Yatziri Tovar was not a novice to community organizing when she enrolled in the “Community and Political Organizing” course taught by Professors Hillary Caldwell and Susanna Blankley at City College during the Fall 2016 Semester. In fact, she had been organizing in support of comprehensive immigration reform at both the national and local levels for many years. Still, she says the course, which is associated with Community Learning Partnership’s Minor in Social Change Practice at City College, was “exactly what I needed.”
Yatziri’s first exposure to collective action had come many years before, back in 2009. “There was a huge march on Washington to support the Dream Act,” she said, referring to a proposed federal bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented children who grew up in the United States. “It’s something I’m directly affected by,” she added.
“I realized there are people all over the nation that are in the same situation that I am in. It was very eye opening.”
Prior to the march, Yatziri hadn’t been involved in immigrant rights organizing efforts, despite her personal connection to the issue. “I thought no one else was going through what I was going through,” she said. “But there were thousands of people at the march,” she recalled. “I realized there are people all over the nation that are in the same situation that I am in. It was very eye opening.”
Inspired, she returned to New York City eager to learn more about community organizing, and became involved in the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an undocumented youth-led organization. “I became part of their fundraising committee, helping organize events to raise funds for scholarships to give to undocumented youth in the CUNY system,” she said. She also became active in legislative efforts to pass the federal DREAM Act, which passed the House of Representatives, but failed to end a Republican filibuster against the measure by just five votes in the Senate.
“That was such a crazy day,” Yatziri said. But rather than become despondent after the demoralizing loss, Yatziri and the Leadership Council decided to focus their efforts more locally. “We organized marches and rallies and had vigils in front of [NY Governor] Cuomo’s office,” said said. Around this time, she also helped start the “Dream Team” at City College with a group of other students to provide a safe space for undocumented youth and their allies to meet, share information. The group also helped educate undocumented students about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President Obama created through executive order in 2012 to provide some protections to undocumented students.
After years of organizing, Yatziri, who was also facing the daily pressures of being a student, began experiencing a sensation familiar to anyone who has ever spent time working for community change—burn out.
“I was overwhelmed and so had to step away from organizing for a while,” she explained. “In a way, I just wanted to be normal, whatever that means. I just wanted a teenage life where I only cared about myself. I felt like my friends were just going about their lives and I was just going to meetings.”
It was around this time, however, that Yatziri discovered the Community and Political Organizing course. “I read the description and thought this is exactly what I need. I’d never see anything like this before.” The class helped inspire and reenergize Yatziri by helping her place her own efforts towards immigration reform within the broader history of social justice movements.
“There’s all these other movements going on and other issues that people have organized around that I have never heard of in the same country I live in.”
One book in particular stood out to her. “We read “Take Back the Land,” she said, which is about a community organizing group by the same name that fights evictions and relocating homeless people in Miami, Florida. “My whole life revolved around immigration, so that was what I focused on—I lived and breathed immigration,” she said. “Then I read this book and thought, wow, there’s all these other movements going on and other issues that people have organized around that I have never heard of in the same country I live in.”
Yatziri also appreciated that her newfound knowledge of other social movements wasn’t confined to the classroom. As part of the course, for instance, Yatziri and her classmates were required to attend a tenant’s association meeting. “The tenants in this building had not had gas for six months and I thought, how is this even possible? What’s going on? This is in my neighborhood and I should be involved in this is some way or another. There’s so much organizing to do!”
The course has prompted Yatziri, who is majoring in Bilingual Childhood Education and Political Science, to reevaluate her next steps. “I originally wanted to be a teacher,” she said, adding that she hadn’t fully considered the possibility of a career in community change work prior to Professor Krinsky’s class. “I think my real passion is organizing and working with the community.”
“I have not allowed myself to be consumed by fear. We will not let [Trump] attack the communities he attacked throughout his campaign”
To Yatziri, this path will be all the more important thanks to the election of Donald Trump, who rose to prominence partly on a promise to deport millions of undocumented people living in the United States. “A Trump presidency means that I have to continue on and continue fighting for myself and for my community,” Yatziri said. “There are times I am scared of what could happen to me and my family,” she continued, noting she had two younger brothers who are U.S. citizens. “But I have not allowed myself to be consumed by fear. We will not let him attack the communities he attacked throughout his campaign.”