Staff Feature: Cairo Mendes, Director of State and Local Programs

Monday, January 10, 2022

“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”– Angela Davis

I often find myself going back to Davis’ words, especially on days when progress feels so excruciatingly slow and hopelessness begins to set in. Lately this has come in the form of news headlines of another school shooting and continued disappointment with elected officials for not delivering on their promises. Yet Angela Davis’ quote not only reminds me that the fight toward a liberated world takes time, but also that, even on the most difficult days, you must be as bold and far reaching as possible. After all, there is a role for everyone, including those of us in philanthropy, in the long-term fight for equity and justice. Given the considerable influence and power of philanthropy – a $90 billion sector – funders are well-positioned to play a key role in its radical transformation.

I am thankful that I learned to be grounded in this long-term vision early on. First through my mother, who always says: “you do your part and get others to do their part, and eventually when enough of us are doing our part things will change.” Secondly, I learned through my mentors, mostly women of color, who – with a lot of patience – coached me into being the organizer I am today. Youth organizing sparked something in me that keeps me grounded in that vision, even when things get dim and dark. And I never forget where it started.

I was 17 years old and a friend invited me to attend a rally in support of the 2010 DREAM Act. I always remember the crisp, cool air of that autumn day and taking the train into Boston for the first time. After finding our way through Boston’s subway system, we arrived at the steps of the church where the rally was held, across the Boston Public Garden. I was mesmerized by the other young undocumented people I met outside. They were chanting, “Pass the DREAM Act now!” while wearing their caps and gowns, holding signs that read: Let Us Learn, Let Us Serve.

One of the organizers of the event greeted me and my friend, handed us a sign and a cap and gown, and then asked us to share our story. That day I told every bit of my story, for the first time, in front of 300 people. I told them about coming to the United States, growing up undocumented, hiding under the bed as a child whenever someone knocked on the door in fear that it was Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I shared the difficulty I had finding a job and of not knowing if I would go to college. After I was done, I remember feeling a sense of gratitude, an outpouring of love, and relief as I liberated myself from this secret. I was no longer afraid, or alone. From then on, I made a personal commitment to the immigrant rights movement and the struggle for social and economic justice.

In the seven years that followed, youth organizing helped build the foundation for me to be the leader I am today. Through community organizing, I learned the value of relationships and the importance of strategizing to shift power. These lessons taught me how to navigate even the most complex spaces: meeting people where they are, building trust, and pushing those with influence to move their positions on a specific issue while not compromising my values. Over the course of 2022 and beyond, these lessons will guide me as I work to cultivate relationships with funders and field leaders across the country.

As we look toward GCIR’s biennial convening in May 2022, I am excited to have youth organizers share their lessons with the nearly 200 funders coming from all corners of the nation. At a time when Texas policy makers have continuously targeted immigrants, women, and trans people through draconian policies, philanthropic investments will go a long way toward supporting the leaders and organizations resisting these attacks. Intentionally supporting young people, especially young BIPOC people at the front lines of our movement, is investing in the promise of a tomorrow that is more just—for generations to come.