Vanguards of the next generation

Avanzando fellow Carla Nayeli Mendoza met California Representative Graciela Flores “Grace” Napolitano during a visit to Capitol Hill.

Carla attributes her pride in being Latina to her family: “Being part of a family that was very supportive, that understood their identity as Mexican Americans, but also as immigrants, allowed me to embrace it and not see it as a shameful act.” Despite that pride, Carla has felt isolated in college due to her income status, as well as her family’s immigration status.

She craved connecting with students who had similar backgrounds and who embraced their identity. And then she heard about UnidosUS’s Avanzando fellowship. The fellowship develops civically, socially, and educationally engaged college students to act as changemakers in their campuses and communities.

In only its second cohort, the fellowship has helped students like Carla find their passion in leadership and organizing, through modules on the UnidosUS Theory of Change; Identity, Intersectionality, and Power Analysis; Legislative Advocacy; Community Organizing Tactics and Philosophy; and more. The program—modeled after our National Institute for Latino School Leaders, which has had six cohorts, 52 graduates, and around 2.5 million students and adults impacted from school districts and community-based organizations—is developing leaders to increase the power and influence of Latinos across all sectors.

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Second cohort of Avanzando fellows at Capitol Hill this summer.

During the summer, Carla interned at a detention center, working with women fleeing persecution and trauma they had experienced in their home countries. It wasn’t an easy experience; she was preparing women for their interviews with immigration and asylum officers, and the stories she would hear stayed with her: “They would tell me: ‘I feel bad, and you probably think I am a bad person for putting my children through this experience, and I wish I hadn’t done it, but it was something I had to do.’”

Carla realized that women were left on their own to figure out what to do next after they were discharged, so as part of the Avanzando fellowship, Carla developed a system to provide  asylum-seekers with access to legal and health resources after being detained. The program focuses on creating a network of students who will manage cases of people released from detention and connect them with the resources they may need, from transportation to legal services, education, and more. Her project also involves advocacy to end family detention, and works with organizations to coordinate services for people released from detention.

Carla knew these women were going through many different struggles while simply looking for a safe place to raise their children. They would share how they felt their story was “wrong,” that nobody wanted them in the United States, “but I really have nowhere else to go,” they would tell her.

Avanzando fellow, Carla Nayeli Mendoza.

At that point, Carla remembered what her family taught her about embracing who you are. She reassured these women that there are people in this country ready to love and embrace them. There is a new generation of advocates ready to fight for what’s right, ready to help anyone who has been marginalized. Carla is part of that generation.

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