VOICES OF RESISTANCE: Bringing Black voices to the immigration reform debate

Francesca Menes is a civil rights activist who serves on the steering committee of the Black Immigration Network. (Photo via Menes' website.)

A Haitian American who grew up in Miami's Little Haiti community, Francesca Menes remembers the global cries for "Democracy for Haiti" following the 1991 coup. Amidst the current threats to American democracy, she sees a reawakening of the political consciousness of American citizens and an opportunity to build real people power.  As a longtime social justice activist and member of the Black Immigration Network's steering committee, Menes has learned to use her resources to lift up the voices of the most vulnerable.

We recently spoke with Menes by phone about her work for our ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern change makers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at rebekah@southernstudies.org.

Tell me about your background and how you became involved in activism.

I got involved in activism pretty early. When I was growing up in Little Haiti, my parents would take me to rallies in the '90s when Haiti was going through the coup and the president was being taken out. The Haitian diaspora was very frustrated with the instability in the country, and I remember at the rallies I would attend people would be shouting "Democracy for Haiti!"

Then as a high school debater, I was exposed to topics like how to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and whether or not mental health is something that we need to be addressing in the United States. Learning about these topics continued to open my eyes — so much so that I underwent a shift about what I wanted to study in college. Originally, I went to school as a biology major because Haitian parents think that if you are not a doctor or lawyer you don't have many opportunities. And often, we don't really talk about being involved in politics because we don't know what politics means. When I told my mom that I was switching to political science, she was very surprised. She said, "That's the one thing I would never want you to be because God knows where that's gonna take you."

When I was in college at Florida International University, I was a student activist, particularly around women's rights issues. I worked at the women's center, which hosted an annual "Women Who Lead" conference to expose women on campus to the gender lens and how powerful we can be. Not only did I study political science and women's rights, but I received a certificate in national security. I originally thought I was going to enter the intelligence community as an intelligence analyst, but on a visit to D.C. right before graduation, I met with some intelligence analysts and I realized that was not the world for me. A world where your actions have no consequences is very bleak.

That's when I found Public Allies [a nonprofit that operates the AmeriCorps service program]. I was grateful to them because when I realized I had no interest in being an intelligence analyst anymore, I literally did not know where I was going to go in my life. I got placed with the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). After two years with AmeriCorps, FLIC took me on for about nine years. I recently began working at Local Progress [a national organization that builds power to transform local and state politics] as their Florida state coordinator.

Working with FLIC politicized me even more because I was working on immigration issues through an economic justice lens that lifted up workers' rights and an education lens that lifted up the fact that undocumented students do not have equal access to higher education. We even spoke about reproductive justice, although it was hard sometimes because we were focusing on immigrant rights. But we did make sure to insert the gender lens.

As I got more politically involved, I did things outside of FLIC. I became more of a presence in the community. I was appointed to county advisory boards and I sat on the county commission for women for almost eight years. I sit on another advisory board that focuses on county services, which include Head Start, etc.

I try to be inside, to maneuver and advocate from the inside. I feel like sometimes we tend to fail as a movement because we shy away from working within the system, but I like to remember Freddie Brooks from the TV show "A Different World." As an attorney, when she was told she was going into the system, she said, "No, I'm trying to learn the system, so I can know how to fight the system."

If we don't know how the system is operating, we won't be able to change it. And so that's where I was coming from. I believe in being inside the system and having relationships inside the system, so I can give people opportunities to walk through more doors.

Can you talk about the importance of people asserting their agency and advocating for themselves?

That's one of the most important things to me. I will not organize if those who are affected are not at the table. Because for movements, when we say we are trying to protect individuals but are making decisions for them as opposed to them lending their voices and helping us make those decisions, we are operating as the opposite of what we claim to be. Those who are directly impacted must be at the center of everything we do.

Last year I launched my company, CommUnity Strategies, and I've been doing trainings called "Embracing Your Power and Understanding the Legislative Process." My trainings focus on state-level advocacy and teach people about how their stories have power.

Trump is Trump. We can't waste but so much energy on him. Instead, we fight back — not with our words but with our power. ... We can get distracted and argue with this crazy man, or we can accomplish something.

The Alliance for Safety and Justice contracted me to do four trainings, so over the course of three weeks I recently trained between 40 and 50 people to be prepared to go to the state legislature. The people I trained are survivors of crime. They are survivors of domestic violence and shootings, and they did not feel comfortable telling their stories. But one of the things that gives me hope is seeing the person who didn't even know they had a story to tell because they weren't directly impacted say, "Wow, I do have a story to tell because I was impacted by someone I love who happens to be a survivor."

Or sometimes people say, "I don't want to share my story because it just hurts too much to speak it and bring it back up." And then they realize that they may be afraid to share their stories but doing so is part of their therapy. When you share your story, you give a voice to other people and break that individualistic mindset that makes us think, "I'm the only one going through this, I'm the only one suffering." America has created us to be very individualistic, but we are part of a community.

How did the Black Immigration Network (BIN) come to be?

That was a beautiful moment, back in 2009. At the time, I didn't even realize what I was walking into.

My boss at FLIC had gotten an email about a meeting that was taking place about Black immigrants and told me I should go. The conversation was about the lack of presence of Black immigrants in the central conversations around immigration reform, especially regarding strategically inserting the race lens to start developing a conversation and build up this network.

We left that space with plans to create a network, the sole purpose of which would be bringing together Black Americans and Black immigrants to have a conversation around racial disparities and racial inequalities related to immigration and to talk about the root causes of migration so we can build stronger alliances. We understood that if more African-American communities understood why immigrants are coming here we would be able to connect on a deeper level because of our connected history. African Americans were brought here on chains against their will, and now new forms of migration are happening because people do not have another choice.

Imagine if more Americans understood foreign policy and what these senators and congressional members are doing and how foreign policy is impacting migration. Ultimately migration is impacting jobs, but that is what the corporotocracy wants. They want to be able to bring wages down so they can maximize their profits.

So that's why the Black Immigration Network was created. We wanted to shift the conversation. And 10 years later, it's beautiful to see that Black immigrants have become a more integral part of the conversation.

Before we created BIN, there were no Black immigrant networks except for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. BAJI was the one that brought everyone together, but now you have African Communities Together in New York, you have UndocuBlack.

We always had very dispersed Haitian organizations and African organizations, but we never had a streamlined national organization, and that is what BIN became. Being able to have general assemblies where we bring 200 or 300 Black immigrants together in a space to talk about what's happening in our communities and how we can make an impact is a beautiful and powerful thing.

And now we are pivoting our work to talk about electoral power. Black immigrants are a big part of the immigrant rights movement, but we continue to be ignored, even in the conversations around DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and TPS [Temporary Protected Status]. Often, when people talk about TPS, they talk about Honduras and Nicaragua; rarely do they talk about Haiti, unless we force them to. But we've realized that we have our own power — electoral power.

The statistics show that Black immigrants are more likely to naturalize than any other immigrant community. Not only are they naturalizing, but they are becoming eligible voters. And so the shift toward electoral politics is going to start happening within the next couple of years.

By calling majority-Black countries "shitholes," President Trump has characterized Black immigrants as unworthy of migration to the U.S. How has BIN responded?

Trump is Trump. We can't waste but so much energy on him. Instead, we fight back — not with our words but with our power. And so that's why organizations like BIN, BAJI, and UndocuBlack are shifting the conversation toward building political power. We can get distracted and argue with this crazy man, or we can accomplish something.

Have you been gearing up for the 2018 election?

For sure. We are in the preliminary phases of having conversations around electoral power. I'm glad we are finally shifting the mindset. We are not just going to keep rallying and reaching out to congressional members because we now have to figure out how to make an impact in electoral politics.

That's part of what Opal [Tometi, BAJI's executive director], has been doing. In Miami they just hired a Haitian organizer; they had never been in the South beyond Georgia before. They have organizers now in Atlanta, Miami, Brooklyn, and Oakland. They are spreading themselves across the country in very strategic areas to be able to build that impact. More than anything else, we are focused on being strategic.

What impact do you think this strategic, grassroots organizing will have across the South?

The dynamics are shifting, especially as the issue of restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated is coming up, or when we're talking about naturalization numbers and the fact that there is a whole group of people that we have never thought of as part of the electorate.

We talk about the importance of registering youth when they turn 18, but we forget about registering people who have been living in the United States for 20 years but never became citizens. We need them to become citizens and start voting because that's about a couple of million people of untapped political potential.

And that's what's happening in the South — we're starting to see all the strategic ways of unifying ourselves.  In the South, people who look like us — everyday people — are reenergized to plug in. Before Trump, people were unplugged for so long, but now we're in a political moment.  Although we still wouldn't have been OK under a Clinton presidency, we wouldn't be in this moment. We wouldn't have seen the Women's March. We wouldn't have seen the March for Black Women.  So we have to understand the moment that we are in and leverage our anger and frustration to swing the pendulum as much to the left as possible so we can maintain some sort of power for a couple of years.

Then we need to leverage the moment again by getting our people elected — not career politicians but people who can challenge the norm. We have opportunities in America that people in other countries don't, and we need to exercise those opportunities.

In the South it's starting to click for us, but we have to keep the momentum going. The census is coming up in 2020, and we need to make sure that we are counted.