Social Justice

Movement Power: The Rebirth and Rise of Denver's Movimiento Poder

Elsa Bañuelos is PJU's executive director.
Elsa Bañuelos is PJU's executive director. padresunidos.org
For thirty years, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, or Parents and Youth United, has been one of the most active and engaged Latinx organizations in Denver. But during a virtual event getting under way at 6 p.m. tonight, December 1, PJU will be officially rebranded as Movimiento Poder.

That roughly translates to "Movement Power," and executive director Elsa Bañuelos makes it clear that the name symbolizes the direction in which the group is heading.

"We wanted to make sure that it was still something relevant, still connected to community," Bañuelos says. "But we also wanted to ensure that we're still building power in Colorado, and in Denver specifically."

The roots of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos stretch back to 1991. "We started in southwest Denver, when parents had called for help to remove a racist principal at Valverde Elementary," Bañuelos recalls. About ten years later, co-founders Pam and Ricardo Martinez added "Jóvenes" to the organization's name, to stress that parents and young people needed to work together to effect change.

That's precisely what's happened, Bañuelos says: "We've really pushed Denver Public Schools to protect bilingual students, protect immigrant students and protect students of color through different policies, and we've also worked with legislators on bills."

About two years ago, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos entered a period of transition, and while Bañuelos is a veteran, having started as a youth organizer in 2003, many other new faces joined up. What followed was a period of self-examination that's culminated in the new name and a mission that's broader in scope.

"We've really honed down who we are accountable to and who we work with," Bañuelos emphasizes. "I'm proud to say we are a Latinx organization that works with Latinx youth, immigrants, women, families and queer folks, which is a huge change for us. Historically, we were an organization of color, but through our process, we realized there are other amazing organizations locally that work with other folks of color. So we wanted to claim who we are and who we work with and who we reflect."

And the issues the group takes on. "We are still working on removing police from our schools, ensuring that we have access to high-quality and equitable schools, making sure our immigrant families are treated like first-class citizens, and making sure our Latinx constituents are voting every single year, particularly in Denver," Bañuelos points out. "We're also trying to end the school-to-prison pipeline — and we believe that we can succeed and achieve our goals through community organizing, leadership development and civic engagement."

Movimiento Poder will also put a premium on "doing more direct services" in the Padres tradition. For instance, Bañuelos points out that PJU used its influence to encourage vaccinations among the Latinx community — something that will continue into 2022. "We want to be sure we're uplifting each other and taking care of each other, especially through this pandemic," she says. "People are suffering, which is why we've raised funds to help people in the community to pay for rent, pay for utilities, provided gift cards to pay for groceries. So while there's policy work we have to do to address racist policies in our schools or at the local and national levels, we also have to address people's immediate needs."

Tonight's event "is a really, really exciting moment for us," she concludes, "and it's been very humbling to go through this entire process with our community members and our membership. It's been a kind of bittersweet moment for me personally, too. We're still going to celebrate the legacy of our founding members — not only Pam and Ricardo, but the members who set the foundation for us to continue this work for another thirty years. Maybe thirty years from now, the new leadership will reconsider the name, the vision, the logo, the purpose — and that's okay. We have to continue evolving and changing."

Click to register for tonight's virtual event.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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