By Cristina Jiménez
When the other co-founders of United We Dream and I first envisioned building a network for and by immigrant youth, we dreamed of a space where undocumented youth could live with dignity, safety and be in community while winning justice for our communities.
We founded United We Dream in 2008 and three years later I began my journey as Executive Director. At that time, United We Dream was a fiscally sponsored project of the National Immigration Law Center with four staff members, a modest budget and the strong commitment and momentum of our members to fight together and win.
Today, we have grown to be a fiercely independent and strong organization with 720,000 members with over 100 local groups and a reach of over 5 million people every month. We have trained 60,000 young people in organizing, have stopped deportations and have achieved systematic change. United We Dream has been the entry point and training ground for a new generation of young, social justice leaders of color and our intersectional movements for justice will never be the same.
As the dark clouds of white nationalism and racism have covered the sky over the White House, United We Dream members have been a bright ray of hope, with deep commitment and inspiration in the world where organizing led by directly impacted people works.
Core to how we operate is that directly impacted people are at the forefront of everything we do. And our focus on recruitment and training is rooted in the good organizing practice of always training the next generation of leaders who will bring new ideas and experiences to the roles we currently hold. Being at the cutting edge of organizing and innovation requires a constant flow of new ideas and our bench of young and brilliant leaders is vibrant.
That is why — after years of planning — I have decided to transition from my role as Executive Director of United We Dream and United We Dream Action by the Summer of 2020. After an inclusive process — led by immigrant youth — to select our next executive leadership, I will transition to the role of advisor to share all that I have learned and support the new leadership on electoral projects and other initiatives.
This one-year executive leadership transition process is designed to set up our new executive leadership for success.
In 2020, we will give everything we have to fight the white nationalists who have taken control of our government. 2021 will bring a new set of political realities and I want to be sure that our network has a strong and established leadership team, ready to tackle them and take our network to new heights.
The United We Dream staff and leaders of today and years past have built this powerful community with their brilliance, late nights, passion and talents. I thank you and am so honored to be walking this journey with you. And I want to thank my partner Walter, my mom Ligia, my dad Fausto and my brother Jonathan for their support and patience over these years.
I am grateful to our members, allies, funder partners and supporters for our partnership and work together during the last 15 years. Thanks for your unwavering support to UWD and immigrant communities. I’m confident and hopeful that the love and support you have poured in UWD will continue, only stronger, during and post this transition. I invite you to become a monthly donor to support our work moving forward and the new leadership.
In the early 2000s I was undocumented and very afraid. I lived with the constant fear that my family and I would be discovered, deported, and with a deep sense of shame for being an undocumented immigrant.
I was so afraid that when I used to share my story to advocate for the Dream Act, I used a fake name. I was Sandra from Costa Rica. Looking back, I could have never imagined that I would have shed the fear and shame and work with other immigrant youth and ally organizers to create an organization like UWD. I was able to let go of the fear, found my voice and understood the power of community organizing because of UWD. For me, UWD became a space of safety, community, empowerment, learning, transformation, and most importantly, a space where I could imagine and dream of a different reality for immigrants; a life without fear.
UWD became my organizing and political home, and I committed to ensuring that young immigrants like myself could have the same experience I had and have access to a space like UWD.
The United We Dream of today was not inevitable and many of the obstacles we faced were emblematic of how directly impacted people are so often shut out of power.
While many social justice leaders believed in our vision early on, some thought that an immigrant youth led organization was too risky and impossible in our early days.
And as directly impacted people, having to explain and re-explain our strategies and even our right to not be killed and jailed to journalists, policymakers and some progressive leaders is an unfortunate and almost daily reality. But another reality is that the strategies and tactics of directly impacted people — both within United We Dream and throughout history — have earned a track record of wins and advances which cannot be denied. When directly impacted people lead organizations and lead movements — we all win, we all benefit.
As a network which is led by young womxn and queer people, our leaders have experienced objectification, inappropriate behavior and downright dismissal of our lived experience. Over and over, I and our teams have done our best to disrupt these dynamics. And people — who themselves are hurting — have sometimes lashed out targeting the womxn around them as the enemy instead of those who oppress us all.
I share all of this as an invitation to have some real talk. As a young woman of color in an executive role, repeatedly encountering these dynamics was at times confusing, outraging, heartbreaking and exhausting.
However, I have been generously offered strength and guidance from social justice elders and leaders who have shared with me that these dynamics have been overcome before. A part of fighting white supremacy and for the right of directly impacted people to exist includes facing and overcoming these obstacles.
I want to shine a light on this often ignored part of organization and movement building, so that the next generation of leaders can step into their power and truly focus on the magic of organizing with directly impacted people. I am proud to say that United We Dream has survived and thrived in spite of them and is stronger than ever because of it.
Tens of thousands of young people have come to United We Dream isolated and ashamed just like I was and have emerged radiating with their own power. Immigrant youth broke 30 years of gridlock in Washington to win the DACA program which protected my brother and 800,000 other immigrant youth. We then immediately moved to fight for more to protect our communities and won the DAPA program to protect millions more only to be blocked by a right wing Supreme Court. Over 700 deportations stopped, and a new narrative on immigration centered on who we are as human beings. We are making strides in culture change and continue innovating in organizer training and mobilization, digital strategies and more.
The visible defiance and courage of immigrant youth has shown the nation and the world that the fight against white supremacy is on. As UWD undocu-artist Justin Nguyen said, “those orange shirts we design, they are like our armor.” In Ireland, I’ve met undocumented immigrant youth who’ve seen us fight in our orange armor and who created a group called “Young, Paperless and Powerful” inspired by United We Dream.
We have created so much and while I am honored to have served as Executive Director, I believe firmly that it is the vision and determination as well as the lived experience of our members that has fueled the victories we have won. That United We Dream orange t-shirts seen on TV, online or in the streets is made possible by an amazing team of strategists, analysts, operations professionals, organizers, trainers, digital campaigners, designers and leaders who bring every bit of our lived experience into this fight for justice.
United We Dream today is stronger than ever and it is time for a new chapter. Our membership is larger, younger and more diverse than it has ever been. We now have a new generation of movement strategists, thought leaders and organizers who came up in immigrant youth organizing and have built a solid organizational foundation which to grow.
The path to get here would not have been possible without the incredible support of allies, partners and contributors who supported United We Dream along the way. And our parents, siblings, partners who patiently supported us — like my partner Walter and my mom Ligia, Dad Fausto and brother Jonathan graced me and our members with love as we marched on the road to liberation.
My transition from the role of Executive Director is an expansion to create more space for the unexpected, the new and the breakthroughs that will be necessary to reach new horizons.
I’m reminded of the words of my dear friend and inspiring writer Sandra Cisneros, “Whatever is done with love, in the name of others, without self-gain, whatever work we make with complete humility will always turn out well. Todo lo que se hace con amor, sale bonito” We’ve built this organization with love and it turned out well. It is time for United We Dream’s next chapter and love of our leaders and members still drives everything we do. I cannot wait to see the victories we will achieve next.