Santa Barbara City Council Member Emerging Leaders Cohort 9 Santa Barbara City Council member Oscar…
Program Director | Future Leaders of America
Emerging Leaders Alumni
At Future Leaders of America (FLA) we treat students like individuals, and at that age that’s transformative,” says Gabriela, having attended FLA’s Youth Leadership Conference in 2006, before entering the ninth grade.
Gabriela Macias-Mota considers the questioning of patriarchal power structures as a personal passion, but she is equally committed to helping others find their own power and voice, something she has done for the past six years at FLA.
The experience turned into opportunity when Gabriela graduated from UCSB in 2014 without a clear direction. “I wanted to be a teacher, but at the time I was undocumented, so that wasn’t an option.” But that summer, one of her friends working at FLA invited her to join them at Youth Camp as a volunteer. The team got to see Gabriela in action, “They liked the way I worked with youth, they liked my problem solving, and they offered me a job.”
After some organizational upheaval, she and a new Executive Director found themselves stepping up to an enormous challenge: “We were handed this organization that was in a fragile state. It was really tough. As a Youth Organizer, I was 22 and working with students that were sometimes 17 or 18 years old.”
There’s an old saying that experience is the toughest teacher, because the test comes before the lesson. Gabriela’s openness with students left her vulnerable when a conflict arose with a student’s mother. “I was fortunate to have a team that supported me, but there were also legitimate criticisms I took to heart and corrected. It made me sharper at my work.”
Gabriela’s confidence was also bolstered by success when she and her students advocated for the Oxnard Unified High School District to align A-G requirements with graduation requirements, giving every graduate the opportunity to apply for the University of California and California State Universities. “Cautious of the challenge we were taking on, I hadn’t experienced that kind of change, but by the end I was 100% committed to community organizing.”
“It’s the transformative power of people learning to use their voice for the good.”
Gabriela notes that leadership is primarily service. “Leadership training filters out into society because we’re creating advocates. Students learn to advocate for themselves, and when they see how it works, how needs expressed can be met, they realize they can do that for their community and families. It’s the transformative power of people learning to use their voice for the good. I don’t think it has gotten easier to speak out against injustice but what has changed is my confidence in my capacity to do so, I know that I can, and I believe that I should.” With Covid-19, Future Leaders of America had to make adaptations; in person connection was out of the equation, “We have twice-a-month youth meetings in the five regions we serve, now all digital. Our summer youth camp for 140 was eventually cancelled. We switched to a three-day online program and offered scholarship prizes to encourage attendance.”
Gabriela attended Leading From Within’s Emerging Leaders program in 2018, and those connections continue to influence her. “With Emerging Leaders it was such a diverse group of people. Participating in Leader Circles with my peers was huge. It was hard for me to ask for help, and it was hard to talk about the challenges at work, but these individuals were so warm and supportive, and have been through it too.”
“I also enjoy Leading From Within’s intellectual spaces; I went to a couple of book readings, and recently participated in an emotional intelligence workshop. I appreciate the evolution this year and the opportunity to stay connected and keep learning.”
Gabriela’s commitment to advocacy and community organizing now leads to a new direction. “My dream has been to pursue a career in the legal field. I grew up undocumented, so the law has always been a huge presence in my life. It’s an area so dominated by men, even pursuing this is an act of resistance.”
An act of resistance, but also a call to service. “We need more community lawyers. For people of color, for immigrants, for youth in detention, for victims of trafficking. And that’s why law school is next for me.”
“We have to question who holds power, all the time.”