotted time, they asked for more time. They chose a spokesperson to tell how it went. After that, there were deeper conversations and they were more open to exploring.

In 2020, I became one of the first EFC Fellows. We participated in a training starting in March to develop our skills further. The program directors, Juna Rosales Muller and Matt Robinson, led beautifully, which is even more amazing because they were completely new to the EFC. It was overwhelming for me during the three-week Summer Intensive because I was also working 20 hours a week at Starbucks, moving, and working with Marquise [Steward] to create the Youth Advisory Council (YAC) infrastructure. I enjoyed having conversations with the Encampers and learning from the guest speakers about how COVID-19 affected different demographics.

People bring their own experiences and relationships to the issues. I’ve learned more about building a team — the Fellows worked together well, helping each other be prepared and do the work; there was a lot of love. I also learned technical skills (facilitating Zoom meetings, creating breakout rooms, how to write a report, the laws that protect young people, and how to communicate better through email).

YAC has been exciting and fun. Marquise is passionate about what he believes in and pushes to achieve it. It’s great putting the infrastructure into place and having new people join the council. These young leaders will lead initiatives that will impact EFC. And the Encampment will continue to bring young people’s voices forward with their ideas of innovative ways to bring about change. It’s not just a trend, but a movement.

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