By Gabriela Santiago-Romero
I remember the first time I found out we were poor.
I was sitting at our kitchen table, begging my mom for new shoes. All the girls at the middle school had new Nike Air Force 1’s, and I wanted to look fresh to death too.
“Mami, why won’t you buy me new shoes?”
“You already have a pair for school.”
“Yeah, but they’re old! I need new ones.”
“Just wash the ones you have now and take better care of them.”
“But why can’t I just get new ones? All the other girls have more than one pair? Why can’t I?”
“Because you don’t need new ones.”
She was right. I didn’t need new shoes. The ones I had worked just fine, but I wanted new ones. And I wanted more clothes and more purses and more things I didn’t need.
“Mami, can you buy me new shoes?”
“No, mija, I can’t.”
“All the girls at the middle school had new Nike Air Force 1’s, and I wanted to look fresh to death too.”
That’s when it dawned on me.
“Mami, are we poor?”
My mom laughed, “You didn’t know we were poor?!”
I sat there looking at my beautiful young mother, feeling silly. No. I had no idea we were poor. As far as I knew, we had everything we needed. We had food on the table, our lights were always on, and I never needed anything. I had no idea we were poor and struggling.
It was only later in life that I started to connect the dots. The food on the table was picked up from our local church or food pantry. My most memorable Christmas included bags full of toys and a new bike, which I later learned were donations given to my family from local nonprofit organizations. We were able to receive certain services because our income was so low, services that helped me and my family live with dignity.
My mother loves this country. For her, coming here from Mexico meant that I would receive the education I needed to become independent and self-sufficient. I would grow up in a nation where your wildest dreams can come true because we have better leadership, one that cares to create opportunities and take care of its residents. She worked hard, paid taxes and focused on us becoming citizens as soon as possible in order for us to begin to vote — a right we knew we would have and wanted. We wanted to become a part of America and build our future here.
I wanted to vote for Barack Obama during his first run for president. But I was 17 and couldn't. During his re-election, I was signing up everyone and their mom to vote — including everyone in my family who was documented, asking them to use their given right. I wanted to be a part of hope and by then knew how connected the government was to the services I was able to receive growing up. I wanted all of us to have a hand in picking leadership that would create more opportunities for everyone.
During Obama’s second term, after having hope and believing in his promise of change, my family lost three family members to deportation — the same family members I crossed the border with along with my mother when I was only 1 year old.
How did voting for our country’s first black president change anything for me and my family? How was the political system, which is able to provide funding for services for residents, also able to tear us apart?
“My mother loves this country. For her, coming here from Mexico meant that I would receive the education I needed to become independent and self-sufficient.”
That's when I realized the system isn't broken — it actually works really well — but the outcome fully depends on the input, and so far we haven’t been putting enough progressive leadership in place. We had an amazing president whose advancements were diluted due to the lack of support when he was in office — one who was a community organizer, understood our society’s structural issues and navigated his way through adversities to make it to the top. But what’s the point of being at the top if you’re alone with no one there who can see issues from your point of view, help you create solutions and work on implementing them?
Voting alone won't bring about positive systemic change for the marginalized, but organizing and creating a pipeline of new leadership will. If we as a country had encouraged and invested in producing grassroots leaders in the years leading up to the latest presidential race, we would have had more — and more diverse — candidates to pick from in 2016.
In recent months we’ve seen horror as hate is promoted, thanks in part to the encouragement of our current president. And as racism flares, many individuals’ economic situations aren’t getting any better either.
It’s going to take changing leadership across the country to shift power from the wealthy and corrupt to hard-working everyday people. Yes, we should respond to hate with rallies, but we also have to call for a seat at the table in order to create better policies. Yes, we must shut down streets if that is what’s necessary for our demands for justice to be heard, but we also have to galvanize our youth to become the public servants we need.
We all want to enjoy parks, have our choice of well-paying jobs, benefit from thorough health insurance, travel, relish our families and friends. I too would love to experience all of these things, but it has been difficult for my family to reach this proper quality of life. We pulled up our bootstraps; we worked and paid taxes, yet we encountered racism and disrespect along the way.
Will voting really create change? Not if we vote believing that only one person is going to change everything. One person can inspire many to take action, but it will not be one candidate, at any level of government, who single-handedly saves us. I believe that we can save ourselves.
Invest in yourself and your own leadership; volunteer for that nonprofit organization; mobilize your community; run for office alongside your neighbors; begin to create a pipeline of better public servants.
Then vote for the change you want to see — the change you have already begun to create.
Gabriela Santiago-Romero is pursuing a master of social work studying Social Policy and Evaluation with a focus on Community and Social Systems. She hopes to one day win a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives, or continue to build a pipeline of amazing women of color to do so.