Written by Melanie Cervantes, Akonadi Foundation Senior Program Officer
In this current moment I find myself in a period of self-reflection about the roles I have chosen to play in the movement for social and racial justice.
Coming into consciousness as a young adult in the South Bay of L.A., I began to walk a path where I felt like I had the ability to change the course of my life and contribute to my community. As I gained language to describe the personal experiences I had with injustice and the harm produced by systems of oppression, I became hungry to enact my agency to make change. The hunger to move from feeling powerless to feeling powerful stirred inside me and drew me to build community with my fellow community college classmates and comrades. But this fire inside me was stoked through the influence of young organizers from the Labor Community Strategy Center’s Bus Riders Union (BRU) who engaged with our student group and invited me to attend my very first community-based action. If not for that first involvement with the BRU and the engagement I had with their organizers, I can’t imagine having ended up on my path for justice. I learned that through collective struggle, we can change the conditions that cause our people to suffer.
After I moved to the Bay Area and graduated from college, I carried my early experiences of community action inside of me and looked to continue my journey supporting movements for racial and social justice. It was at that time I arrived at Akonadi Foundation, drawn to its mission of supporting work to end institutional and structural racism. I was excited to work part time as an assistant to the President, Quinn Delaney, while spending the rest of my time working on community based art projects with families in Oakland. My plan was to stay with Akonadi for one year and then pursue a path that would help me become a well prepared community based artist. But as often happens when you fall in love plans change, and I chose to stay in philanthropy to learn more about the work of the organizations the foundation supported. It was here that I fell more deeply in love with the movement. For nearly twelve years I have I committed myself to mobilizing resources for racial justice organizations led by people of color making the changes we so desperately need in our quest towards collective liberation. I found a way to serve the people in a manner I had never imagined possible and over the years, I executed my work with with purpose and intention.
Holding the space to listen and learn from community organizations and bring their voices back, with amplification, into the world of philanthropy has been such an honor and a privilege. These years have afforded me the exposure and opportunity to gain a different kind education based on real life experiences of the people most impacted by racism and entwined oppressions and to link those community experiences to my own. In times of great struggle and pain caused by the injustices of these systems I have remained optimistic about the possibility of radical social and political change because of my relationships with grassroots leaders. This learning and optimism also influenced my life outside of the foundation by helping to drive the cultural and artistic practice that I have maintained throughout the years. Through Dignidad Rebelde, the art collaboration I co-founded with my partner (who I happened to meet through my work at Akonadi Foundation), we developed a methodology that centers and partners grassroots social justice organizations to make political graphics that translates people’s stories into art that can be put back into the hands of the communities who inspire it.
This isn’t a farewell. This is a moment I have chosen to shift my energy. The wells of love I feel for the movement still run deep and now I am ready to roll up my sleeves and dedicate myself fully to serving community through my cultural practice. I’ve had the same sage quote by Frederick Douglass in the signature line of my email for well over a decade and it will remain a guiding light for my work in this shift: “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”