The power to change

Photo courtesy of Jenny Bedard Photography

“I can’t vote,” says Abena Abraham, 20. A year ago she received a green card, but has not yet reached the years of physical presence required to be able to apply for U.S. citizenship and the right to vote in a federal election. This is why Abraham is so passionate about political engagement, she says.

Abraham feels that it is her duty to knock on doors and get involved in local campaigns. “In order to make change we need to get the right people in office. Instead of complaining and wallowing in my sorrow I have to get up and do something to make that change,” she says.

Starting at 13, Abraham participated in a Minnesota YMCA Youth in Government program. For five years she learned firsthand how the Legislature, courts and executive branches of state government work, which was the beginning of her interest in civic engagement.

Understanding the civic process has been an important part of her life since learning, at 12, that she had legal but Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the U.S. Her mother had come here from Liberia seeking political asylum, and Abraham joined her when she was four. But when the TPS program ended in 2007 during the Bush Administration, she learned from her mother that they were among the 30,000 Liberians who could be deported. “I didn’t really process what that meant” – beyond telling friends at school she might disappear one day – until she tried to get a driving permit at 15.

Her immigration status and education opportunities in politics spurred her into action. Throughout high school and after, Abraham worked on several campaigns and initiatives that lost. Being a woman, a person of color and an immigrant can all be hurdles. One might think she’d get discouraged.

“Losing is a victory,” is how she sees it. “Every time we lose we have to sit back and figure out why and come back stronger. Each time we lose we bring more people along. We need to ask, ‘Are we really doing the work we should be doing?’ If we were, we would not be losing.”

Abraham’s work with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota helped her to craft her personal story. As a teenager she addressed a rally of 2,000 people, sharing that story. “It was scary,” she says. “All of our stories are important. And, you need to tell your story to make change. You need to control the narrative or someone else will.”

She sees unique challenges for women activists in facing both gender discrimination and being women of color. And she sees that discrimination in the women’s movement, too. “Men can look at women in a certain way [that discounts them]. And women can look at each other in that certain way too,” Abraham says. “We all have to include each other. When we talk about victories, we mix in the stories of women of color. For example, equal pay. We talk about women earning 79 cents to the dollar that men earn. But we don’t talk about the 59 cents and 49 cents that women of color earn – making way less.”

For someone new to activism, Abraham has ideas about how to get involved. “Find people in your community you love and trust and start having conversations about issues. Find organizations that are doing work on an issue you care about and get involved. Schedule meetings with your elected representatives. Tell them why you care about this issue. They work for you,” she says. “It does not take a lot to make a difference. We have the power to change things we don’t like.”