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Organizer Analilia Mejia on Helping Communities of Color

Analilia Mejia's Childhood Inspired Her Work Advocating For Communities of Color


Analilia Mejia had two things going for her when she decided to change the world — a strong line of women who came before her, and her firsthand experience of growing up poor. But this is no sad tale. This is the story of a resilient half-Colombian, half-Dominican girl from Elizabeth, NJ, who persevered through obstacles stacked against her. Today, she is the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD): a woman who has discovered the simultaneous power of one and the impact of a community.

"We're in the business of planting seeds that we may never live to see, but we still believe in those seeds," Mejia tells POPSUGAR.

"We are worthy. We are powerful. And if we act together, we can change the world."

CPD is network of over half a million activists in 48 organizations across 38 states and Puerto Rico that builds the power of communities to ensure the country embodies an inclusive, equitable society. Mejia works alongside CPD's other co-executive director, DaMareo Cooper, and together they are among the many community organizers standing on the frontlines of change for people of color, immigrants, working families, women, and LGBTQ communities. On CPD's website, the organization describes this as an "especially important time when our communities are being threatened and the institutions that sustain us are under attack."

That's true on many levels, and it was driven home with the Jan. 10 death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man from Memphis, TN. Nichols died three days after being assaulted and beaten by five Black Memphis police officers. Immediately after his death, Mejia, on behalf of CPD, released a powerful statement: "To be clear: these murders of our community members are not examples of a 'broken' systems. Our criminal legal system is functioning the way it was designed to: oppress, kill, and otherwise harm the most marginalized in the U.S. — Black people, disabled and neurodivergent people, and the poor."

This truth — so clear in high-profile police killings in recent years — may leave communities feeling helpless and individuals at a loss of what they can possibly do to help. But that's why Mejia and CPD exist; organizations like hers help provide people with information, resources, and support in becoming civically engaged, which has proven time and time again throughout history to be an anecdote to oppression.

"We go into the communities and talk to people about their role in shaping all the policies, rules, and laws that dictate their lives," Mejia explains.

Knowing the steps you can take to effect change is powerful. For example, we can all help shape police budgets, Mejia says. That entails injecting yourself in the work around annual budgeting at the municipal, county, and state levels.

Mejia, who is the mother of two young Black boys, concedes that problems and solutions have already been identified. The devastating part is that even in the face of clear solutions, innocent Black lives continue to be taken.

"We already knew that giving police officers this free reign in a system, in a nation, where it is ingrained to devalue Black life, and where it is ingrained to presume criminality, particularly [for] Black men, that when you give [officers] the freedom to act in a system that is toxic, they're going to behave with that level of toxicity. And it costs us our lives over and over again," she says.

It's an uphill battle that is not new for Mejia. Before joining CPD, she was the national political director of Bernie Sanders for President. And she has long been in the business of community organizing and inspiring individuals to know and understand their role in the process. For Mejia, it comes down to two magic numbers.

"There are social scientists that point out that social movements cannot win without capturing the hearts and minds of at least 3 percent of the population. There is a threshold of impact that can change the direction of a community, of a nation, of a state," Mejia explains. "That's one magic number, the other magic number is at the polls."

The power of voting is top priority for Mejia, who encourages people to utilize their right to cast a ballot and to understand the numbers needed at the polls to win. By understanding who has been in power, what their margin of victory was, and how to surpass it, people voting from marginalized communities can truly change the trajectory of this country.

"We want to get 3, 4, 5 percent of our brethren in this country to understand that the problems they face and that they believe are personal and therefore feel shame and that somehow they can't cut it, that if we can somehow connect them to other people and move them from personal shame and blame to collective action, we can get those numbers," Mejia says. "And one of the collective actions we call to people to do is civic participation. You can participate in the election. You can't vote? Your neighbors can."

Mejia knows that shame firsthand. Growing up in New Jersey, she recalls being in elementary school when a security guard handed her an envelope in front of all her friends. It contained money for her parents, who delivered newspapers.

"I remember feeling so ashamed that my parents sold newspapers. I remember being ashamed of being poor," she says. "I think about all the of the energy wasted in that shame and that blame and that guilt."

What changed for Mejia was receiving help, guidance, and support from mentors and teachers; that allowed her to move from that place of shame to a place of knowledge and strength. When she understood how the economic system moves — and specifically how pay inequity impacts women and Black and Brown people — she was liberated from shame and empowered to share her knowledge and plant her own seeds. It's something she learned to do from her mother, she says.

"My mother, who left her home country, she's Colombian, and came to this country with just this deep commitment for building a future for her grandchildren," Mejia says. "She would always say, 'I am sacrificing myself now so that my grandkids and my great grandkids won't have to.' So, I borrow from that, that I can plant a seed now that I won't see, but will flourish. That's definitely from my mother."

Mejia counts her grandmother and abuelita as inspiration for her own life, too. And she's also inspired by powerful women in history like Frances Perkins, the first woman and fourth US Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945.

"We would not have child labor laws without this woman," Mejia says. "The idea that someone who was so deeply committed to effecting change for the marginalized — she's the epitome of 'I see you.'"

Mejia is also inspired by the likes of Stephanie Valencia, whom she describes as an "unsung hero." Valencia is the cofounder of EquisLabs, an organization working to create a better understanding of the Latinx electorate and engaging Latinx voters. She's also a fan of powerful Latinas in Washington DC, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

"And of course, AOC, cause, oh my lord!" Mejia says of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. "I have to be reminded that she's in her early thirties. I'm like, 'What have I done with my life?'"

Mejia jokes, but she has accomplished a lot, too. And she doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.

"I try to remind the 12-year-old girl in me who watched my parents struggle and live through having the gas or the light cut off or not enough food in the pantry and watch my mother and my father literally cry over bills," she says. "We are worthy. We are powerful. And if we act together, we can change the world."

Image Source: Kisha Bari
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