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GALEO, Georgia’s largest Latino voting rights and leadership development organization, has hired its first-ever deputy director, Alejandro Chavez, to navigate its rapid growth as the state’s Latino communities mature.
After spending most of his career as a political consultant on progressive campaigns, Chavez, 44, said his move from the Southwest to Georgia for GALEO is a way to embed himself in organizing the Latino community to use its power. “With GALEO, I really saw the opportunity to not feel like [just] an ally, but to actually support the work that is going on, to help communities that look like me or have names like me, like my children,” he said.
Chavez, who hails from the San Francisco Bay area, moved to Arizona 14 years ago to work on a political campaign, and he’s been a political strategist ever since. He helped Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) become Texas’ first Latina congresswoman as her senior campaign manager in 2018. He was also the political director for Arizona’s Prop. 207 “Smart and Safe” campaign, which in 2020 legalized recreational marijuana for adults.
Since CEO Jerry Gonzalez founded GALEO in 2003, the organization has grown to a staff of 14. It’s too large now for Gonzalez to oversee everything, Chavez said, which is where he comes in. “Jerry has great experience. He’s been here a long time, and as GALEO has grown, there are more duties that he can do and needs to focus on,” Chavez said.
As the grandson of legendary labor organizer Cesar Chavez, community organizing is in Chavez’s blood. In the deputy director role, he’ll support GALEO’s staff and grassroots voter registration organizers, update its organizing operations, and help expand beyond its metro Atlanta base to new regions and demographics.
Some of Georgia’s Latino populations are inactive at the polls because of language barriers, he explained. Without outreach, they’re left uninformed and feeling shut out of the political process.
Chavez talked to Atlanta Civic Circle about the most important issues for Georgia’s Latino communities, his community organizing work, and his role at GALEO. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Christian Knox: What made you want to get into politics and community organizing?
Alejandro Chavez: I grew up in the movement. My grandfather was Cesar Chavez, so I had a long history of volunteering. I don’t know if it’s called volunteering if you don’t have a choice–you’re just told to do something–but volunteering. [Laughs.]
When I moved to Arizona, it was a really eye-opening experience. I grew up in the Bay Area, and it was very different to see how the Latinx community was treated in the Southwest–in what were racist areas, very simply. Not that the Bay Area didn’t have racist areas, but they kind of hide in corners more–or they used to. It was very different. And so as I did the work for that campaign, I really felt the need to continue.
The racist trends that are out there, that’s always a drive. It’s not just about the tiki torches, that’s not the only racism we see. We see it in our housing, our job opportunities, our economic development, our entrepreneurship, our access to higher education. It’s always been a part of my work, and it’s a great tragedy that we have to do that in our work.
What is GALEO 2.0, as Jerry Gonzalez called it when announcing your hire? As GALEO’s first-ever deputy director, how will you build capacity as the organization matures?
GALEO has grown a lot lately. They’re doing more field work, they’ve hired more organizers. So, it’s getting more of the civic engagement ramped up.
[Part of my role] is about documenting the jobs that we do. Everyone here does a great job, and they’re able to train people themselves on how to do their job. But what we need to do is just slow down, take the time to document [each role] and get it down, so that we can pass it on to the next person.
What kind of civic engagement issues is GALEO currently working on?
I think this is a layered process, and the most important layer is voter registration between now and the [midterm registration] deadline. We want to ensure those communities are registered to vote and have what they need to participate in the upcoming election.
You recently served as the political director for Arizona’s successful Prop. 207 marijuana legalization campaign. Do you have any plans at GALEO to support a similar initiative in Georgia?
There’s a great piece of this [legalizing marijuana] around social justice, and criminal record expungements–around giving people the opportunity to have things wiped off their record– as well as opportunities for Black and Brown people to have ownership in the new, booming marijuana industry.
I definitely think it’s something we should explore. [Marijuana legalization] definitely has a social justice and economic aspect that, when done right, really opens the door for Black and Brown people to opportunities that may be closed to them today–to the industry and [business] ownership, as well as getting a criminal record expunged.
What are your thoughts on Georgia’s public colleges charging out-of-state tuition to DACA students who’ve gone to high school in-state–while the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia College and State University refuse to admit them, saying they already have a glut of applicants?
The fact is that in-state tuition is just that. It’s for people in the state, so I don’t know why it matters whether you have a piece of paper that says whether you’re a citizen or not. It’s for people who live in the state to be able to have access to affordable higher education, so I just don’t think it makes any sense.
I’m not sure we’re working on [changing] that in particular, mainly because our biggest work right now is on voter registration. If we want to do anything on DACA, then we actually need to have the numbers to ensure that DACA stays in place at the very minimum.
[The federal DACA program, or deferred action for childhood arrivals, allows some immigrants who came to the United States as children to avoid deportation and obtain work permits. Texas and other states have challenged the legality of the Obama-era program. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Texas v. USA on July 6. The case is expected to go to the Supreme Court.]
Your grandfather, Cesar Chavez, is a labor movement icon for his work as a labor organizer and civil rights activist. What is his legacy to you?
My grandfather’s legacy will always be about the workers. He wanted farmworkers’ children to have the same opportunity as growers’ children. And no matter what we’re doing, we want to ensure that the children of me and other Black and Brown people born today will have the same opportunities as their white counterparts born today. This isn’t something that was just happening in the 1950’s. It continues today.
How do you apply what he taught you in your own work?
It’s remembering that there are no shortcuts. You have to talk to people. You have to talk to
people you agree with and people you don’t agree with. You have to talk to Latinos. You have to talk to policymakers.
You have to talk to everyone who makes the community function to have their buy-in, so that we can change the hearts of the people whose minds we need to change–and we can elevate those people who sometimes are left out of the conversation, sometimes intentionally. I learned that from him, and that’s what I carry on the most. Every day is an opportunity to do the work. There are no shortcuts to organizing our community.
Christian Knox is an Atlanta Press Club intern with ACC for the summer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee — Knoxville.