Editor’s Note: So what motivates a person to become a social justice leader and work for community progress for families? To help answer this question, Equal Voice News is sharing the Q&A interview with Mireya Reith, executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition. Rebekah Barber of Facing South conducted the interview, which is reprinted with permission.
Equal Voice News is highlighting this content, again, to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15).
Q: Can you tell me about your history and how you became involved in your advocacy work?
As you know, a lot of times our systems don’t know how to deal with folks from different walks of life. That was definitely my case. I was an English language learner — my mom and I learned English together. At my school, they never had an English language learner before, so the best they could do was interpret that I had a handicap.
So instead of getting put with other students, I got sent to a trailer out back where I had to take speech therapy, and every single time I mispronounced a word I got hit with a ruler until I got it correct. And, unfortunately, when the system treats students differently, many times people follow suit. My nickname throughout school was “the Mexican monkey.” They thought that we were not even humans — we were equal to animals.
And so I had many reasons to hate school and hate the system. Then in second grade I had a teacher who did not see me as a challenged student. She saw every kid that walked through the door as being full of potential.
And instead of sending me out to the trailer, she kept me after school and gave me individual coaching and mentoring so that I could get up to speed with the rest of my classmates.
At the same time my parents bought me this little sweatshirt that said “Harvard University.” So they tried to inspire me — that I was not going to be fighting those bullies with fistfights (I was too scrawny and too little) but that the way I was going to combat bullying was by acknowledging that the American dream was just as accessible to me as it was to every one of them.
And I was going to do that by doing as good as I could in school. And so I made straight A’s that year, and I never stopped making straight A’s until I was the first Latino valedictorian in my high school.
But it was in that process that I came to a couple of truths. We have to fight for diversity and making sure that communities from all walks of life feel welcomed in this country. The other one I came to when I was in high school through my family in Mexico, who was part of the democracy fight in that country. Seventy-one years of one-party rule — they were ready for change. They were ready to believe in their vote again.
And I had an aunt who was involved in politics — my namesake, her name is Mireya as well — and she was at that time trying to be mayor of our community, the first woman to do so. And she helped me see. She was the first one that forced me to look at our political decision-makers, not just in Mexico but across the world. And I couldn’t find anyone that looked like me.
It was the male elite. The older male elite of every country was making decisions, and there were not people that looked like me — there weren’t youth, there weren’t women, there weren’t minorities, or they were very few and far between.
And she was the one who inspired me to ask the question, “What would politics look like if our politicians looked like the people they represented?” And that was my opening to organizing. It was in the international fight for democracy.
It was around engaging marginalized communities and democratic processes and trying to inspire women and youth, Indigenous communities.
How do we get people from diverse walks of life involved in our democratic processes? And I focused at the international level because of my family in Mexico — they were the ones that gave me hope and gave me inspiration.
I did that for 14 years. I worked for the U.N. and various American nonprofits abroad.
…I was amazed to come back to a very different Arkansas. My family was no longer the only Latino family in Arkansas (or at least that’s what it felt like growing up). I actually had someone greet me in Spanish at the airport. In the time I was away Arkansas’ became the fourth-fastest-growing immigrant population in the country.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of vulnerable groups asserting their agency and standing up for themselves?
Arkansas has an interesting story. We have had a history of grasstops groups working to try and fight on immigration. They did forge an agreement around 2005, 2007 that they didn’t want to see anti-immigrant laws passed in Arkansas. It was a coalition called the Friendship Coalition. In recent years there has been a business-led initiative called Engage Northwest Arkansas that’s worked hard to try and make Arkansas more welcoming.
We’ve appreciated those efforts and appreciate that we’re in a unique place in the state, where there can be a grasstops role and a grassroots role. At the end of the day, we as immigrants want to be positive agents of change for Arkansas. We want to be a part of the solution of fighting for change in our community. We have a story to share and we want to be able to share it in Arkansas United.
That’s why organizing is a tenet of all we do. And it’s story-based organizing. It all starts with everyone’s individual story. That’s how we start everything — by story sharing. And so we wanted to be able to own our stories and share them, and share them frequently and everywhere so that other people don’t tell the story for us. We have shared with our grasstops.
We are grateful for allies, but give us a space. Let the Arkansas Dreamers speak for themselves. Let the Arkansas immigrants speak for themselves on these issues. If you’re really going to help Arkansas achieve its potential, it takes everybody. It takes everybody being able to identify what the challenges are but also finding those solutions.
It’s important to look at things that remind us of the power of organizing, the power of our communities.
Being in the Bible Belt, there’s a lot of instincts around saving our communities. A lot of allies believe and offer to try to help save us, but we actually think that true salvation of Arkansas is going to take all of us working together and equally respecting each other’s ability and need to be part of the solution.
That continues to be a huge part of what we do. We never stop organizing and finding new people who can come out and share that story with others and creating safe spaces so that we can have these conversations around reform. It’s just something we have to do.
In Arkansas, we’re still 75 percent white. As much as our immigrant population is growing, our African-American population has declined over the years. We believe in what we have to offer the state, but we also believe in a chance to change hearts and minds.
That’s part of where our strategy is right now: What role can we play as immigrants or as the Black Belt Coalition in helping our white community be better allies? How can they be a part of truly empowering our communities and helping in that process so that all of us achieve a bigger potential?
Q: What gives you hope in this fight?
Our immigrant communities.
There have been times this last year when I have almost given up on politics. You deal with privilege and helping. In Arkansas, there’s a lot of people that will say “I’m not racist,” “I don’t have racist intentions,” “I don’t have racism in my heart,” “I don’t see race.”
And they don’t realize that because they’re so ingrained in their white lens that they don’t have the ability to really have empathy for other viewpoints. And it’s a savior mentality. They think that history is going to do them right at the end of the day and say that they’ve saved the Black and Brown kids.
Here in Arkansas, there’ve been times when that privilege has been so hard, and I question inside strategy. And every time I do, all I need to do is go back to our immigrant base, our community, our organizers, the Dreamers that have been with us from the beginning that are now my staff. It’s their hope, it’s their unwillingness to give up that keeps me motivated.
And also remembering how we have succeeded — celebrating those small successes along the way. We made sure we celebrated defeating the anti-immigrant legislation. It’s important to look at things that remind us of the power of organizing, the power of our communities.
I believe in the movement. I believe that people with shared interests in social justice working together and speaking for themselves are always going to prevail. But we need to have that organizing family. None of us can do it alone.
So anytime I’m frustrated, I just go down to the organizing family and feel the energy and power and remember what we’re fighting for. It’s in the truth telling and in the organizing where I find hope and inspiration. It’s the compass that keeps me going anytime I feel lost.
Read the full Q&A interview by Rebekah Barber at Facing South, which is published by the Institute for Southern Studies. Barber, a writer and researcher for Facing South, focuses on racial justice, democracy and Southern history. On Twitter, she is @bekah_soul. The top image is courtesy of the Arkansas United Community Coalition.