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Throughout her childhood, Merida's father made sure she also got an education in social justice. He took her along to political meetings and union rallies, and she did her homework while he organized. He recalls that at a rally of Coors Brewing Company workers, when Merida was about nine years old, he momentarily lost track of her. When he asked a worker if he'd seen his daughter, the worker pointed to the podium.
There she was, standing on a beer box so she could reach the microphone, about to read a poem she had just written about the struggles and rights of workers. "They all said, 'There's the future president of the union,'" he says.
After graduating from high school, Merida enrolled at Metropolitan State College of Denver to study journalism. But after nearly two years, she dropped out and, to the shock of her family, joined the Army. "The rationale that I gave my dad at the time was that I needed more structure, I needed more discipline," Merida says.
At nineteen, she fell in love with a fellow soldier named Cody, got married and had a son, Devin. The family was then transferred together to a military station in Germany in the mid-1980s, where Merida did electronics work on Army computer systems. Merida left the Army before her husband, who was transferred again, this time to Texas.
Merida and her son went with him, and the three sometimes made trips to Denver to visit her family. On the drive back to Texas on Memorial Day weekend in 1990, Cody fell asleep at the wheel, and their car collided with a semi truck full of cattle. Merida and four-year-old Devin survived, but Cody didn't. At 23, Merida was a single mother.
She moved back to Denver to be closer to her family and to deal with her grief. But she also had to support her small family, so she enrolled at the now-defunct Barnes Business College to study accounting, and later returned to Metro to pursue her passion for music, becoming a classically trained singer.
Over time, Merida pieced together a living. For the past fifteen years, she's worked as a church choir director at two different Catholic churches in Denver. She's also worked as a web designer and social media consultant, and for a Chinese handbag company that scouted American designers.
About three years ago, Merida took a page from her father's book and decided to get involved again. She began volunteering for the House District 2 Democrats and was soon precinct captain for the western half of the district, the same one where she'd grown up. In that role, she tried to boost civic engagement and voter turnout, and spearheaded neighborhood projects such as graffiti cleanup.
"She's really helped get that group organized and a lot more active," Cindy Lowery says. In the past, "at caucuses and assemblies, it was like pulling teeth to get people to attend. Now we have competition for activities and volunteer work in that community."
But Merida wanted to do more. She says she wanted to make sure the historically disenfranchised people of her district, many of them poor and Latino, had the same opportunities as everyone else — and she decided the place to start was the schools.
Her father, who works as a parent liaison for Wyatt-Edison Charter School in the Cole neighborhood, tried to dissuade her from running for school board. "I said, 'Are you crazy?'" he says. He'd seen the way DPS operates — and he wasn't thrilled by it.
But with boardmember Moss's term set to expire, Merida threw her hat into the ring. "I ran because of social justice," she says. "The public education system is the great equalizer. It makes the poor man just as powerful as the rich man. When kids don't get a good education, we cheat them of their right to take advantage of this democracy."
When Merida spoke at forums and in interviews about her vision for DPS, she emphasized accountability and community involvement, and vowed to work to improve neighborhood schools rather than push for more charter schools. Her opponent, Ismael Garcia, was a founding boardmember of the wildly successful West Denver Prep charter school. Garcia didn't return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment for this story.
The media painted the entire race as a battle between so-called reformers, who favored charter schools and "turnarounds," and those, like Merida, who preferred to fix the schools DPS already had rather than start new ones. The election was also marked by the biggest fundraising donations of any school board race in recent history. Merida knew she wouldn't have much money to spend, so she decided to focus on knocking on doors and racking up endorsements from people such as Baca, HD2 representative Mark Ferrandino and even Moss. Garcia raised nearly three times as much as Merida, but the lion's share of the $30,116 she did pull in came from labor unions, including the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which endorsed her over Garcia.
"She shares our values," says DCTA president Henry Roman. "She has a deeper understanding of teaching, and...she knows it's not just looking at the test scores." Roman was also impressed by Merida's work ethic and knowledge of her district. "She had done an extensive, well-researched study of her district, and she knew the work that needed to be done. She was almost on autopilot. We did very little to help her."