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Courage is contagious, says Voices Against Injustice award winner

Date Published: May 5, 2019

Author: Buck Anderson

SALEM — The city sent out a powerful message Sunday night at its annual Human Rights and Social Justice awards ceremony.

In its 26th annual presentation of the Voices Against Injustice award, Salem honored Ana Maria Archila, executive director of the center for Popular Democracy, but better known, she laughingly recalls, as one of the women who got to Republican Sen. Jeff Flake in the elevator of the Senate Office Building during September’s Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett Kavanaugh.

Archila is no stranger to the issue of emigration. She recalled immigrating from Bolivia to the U.S. at 17 and settling in New York with her family. Her own experience of being an emigrant “was the most transformative of my life,” she recalled.

After college, she said, she went to work with her aunt on Staten Island, in a small one-room store front — just the front room and a bathroom, she recalled — in a private social service agency attempting to help South- and Central-American residents deal with the U.S. and to learn English.

Most of them had menial jobs, usually paying far less for far longer hours than the law allowed. One of the most moving conversations she had was with two boys, still teenagers, trying to buy teenage things like tennis shoes and bicycles while, at the same time, saving money to send home to their families. Their employee, a local businessman, paid them $3 an hour, a pittance of the legal minimum wage, then telling them to come to his home on Sundays and do construction work for nothing.

The boys said they knew they were being cheated, but it didn’t bother them that much. What really bothered them, they both said, was that he called them “Pancho.” They weren’t people to him … He didn’t even know enough about them to call them by their names.

During her 13 years at Make the Road New York (MRNY) Archila “helped it lead transformative victories for low-income New Yorkers … by helping put millions of dollars in the pockets of low-wage workers by winning increases to the minimum wage, paid sick days, and protections from wage-theft,” according to the program booklet for the event.

In 2014, she became co-executive director at the center for Popular Democracy (CPD) and helped build it into one of the largest community organizing networks in the country, representing a powerful multi-racial alliance of immigrants “working to advance an agenda of racial and economic justice.”

But as she said before, with a laugh, what she has become known for is “the lady in the elevator.”

One of the many things they do, she said. is to teach volunteers and activists they work with the art of “bird-dogging.” All you need to do to force lawmakers, politicians, people in power to listen is to put them in a situation they cannot easily escape.

You need someone to tell their story to the target, who was in a position to possibly do something about it — like voting against Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court, or not voting down medical coverage for pre-existing conditions — Then you need someone to ask a question that exposes the target’s position on that issue, and, thirdly, a photographer to memorialize his reaction. It worked. At least in that moment and instance, Sen. Flake changed his vote and the Senate was forced to delay, for a few days, a final vote on confirming Kavanaugh’s nomination.

He was still approved, she allowed, but it shows what an effective weapon bird-dogging can be.

On a related subject, she noted how “something really powerful begins to happen when women begin to lift the veil on their lives and to share their personal stories of sexual assault,” like Archilla and Maria Gallagher, the other woman who confronted Sen. Flake in the elevator.

“As a mother,” she said, “what do we do when we’re dealing with people in power? Like a midwife says when we’re giving birth: We breathe, then push; breathe then push; breathe then push! And as we push, people are encouraged to begin to demand change.”

Of the current political state of affairs, she said, “there is a level of cruelty in this president that goes beyond anything in my worst imagination.”

With the 2020 presidential election season only months away, she said, we must do everything we can to force the Democrats to deal with immigration issues, “to roll back criminalization of border crossings … if we don’t force them to listen to us, to hear us, they won’t — not even the best of them.”

Then she made an offer for which she may well find herself with takers: “I will come and teach anyone who wants to go to New Hampshire lessons on how to bird-dog candidates,” she said.

For “When people have their first experience of listening to that vision inside them that says, ‘I must do something,’ … their courage begins to grow — And courage is so contagious!”

Locals honored

Also honored were two Salem students who were presented with Rising Leader Awards. These awards are presented each year to local students who exhibit a strong interest in and a commitment to advancing the cause of human rights and social justice. The winners were:

Anyfern Gonzalez, a senior at Salem High School. Nominated by her teacher Katherine Wilkins, Anyfern is active in student government and La Union Latina. She has done an advocacy project on immigration and aspires to be an immigrant rights attorney.

Shannon Murphy, a senior at the Salem Academy Charter School, was nominated by Principal Sean Gass. She has been heavily involved with the Special Olympics as a volunteer soccer coach and organizer of an art auction fundraiser. She is first in her class academically.

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