Purposeful Q+A: Angela Cobián, Organizer + School Board Candidate

Angela Cobián calls hers “a truly unique Colorado story.” She is from Denver by way of Mexico. Her parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s and, benefitting from President Reagan’s amnesty, they stayed, worked, and built a family. They first lived in Arleta, California, in a three bedroom, one bathroom house. She remembers:

Angela Cobian
One day, my dad heard from our next-door neighbor, who was an immigrant from Guatemala, that there were lots of jobs in Colorado because of construction. Our neighbor and my dad went to Colorado in the late ‘90s. They slept out of their found jobs, and came back to California with U-Hauls. I still remember that the U-Haul had just one seat, so it was my Dad, my Mom, my brother, me, and my little sister (who was a baby at the time) on my Mom’s lap.

I remember making the drive from California to Colorado and going through the Eisenhower Tunnel. I looked outside the window and saw snow for the first time. That is my first vivid memory of Colorado! Then, we went to the apartment that my Dad had found in front of a K-Mart. That’s how we started our lives here in Colorado. I started my schooling in Kindergarten and then I chose to go to college in Colorado.

After four years at Colorado College, she came back to Denver to teach a few transformative years teaching at Cole Arts and Science Academy. She continued to teach in Mexico City on a Fulbright Scholarship. Then, Angela turned to community organizing, first in northeast and southwest Denver with the organization Together Colorado and now with the group Leadership for Educational Equity, coordinating work in both Denver and Memphis. Organizing is something of a calling for Angela:

I think what led me to being a community organizer is my experience as a daughter of immigrants. My parents navigated a tough system trying to get into the middle class; learning English, building equity by buying a house under a federal program for first time home buyers. Also, my education in political science merged with my experience in the classroom led me to addressing the issues that were seeping into my classroom from the standpoint of the people who were directly impacted—parents!

The differences between community organizing and advocacy are nuances but important, and Angela describes them well.

I coordinate grassroots campaigns that are led by the people who are directly impacted. When you think about advocacy or you think about a protest, you picture somebody saying something into a megaphone. An organizer’s job is to make sure that the person speaking into that megaphone or testifying in front of decision makers, is directly impacted by the issues they are speaking about. They are their own experts! With advocacy, you speak on behalf of somebody else.

At first, Angela didn’t realize that organizing could be her profession. An internship at the Denver Foundation helped her uncover her passion.

I got placed with an education non-profit that did home visits, which are basically one-on-ones in organizing language. I specifically got hired to expand their Spanish program. I was like, “Great, I’m going to do it in Westwood, and I’m going to do it Athmar Park. It’s the area that I grew up in, and that’s where I know there’s a lot of Spanish-speaking people.” I got to teach mothers of kids who were either pregnant or had kids zero to five the importance of reading to their kid and doing at-home literacy. What I loved about that program was that you weren’t just teaching them something. You were also teaching them that what they were already doing with their kids is connected to cognitive brain development. I loved that because it’s empowering. It’s not that you’re giving someone power. They already have power.

While visiting a home in the neighborhood where she grew up, Angela met a kind and hospitable woman who walked with a limp. When asked about it, the woman told her about a surgery that had gone wrong, one that she felt she couldn’t report because she was undocumented — and when she complained about it, her doctor had threatened to call ICE:

She felt that she had no recourse. That experience was really jarring for me because I immediately thought about my uncle who is undocumented and his family. I thought about the gross injustice people can get away with purely because of our immigration system.

It’s been a journey for Angela from that internship to teaching and then organizing. I asked her what keeps her inspired. 

I think what keeps me inspired is actually rage. There’s a word in Spanish called coraje. Coraje refers to an anger that motivates you to act. You say, ‘I have “coraje”’ because something’s frustrating you and you’re going to do something about it. You never use it in the context of ‘Oh, I’m angry, and I’m just going to sit in that anger.’ It’s more like righteous indignation. I think that righteous indignation is what keeps me inspired. Now that I’m not teaching, my students are seventh and eighth graders, and I’m seeing them struggle with the same things that I struggled with. That was how many years ago? I’m much older than them. They’re 12, and I’m 28. There should have been some sort of measurable progress by now!

She thinks back to her parents, who benefited from President Reagan’s Amnesty for undocumented immigrants. That was 30 years ago. She’s indignant that, despite three decades of political promises, nothing has changed. Angela says that the community finds this at the same time humiliating and terrifying, given the ongoing increasing number of deportations of undocumented immigrants with traffic violations or no criminal history at all.

I think that it’s that indignation that keeps me inspired. People teach young women to stay away from any sort of negative emotions publicly, anger being one of them. They’ll turn around and be really polite. I’ve been on boards where I have not been able to contain that indignation, but I’m able to speak about it in a way that has moved people. That is why I have realized that my indignation is a source of power and doesn’t have to be something that I hide or shy away from.

Today, Angela is a candidate for the Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education seat in the same neighborhood where she grew up all those years ago. Watch her talk about her run here:

Shot by Kimothy Pikor and edited by Dani Thompson.