In the house where she grew up, Ashlin Malouf-Spinden's family spent a great deal of time discussing democracy.
But because they feared retribution, those conversations never left the dinner table.
Reared by Bahá'í step-parents who had escaped religious persecution in Iran, the Chief Operating Officer of Denver's Metro Organizations For People was taught the importance of such topics, no matter how fleeting the conversations about them.
"I was raised with this very strong sense of how special democracy is and how important it is to participate in it," Malouf-Spinden says. "My family had experienced what happens when a system falls apart and people are not free to practice the religion of their choosing. It was like the entire system could end at any moment, because my parents had already seen the results of when that happens. But I learned to have that trust."
As she developed her education, Malouf-Spinden elected to pursue a career in the political sphere in order to explore the sector that had influenced her step-parents to relocate to the United States. The list of academic accomplishments behind her quest is a weighty one: She left the University of Wisconsin after three years with degrees in political science, law and justice studies and social change and development before pursuing a Master's in international conflict resolution at Arcadia University.
"I took this class in which my professor was saying that the lynching of African-Americans had stopped, yes, but in a way it still continues through imprisonment rates and the law treating crack differently than cocaine," she says. "Honestly, that was the first time anyone had ever spoken to me through that lens, and it renewed that urge not to take anything for granted."
In 2003, she moved to Colorado for the Institute of Advanced Dispute Resolution in Boulder, followed by three years at the Safehouse Progressive Alliance For Nonviolence. There, she learned that while she respects this work, it isn't her path.
"I saw how important direct service is for people in crisis but also how it sometimes isn't effective for changing the circumstances that led to people being in crisis," Malouf-Spinden says. "People who are victims of abuse can leave and go to a safe house, which helps incredibly, but that doesn't fix the entire system."
In her latest position with Metro Organizations For People, the 29-year-old has moved from a community organizer tasked with overseeing four of the organization's local institutional members to the chief operating officer in charge of many community organizers. In the early stages of her job, Malouf-Spinden's biggest worry was that she would have to organize around a concept she didn't agree with, but she says this has yet to happen.
Metro Organizations For People's member groups include congregations, youth and neighborhood associations, which represent 55,000 people across the Denver metro area with an annual budget of $1.2 million and a staff of fifteen. That staff never selects the issues on its agenda, opting instead to take campaigns as suggested by its members. Last year, this included a ballot initiative supporting the creation of a recreation center in Aurora.
Throughout her role, she stresses education and training with the goal of teaching constituents how to speak for themselves instead of simply speaking for them.
She uses the "teach a man how to fish" metaphor to explain the fine line before transitioning to a Bahá'í teaching. "The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens," she says. Behind her, MOP's offices are loud with laughter from her coworkers. "The common misconception is that the kind of community organizing we do here is advocacy, but we're really trying to get people to advocate for themselves. People are wrongly threatened by that idea. Community organizing has matured and is no longer confrontational and scary."
Since she joined MOP in 2007, Malouf-Spinden has seen her newest political outlook cemented by a series of small successes. At Harrington Elementary School, the group helped school staff push for funding for a new parking lot so that children felt safe being dropped off at school. In other schools, the group initiated a call for greater transportation options that later developed into Denver Public Schools' Success Express program. As the presidential election grows closer, MOP is renewing its focus on civic engagement by pushing voter registration across its member communities.
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Today, she still speaks to her parents about the realities of politics, though her own participation has pushed the conversations farther.
"I honestly believe this model works," she says of community organizing. "It leads to communities led by communities. It takes a while, but hey, that's democracy."
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More from our Politics archive: "Miriam Pena of Colorado Progressive Coalition has personal experience with the racial divide."