As a first-year student at Whitman, Mayrangela Cervantes '20 knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Her interest in legal defense led her to join Whitman's Borders as Method (BAM) Club, a group that advocates for immigration reform and immigrant rights.
As a member of BAM, Cervantes participated in writing a proposal requesting funding from the Associated Students of Whitman College to create an immigrant legal defense fund. The club received funding not only for the fund, but also for two interns - one from Whitman and one from Walla Walla High School - to help others access the fund and support immigrant activism in Eastern Washington.
Cervantes received an even more hands-on education about activism over the past three summers as an intern for Voz in Portland, Oregon. Voz is a workers' rights education project that empowers day laborers and immigrants to improve working conditions.
Cervantes learned about the opportunity at Voz through the BAM Club's student email list. During her three summers working with the nonprofit, she has learned the value of the negotiating and critical thinking skills she has gained at Whitman. In her first summer as an intern, she helped Voz during land negotiations with the City of Portland.
"I think the critical thinking skills and critical analysis have been helpful," said Cervantes, who is double-majoring in race and ethnic studies and rhetoric, writing and public discourse. "Especially the first year when we were negotiating and going back and forth with the city. We had to make sure that our words were powerful and that our words matched our actions."
As the Building the Dream intern for Voz in the summer of 2019, Cervantes focused on efforts to permanently acquire the land that houses the organization's MLK Jr. Workers' Center. The center is where day laborers assemble to be dispatched to different work sites throughout Portland. In order to continue to enhance the resources for day laborers, Voz hopes to build a bigger, more permanent workers' center. Cervantes works alongside her supervisor, Whitman alumna Andrea Berg '16. They give updates to the day laborers at the workers' center on the progress of the Building the Dream project.
"Mayrangela has been a part of the Building the Dream campaign for three years now, and we love that she has been able to return year after year. She brings political analysis, rhetoric major communications skills, and knowledge as an organizer and researcher to strengthen our fight to build a permanent home for day laborers in Portland," Berg said. "From coordinating meetings with elected officials and allies, to keeping day laborers engaged in the campaign, to researching capital campaign strategies, the Building the Dream campaign is stronger thanks to Mayrangela."
Mayrangela knows that all of the organizing, researching, coordinating and updating has a single goal and important purpose: to empower day laborers and improve their working conditions.
"The day laborers are the center of the work that we do, so we like to give them presentations so that they know what is happening, and that way it also tells us, based on the questions they ask and their responses to what we say, what kind of information we need to provide more often, where there is confusion and things that we maybe haven't thought about," Cervantes said.
Cervantes' internship is funded through the Whitman Internship Grant program. Facilitated by the Student Engagement Center, the program provides up to $3,000 to allow students to pursue what might otherwise be unpaid internships.
During her time at Voz, Cervantes has seen many changes. She has watched projects take off and be completed, employees and interns come and go, and partnerships created. She has also noticed the evolution of her own role.
"My first summer, notetaking was all that I did, and now as the project has progressed and also hit bumps, we have been meeting with more people, and I think that my internship has changed and evolved to meet the needs of the project, which has been really cool to watch," Cervantes said. "I have found the confidence to give input and participate in wider conversations."
As the summer winds down, Cervantes looks forward to continuing her activism back on campus. She hopes to facilitate collaboration between Voz and the BAM Club. Interning at Voz has taught her lots about negotiations, organizing, activism and collaboration, she said. It has also taught her that there are many ways to get involved with immigration rights. It's helped her realize that making a difference for immigrant communities doesn't necessarily require a law degree, she said.