For this Oral History Interview, I talked with Jennifer Gonzalez, one of the lead organizers for Detainee Allies. Jennifer has had an interesting and varied life, arriving by roundabout from practicing law to engaging in social work advocating on behalf of asylum seekers and now those detained in Otay Mesa. Jennifer went from Stanford Law to immigrant rights work in North Carolina, solidifying her decision to use the law as a tool to help the most marginalized in the American legal system.
We both connected over our mutual understanding that direct action, in particular the development and circulation of repressed narratives to affect systemic change. This idea of how we as advocates and allies change systems of oppression permeated our conversation. In particular how the tough work of organizing groups that otherwise have very little natural sense of community–those detained–and have very little understanding of their own power and the power of their voices to win the change they and we need.
One of the most interesting things Jennifer told me about was her work in North Carolina, working detainee cases in which, because of the immigration-legal complex, there was essentially an overburden which impacted the capacity to serve. What this meant was that, as Jennifer told me, that otherwise morbid events such as cancer could become celebrated as a means to prevent deportation.
Given our conversation location, at San Diego State University, there could be this disconnect, from the work of uplifting marginalized voices to change the system, and the comfort of our locale. However, as our conversation developed, it was clear that making use of our privilege and power as citizens to help organize and uplift voices to empower the change that oppressed communities so desperately need.
For me this conversation was especially interesting, as coming from experiences in community organizing and working with labor organizers in communities of color, this idea of circumventing the walls of prisons to organize one of the most marginalized communities in America. What was especially reassuring was the concern that pervaded the work of Detainee Allies with the concern for systemic change, and not just communicating hope to the Detainees but also communicating to the Detainees their own power to fight back against their oppression.