We recently reconnected with alumna Gabriela Santiago-Romero from our fourth program year. Gabby is currently running for office seeking to “change the way we do local government” as Wayne County Commissioner. Learn more about Gabriela’s experience as a Fellow and what she’s up to today.
Tell us about your personal history and what drew you to apply to Challenge Detroit.
I was born in Puerto Vallarta and grew up in Southwest Detroit. Growing up in poverty in the city was hard, and I learned to survive with the assets we had thanks to my family and our community. We knew what our problems were and we demanded solutions. Often times these were basic solutions like streetlights, or more complex and complicated solutions like fully funded schools for a better education. Black and Brown communities are often ignored, and not seen as valuable. They have been disinvested from for generations. My mother always pushed me to go to college, saying it was our way to economic sustainability. I wanted to study something that would help me sustain my family so I studied International Business at the University of Detroit Mercy. What drew me to Challenge Detroit was the promise of a program investing completely in a city that I loved, that there was a fellowship that saw the value that I saw in our communities and collective need for our development.
You were a Challenge Detroit Fellow in our fourth year, please share a highlight of your fellowship year such as a favorite project or experience.
To be completely honest, if it wasn’t for Challenge Detroit, I don’t think that I would have ever worked for the NFL. Working for the former Detroit Lions’ Living for the City Foundation was an experience. You never think of the NFL as a corporation, but it is, and that was interesting and eye-opening. It was also incredibly fun watching football players play with elementary and middle schoolers. A large portion of my job was to help with the Play 60 program which brought students in who got to shop and eat at the Eastern Market with the Lions. Thanks to my time there I was also able to meet my favorite Lions family member, Roary.
Tell us about your career and commitment to the community today, and how you continue to carry forward what you learned during your fellowship.
I’m the Policy and Research Director at We The People Michigan. We’re a statewide organizing and movement-building organization that believes every person deserves dignity, justice and liberation. We work toward this future, asking the question, “Is it possible to build multi-racial working-class power in Michigan?” We believe we have to be real about building with communities of color, indigenous communities and rural and working-class white communities to acknowledge our linked fate. Our fellowship was all about commitment to Detroit and teamwork. We all had a role to play. We stepped up when it was our turn to lead and took a step back and supported when it was time for someone else to grow in their leadership. It was a fellowship that focused on the development of oneself, and our Detroit neighborhoods, not just downtown. I appreciated Lauren Hood and the countless others who came into to talk about race and the inequities in the city. There was no way around it, we had problems and we could no longer blame our people, these problems are systemic. We listened, we learned, we built community, we offered support and solutions.
How do you hope to continue playing a role in Detroit in the future?
I hope to be the next County Commissioner for Southwest Detroit, Lincoln Park and Melvindale. I plan on continuing to be a leader that fosters leadership in others, creates a pipeline and a team of local leaders who serve. I believe in the importance of creating local progressive leadership. I believe that we need better processes and systems set in place that support our residents rather than make their lives more difficult with unneeded and sometimes unlawful bureaucracy. We can start with simple solutions, but then we should be thinking about how we could better the county government as a whole. County Commissioners are the checks and balances. They can call to question the Sheriffs or Prosecutors office and requests reviews of their budget. Where is the funding going and how is it serving our residents? We could be setting better expectations from leadership. I hope to serve and better engage us in our local government, educate ourselves on our solutions, and take the steps needed to build safe and sustainable communities.
Learn more about Gabby and her run for office: