Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide

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The Santa Fe offices of the Colorado Progressive Coalition contain no front desk or really any lobby, just a series of colorful hallways unevenly decorated with Chicano and Native American artwork. The tables are covered with snacks and political literature, and the back wall marks a recent round of staff brainstorming about why the organization is "unique." In bright pink marker, someone has written "bold," "courageous," "supportive of one another," "not afraid of conflict."

"The office is very grassroots," says Miriam Pena, one of CPC's two executive directors. "But then, so is the organization."

One of the later brainstorming points -- "staff represents communities" -- relates particularly well to the organization's newest leader, a 26-year-old activist who was born in Juarez, Mexico ("one of the most dangerous cities in the world," she says) and graduated from Denver's West High ("a lot of my old friends are in jail or raising kids"). Pena is not ignorant of the meaning behind either of those facts, and she applies both to her work with the civil rights coalition's more than 24,000 members, who are served by offices in Denver, Pueblo and Greeley.

But until a full ride brought her to DU in 2003, Pena was not aware of the effects her background could have on her future.

"I didn't notice we were poor until college, and then it was obvious," Pena says. She takes care not to lump all DU students into a single social group; as monitors of local racial profiling, the CPC takes pains to avoid any generalization. But, she notes, "I was the only brown person in any of my classes, and I wondered immediately why that was."

Her decision to focus on political advocacy in league with her heritage was cemented by one trip to the cafeteria: While leading a tour of students mostly from her alma mater, someone shouted about Bring Your Child To Work Day. "All of the cafeteria servers, cook and cleaners were brown, so I guess they thought we matched," Pena says. "That woke me up."

When she joined the CPC as a volunteer in early 2005, it was to tackle language differentiation, an issue she also faced at home with a mother who speaks only Spanish. During her mother's hysterectomy treatment, Pena found it difficult to guarantee visits from Spanish-speaking health care workers on a regular basis. Her personal conflicts would continue to mesh with political issues the CPC focused on as her time there developed.

In 2008, her stepfather, also an immigrant from Mexico, was deported. This meant that, at the same time the coalition launched its campaign against Aurora's GEO detention center, he was held inside it. The issue still comes with tears, and when Pena reaches for a tissue to wipe them up, the box is located in the direct center of a series of framed family photos. Her mother applied for and earned her citizenship the same year, but her husband never returned to the country. He died in a car accident in Mexico in 2010.

"It hasn't been that long that the CPC has even been invited to the table for these huge local issues, but it's because our membership base is in the middle of them," Pena says. 'We are a bridge between the community and public policy, and we have to do everything we can to keep that role." Later in 2005, Pena was promoted to become the group's grassroots funding coordinator before eventually being named the CPC's first development director. Her most recent move, however, has been the most demanding: Pena joined Jason McKain as the second executive director of one of the state's largest social justice organizations one year ago.

She is still its youngest staff member. In the first stage of her still-new position, Pena cut her hair into a bob to look older. But as it has grown back, so has her ability to ignore those who consider her age a handicap. "I wanted to prove myself, and I feel patronized as a young female Mexican," Pena says. "But I was my own worst enemy, when it came to expectations."

In 2012, the Colorado Progressive Coalition is focused firmly on the country's racial wealth divide, with education campaigns aimed at teaching members and their communities about tax structures. "We want it to be graduated, not flat," she says, "but it's tough to vote for that change if you don't know what either one is." Later this year, the CPC plans to relaunch a statewide telephone hotline for reporting racial profiling, which will come in conjunction with know-your-rights training across its membership base.

In recent weeks, CPC officials have met a handful of times with new Police Chief Robert White to discuss these issues. The group's bigger picture -- though Pena readily admits some of it is temporarily impossible -- includes efforts aimed at incorporating the immigrant population into health care reform and pushing blight ordinances against banks to allow for more support of people facing foreclosure.

"I know why people laugh at us when we tell them we're taking on big government and the banks," Pena says. "I understand why. But what they forget -- what they keep forgetting -- is that there's big power in the minority voice."

To that extent, the CPC partnered with Occupy Denver early on (most notably during the week-long Mile High Showdown to challenge Wells Fargo in October) and is planning several group events in the coming months. Although the two organizations remain mutually supportive, Pena admits she would like to see a more diverse racial response within Occupy Denver's population at Civic Center Park.

"When we ask our constituents about Occupy, they're like, 'Oh, so now they want to occupy,'" Pena says. "To them, the brown people have always been the [99] percent and there's nothing new. We all have to come together and ride this tidal wave of action with the Occupy movement while it's still happening and ambitious."

The decorations in Pena's office match the life of a twenty-something, but an ambitious and self-aware one. On the desk next to visitors, Pena has filled a dish with Mexican candy, and her wall includes a framed poster of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. On the enormous wall calendar above her desk, February 14 is framed by a hand-drawn red heart.

"I feel like my heart has aged so much in the one year I've done this job, seeing dirty politics and hearing when they refer to 'those people' when I'm one of them and I'm in the room," Pena says. "But I've learned that I have an incredible amount of faith and trust in people, and I couldn't do this any other way." She pauses. "Ask me the same question in five years, and I don't know if the answer will be the same."

More from our Politics archive: "Gill Action's Joanne Kron takes over role as ProgressNow Colorado's executive director."

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