SF Rising is proud to welcome Celi Tamayo-Lee, our former Interim Co-director, as one of the new permanent Co-directors of the organization! We sat down with Celi and asked them some questions about their experience, background, and what they’re excited to bring to SF Rising in their new role.
Q: What first brought you to SF Rising and when was that?
Celi: I first came to SF Rising in 2017. I had been teaching at Hilltop High School in San Francisco, which is SF Unified School District’s High School for teen parents, and it was a temporary role so I was looking for work. I had done a fair amount of youth organizing and had really cut my teeth on elections when I was the campaign manager for the Vote 16 campaign in 2016 and I was looking for a political home and people that I could grow with. Vote 16 was the youth-led measure to expand voting rights to 16 and 17 year old citizens in San Francisco – a cutting edge initiative to develop consistent voting habits and include youth voice in local policies. And so I started as the field organizer at SF Rising.
Q: What roles have you held and what campaigns have you worked on since joining SF Rising?
Celi: I was brought on at a time when the Leadership Committee decided to start organizing college students because college students are part of the community. They are renters, they are low-wage workers, immigrants, and a rising new majority of San Francisco’s voting bloc. And historically, movements have always been fueled by young people. So I started to reach out to professors who had service learning components and began to run various civic engagement programs in partnership with our statewide youth civic engagement network, Power California. That included hiring and getting students to volunteer to do outreach to young voters of color to turn them out to the polls and to register them to vote. I have done lots of classroom presentations, talking about college affordability, and talking about what power can be built in elections, not that it’s the only tool in the toolbox. It’s an important tool to maintain some sense of democracy.
In early 2018, we started working with some activists who were researching what it would take to create free college in California and had written a proposal to try and put something on the ballot that would raise money through an estate tax for people to go to school for free at the UCs, Cal States, and community colleges. So a huge part of my first full year at SF Rising was trying to gather petition signatures to put a measure on the ballot for the fall 2018 election and connecting with all sorts of higher ed organizations and youth organizations to try and fight for free college in and make that possible in California.
Another big part of SF Rising that I’ve helped build out is the Summer Fellowship Program. In 2018, we had our very first summer fellowship with five fellows and trained them on how to canvass and do direct outreach. 2019 was a really awesome all star group of 10 fellows. We call that the “Hot Grl Summer” because of Megan Thee Stallion’s song that came out that year. It was our ballad. We continued to have conversations with students about college affordability and talk about the fact that public college used to be free and had become more privatized during the Reagan administration to combat the rise of people of color in the institution and to combat the student activism around the Vietnam War. I think the student work is what has given me the most life and something that I’ve learned a lot from in working with students.
In 2019, I also started to help out with running or help out with gathering the alliance together. One of my favorite events was putting on a youth candidate forum of all the DA candidates at the Bayview Opera House and just getting to really create a space that was friendly and accessible and meaningful to young people to learn about what a district attorney does.
What I feel really proud of is the ways in which the student organizing has really expanded, like the fact that we’re able to pay student organizers and we had the amazing Alex Lalama come on as our Lead Student Organizer to bring the student organizing into its own more expanded existence so that there’s longer term investment in students and also a more established home for student organizing related to student debt cancellation and creating free college long term.
Q: That’s amazing! You’ve done a lot since you’ve joined us. It sounds like since you started, there’s been a lot of changes at the organization. How have those changes impacted the organization, but also our mission and our ability to do what we’re trying to do in San Francisco?
Celi: There have been various transitions in and out of the organization. I do feel really grateful for Emily’s mentorship and leadership of the organization, having her as the Executive Director for so long. She’s such a key part of SF Rising and being with her through the last five years, through various other staff transitions has just been a really fortifying feeling. This is where I want to be and that’s a value, sticking it out and really trying to be flexible with the various changes that can happen at an organization.
In the realm of San Francisco, I see a deep trust that labor unions and other organizations have in SF Rising and have in Emily. It really did feel like that trust came out of the work of our grassroots members and alliances to do voter outreach in Cantonese, and Tagalog and in Spanish. It’s still hard to say what our impact is or how others see us as a power player, but I do know that within the realm of working-class, grassroots, BIPOC communities we do play an important role. We organize the people power that’s necessary. Each year, we keep learning, and while we are up against corporate developers, real estate money, and police officers associations, we continue to contest for power and we get better at it each time.
Q: What made you want to step into a leadership position?
Celi: I have to shoutout my parents who are leaders in the work that they do. I also am the eldest sibling, I have a lot of older sister vibes. I do get a lot of joy from being mentored and also mentoring others. It has definitely been a journey of finding my own voice and through my shaping of education and playing team sports, I have also identified with being that person in the classroom who doesn’t want to speak up or who feels unwelcomed in certain spaces, or like in basketball, I was the benchwarmer the entire time. So what interests me about leadership is facilitation and being able to create spaces or cultures that differ from the status quo and open up space for all kinds of people to participate.
The other piece about leadership and political work is about being power hungry and wanting to really be alive to my own anger and alive to my own frustration with what I see in society and just even be alive to my own oppression as a person of color, as an Asian American, as a queer and non binary person. This system is not working and no one is going to make it easier for us. We have to do whatever it is that organizing is to challenge that and create a strategy and talk to people and have a bigger picture to build power for the people – for working-class, BIPOC communities, for queer and trans folks. It is very challenging work. It is hard, a lot of times to find balance and to find hope even. The beautiful intersection of social justice work is trying to figure out what that is from the most like miniscule level to the most macro and that can facilitate a culture of self care and checking in on each other. All of that kind of interpersonal care is, for me, a big part of being able to do this kind of political work.
Q: You’re so right. It’s like, if leadership is what is needed from us for liberation for our communities, that’s what we need to do. For anyone who’s watching this, who might be struggling in this field, do you have any advice for how you’ve sustained yourself in this work?
Celi: Taking breaks has been really important, making time to have hobbies and to find joy. Also balancing doing the work and ensuring that there’s a space for leadership development is also really important. Just getting to still be a student in organizing really refills my cup, like seeing how other people train, how other people facilitate gives me the inspiration to keep going, along with having book clubs and political discussions.
I never want to fall out of developing a political critique, just because I went to a liberal arts college 8 years ago. Also, I have to shout out somatics as an awesome, awesome field of healing that has developed alongside organizing. The Chinese Progressive Association, which is our mother organization, even has a culture of somatics and that has invited me to feel out more of my fullness and aliveness in the day to day work.
Q: Absolutely, especially in a world where overworking is so often glamorized or rewarded, that’s so important. As you step into this new role of Co-director, what are some things you’re excited to bring to it? And what are some challenges that you’re foreseeing for the organization or for our mission?
Celi: I’m excited to be a part of a co-director model, because it’s an expanding model in the nonprofit world to create more sustainable leadership. I’m excited for that to be a core part of how SF Rising operates. I’m excited that we have an office space to have a space where people can come be in person, especially as things become a little bit safer with the pandemic. My sun sign is a cancer so I do like to throw a potluck! I’m excited to learn more about fundraising and about the operating organizations. I’m super excited to continue to support the student organizing, especially as we’re going through a strategic planning process right now to get clarity on the base-building model, the theory of change, and campaigns that we want to do for the next few years.
Tech in San Francisco is continuing to throw down more in local elections and that makes me just really nervous. There are so many alliances that are being built within the 1%, or even the 0.1% of the city. The intense wealth disparity in this city is really, really concerning to me along with the exodus of communities of color. As someone who grew up in this city, just the way that it is losing its working-class communities is really tough to feel each day.
Q: What is your absolute ultimate dream for SF Rising. If everything worked out and you had all the time to reach the ultimate dream for SF Rising what would that look like?
Celi: I dream of our student organizing expanding to a point where we have more student staff who can each be in charge of training or base building or the social joy part of organizing students. I want us to be able to build out a base of hundreds, maybe thousands, of students who can move in unified blocks and set demands at a local level both with their universities and also potentially city wide or help lead another statewide measure to create free college.
I also dream of SF Rising having its own political member base. We’ve talked about having an army of people who know how to doorknock and really identify with SF Rising as their political home. If we could be doing monthly orientation or political education where we are growing an everyday member of our political base that would be amazing. I would also love to continue to extend support to our alliance organizations, to the organizers who work with us. Especially to register BIPOC communities to vote and expand the number of people who are volunteering or paid canvassers in Tagalog or Spanish, that is definitely the dream.
Q: Do you have anything else you want people to know about your background, experience, or your vision for SF Rising?
Celi: In my freetime, I like to venture out into nature, whether that’s hiking or kayaking. There’s just something about art and cultural work…I feel like it’s a way that I stay sustained and balanced. It’s almost like the elections work is defense and participating in art projects is kind of an offensive strategy to help shift culture and continue to build out a liveliness that builds community and makes a place a place that people want to be.