On May 13, 2015, 21 PROGRESS held Legacy of Leadership celebrating founding executive director, Sharon Maeda’s 47 years of social justice work. As the program was running long and seeing a standing room only crowd, she did not make this speech; we share it with you now.
That was part of Maya Angelou’s poem, Caged Bird, a companion to her award winning book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It resonates with me as much as it did when I first read it as a young adult.
I am humbled by your presence and generous support, but to be honest, a lot of my career and community involvement was about being at the right place at the right time and seizing the moment, most often behind the scenes. That career took me to places where there were many people locked away in real or perceived cages:
- in inner cities, barrios and reservations where neglect or well intended programs had dulled the people’s spirits and shattered their dreams.
- on garbage dumps where families lived and picked through the garbage for a living, ingesting methane gas all the while.
- in my own community where 120,000 members of my family and other Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII.
- among young workers and immigrants where low wages or the broken immigration system keep them far from the American Dream.
The common thread in my eclectic career is that I could practice my passion for justice – and not get fired. In fact, I had the kind of mentors who trusted that there’s always a path to justice. “Go help and report back when Elian Gonzalez gets home to Cuba,” was the comment from the General Secretary of the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church when the Cuban Council of Churches asked for help. Meeting heads of state or sitting in China’s Great Hall or the US Supreme Court was just icing on the cake.
I worked with proud, engaged people whose material wealth could be held in their hands or worn on their backs. I worked with and on behalf of people who had been crippled by their circumstances or the discrimination they faced. And, more often than not, I just unlatched the cage door and they pushed their way out – and soared!
Near the end of my career, I was blessed to be asked to help launch a new nonprofit, 21 PROGRESS. UFCW 21 provided a bold vision and values as well as the start-up funds, recognizing how race and gender, legal and economic status affects everything, and allowed experimentation to find our niche to grow the next generation of progressive leaders.
This work is complex. We meet the young immigrants and workers where they are: at community organizations and gatherings, in their union halls and schools, the library and hang outs, online or their homes. And, we have to build trust. Imagine leaving for school each day and not knowing if your parents will be home that night or in the Tacoma Detention Center on their way to deportation. Imagine working 2 or 3 jobs just to pay the rent and keep food on the table. Imagine never having a chance to express your frustrations in a setting where you could work with others to change your circumstance, or those of your community, or even dream of changing the world.
21 PROGRESS was in formation as President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows young immigrants without papers to go to college or get legitimate jobs without fear of deportation just as . I was working with attorneys and accountants to set up the organization and had not yet hired staff. With the enthusiastic and absolute support of the board, we geared up and provided what immigrant rights advocates said was needed: the $465 application fee. Today, 300 DREAMers have received interest and fee-free microloans and our default rate would be the envy of any lender. We have been told that 21 PROGRESS is one of the largest DACA loan programs in the Pacific Northwest. But, there are still thousands still at risk in Washington and millions across the country. The DREAMers are primarily from Mexico but we have participants from Kenya, Saudi Arabia and all across Latin America. We’re now also reaching out to the 6,000 -7,000 eligible Asian and Pacific Islanders in Washington who are still in the shadows.
A low wage worker or undocumented student’s economic condition often prevent them from being involved as leaders. Paulo Freire’s belief that all people can learn and be leaders guides our popular education program.
There are many excellent leadership development programs and we have partnered with the ACLF (Asian Pacific Island Community Leadership Foundation) and Leadership Tomorrow. Their teams learned about our issues and have provided important research and strategies for our work. But we also looked at what’s missing or not accessible. Last year, 21 PROGRESS piloted our Justice Fellows program with a handful of young, experienced social justice professionals. We focused on barriers to their future and coaching on the day-to-day management of a nonprofit organization, or just being a sounding board for their fears and frustrations. All five Justice Fellows have stepped up: two have moved on to greater leadership responsibilities, one is running an award winning nonprofit and two have found new paths for the future. And, they are mentoring others coming up behind them.
At the same time, we’re grappling with how all the –isms and often public policy are designed to keep them apart from each other and still in those cages. Now, with larger, transit accessible space, these young leaders will also be having regular conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement, about what it truly means to be “legal” in this country from the perspective of prior incarceration or documentation, or the growing undocumented LGBTQ youth who are homeless. Only when these difficult conversations happen will there be the leadership capacity to truly make equitable change.
Tonight, look around at the amazing 21 PROGRESS staff – and the dozens of young leaders whose names you will come to know in the arts, community, education, labor, public service, and electoral politics. They are the DREAMers and the workers committed to making this a better community and planet with your help. It will not look the same as the 60’s and 70’s but – with your support – they will grow a 21st century movement for equity and justice for all.