A Conversation With Make The Road Action’s Maegan Llerena and Allentown City Councilmember Ce-Ce Gerlach

May 14, 2021 | Exclusives, Featured, Features

Make The Road Action is a growing force across Pennsylvania and throughout the Lehigh Valley. Their presence, under Executive Director Maegan Llerena, has brought Latinx issues to the forefront of the conversation changing the power dynamics in cities and towns with growing Latinx and working class populations. Allentown, the third largest city in Pennsylvania with a population that is two thirds Latinx or Black, being one of them.

Recently, Make The Road Action endorsed City Councilmember Ce-Ce Gerlach in her bid to be the first Black woman mayor of Allentown. PA Spotlight brought together Maegan and Ce-Ce for a conversation about organizing in Allentown, racial justice, and what’s at stake in their communities. You can find our exclusive conversation below.

I want to open up with a little about Make the Road Action’s organizing in Allentown. It has been inspiring to watch Make the Road grow over the last few years and really become a progressive force in Pennsylvania advocating for policy and representation that centers Latinx voices. Maegan, can you talk about the issues that you have centered in your work in Allentown that has led to your organization’s endorsement of Ce-Ce for Mayor?

Maegan: We saw another devastating and enraging incident of police violence when an officer kneeled on the neck of a man in crisis. Ce-Ce was a partner. She was in the streets with us. She listened to the voices of people directly impacted by police violence and profiling every day. She understands that we need to invest resources and support for our community safety – which does not mean giving more resources to police and prisons. The biggest piece was Ce-Ce did not try to be in the center of it because it would help her campaign. I don’t think she ever once mentioned her campaign during that time. She just wanted to be there to be a shoulder and an ear to hear what was going on and in the center of what the community needed – as opposed to being in the center just to boost her campaign. When our members met with her, they were very excited to be able to endorse somebody who is not only a member who has worked with us in the past, but has been a consistent and present community leader in Allentown. To be able to have someone who would have a conversation with them is incredibly important and to care about their issues is incredibly important to our folks.

That’s so important when politicians are able to stand with people and not center themselves, but to actually be able to be part of the organizing that’s taking place. Following up on that Ce-Ce, as an elected official, how has Make The Road Action’s presence in Allentown over the last few years changed the dynamic in the City for better and in a progressive direction?

Ce-Ce: From my perspective, I’ve been an elected official the entire time Make The Road has been present here from school board to now city council. What I’ve seen is Make The Road has pushed issues that traditionally don’t get pushed to the forefront. It has pushed those of us who claim to be progressives to actually be progressives.

There’s far too many folks – especially elected officials – that call themselves progressives but they are just simply not. For those who have not been able to step forth and take on stances that are progressive and sometimes in the eyes of many controversial – because I guess it’s controversial for everyone to have a house and for everyone to have healthcare for some reason – we’ve seen a clear delineation of electeds who are on the side of the people, which are the sides Make The Road is advocating for, and just the progressives that are just progressive in name only. That’s what I’ve seen from my role. People who I thought were doing the right thing, but they don’t show up or put any meaningful legislation behind their words.

Maegan, what was it like for your membership to see Ce-Ce first as an advocate and ally organizing with you out in the streets and now moving into a position of being an elected official and running for Mayor?

Maegan: She was on the school board when we got to be able to be in contact with each other and have the organization see Ce-Ce as a powerhouse. She actually worked to be with our organization. She came to meetings. Ce-Ce canvassed with Make The Road Action. She wanted to make sure she was standing with and for people that she believed would make a true difference in our City on a large scale locally. She’s been with our organization in different capacities. Seeing her doing what she did in city council, we can only imagine the difference it will make in Allentown to have her as mayor. Not only because it will break all the barriers – she will be the first woman, she will be the first Black woman which is incredible itself – but because she’s giving us a path to generations after us. Also because there will be less violence because a Black woman will be the mayor of our city.

There are so many things that Ce-Ce is doing and laying the groundwork for. What I have seen with Ce-Ce is she doesn’t just say something and not do anything about it. She holds down what her commitments are. I’m very excited to see what that does for our city overall. Not just the folks who have money, not just the people who have nice homes, not just the people who care about making our city more popular, but immigrants, undocumented folks, the homeless population, people who need more resources for their mental health. I can actually envision what an Allentown would look like with Ce-Ce as mayor.

Progressives are contesting for power across Pennsylvania in new ways. With contested challenges taking place in Allentown, Pittsburgh, and beyond, it seems that we are now taking leaders from our own movements and bringing them to power. Ce-Ce, can you discuss what brought you into this space and how has the growth of the progressive movement in Pennsylvania inspired candidacies like yours?

Ce-Ce: I will tell you that while we were out there during the summer protesting for something to me that seems pretty fundamental; dignity, respect, and protesting structural systemic racism. That seems pretty basic. There was an attempt to censure me. That’s when it hit me, ‘Wow, they really are afraid.’ I was sitting in city council meetings and there were fellow members of council that felt they needed to be protected by cops because they were afraid of (Make The Road Action). Like, what!?

I’m thinking, ‘OK..it’s something deeper than that.’ They are afraid of the power that is being formed because we are kneeling together, we are marching together. People started to learn the system, the very system that they don’t want us to know. They don’t want us to know how to navigate the office so we don’t run for office. So we don’t try to claim that power that they’ve held for far too long and done nothing with. This is what they were afraid of. I decided in the summer that I would do this – that I would run for mayor because they don’t want me to. I figured if they don’t want me to be there must be a reason behind that. Let me do this. I met with activists and wanted to see if they would have my back. People who I marched in the streets with said yes. So I’m thinking I’ll go for this. My intention was to run for city council and then maybe go for state level office at one point to change some of these antiquated state laws, but then 2020 happened. I was just like, ‘yeah, no.’ These structures have to be dismantled. I looked at who was running. I didn’t see anyone trying to dismantle these structures. They just keep giving the rhetoric about how diversity is our strength and yet they don’t invest in the diverse communities. So I just thought, ‘The structures aren’t working. They aren’t going to change the structures. I know how to run a campaign, so I’ll do it!’

Maegan: There’s a lot of qualifications that people say Brown and Black people need to run for office. What Ce-Ce is doing and what more and more people are going to start doing is understanding that they do meet these qualifications. Just because white folks are saying we are not good enough doesn’t mean that we are not good enough. We are pushing that imposter syndrome aside. We’re saying I can do this and make a difference in my city that I care so much about.

I think that is what is not only inspiring to see Ce-Ce do, but also for whoever is next. For whoever is next for state and local seats, I can’t wait to see what barriers are going to break.

Ce-Ce: I feel that in every type of way. Even to this day – even with the polls showing a pretty good chance that we are going to win this – in some people’s eyes I will never be qualified. I realized that after we had the LGBTQ debate. We practiced and practiced and practiced. I have people on my team that identify as trans, that identify as gay, that identify across the spectrum. I was able to perform really well at that debate and the first thing – the first thing! – ‘oh, she must’ve cheated.’

That’s where I’m like this is what it looks like. No matter how good you are, they will continue to move the finish line further and further and further away. It doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have. It doesn’t matter if you’re light skinned or dark skinned. It doesn’t matter. You’re not one of them and you will never be. I learned that in my second term on the school board. My first four years on the school board, I wanted to fit in. I wanted them to accept me. I was young. I was 24 years old. I wanted them to like me. Then I realized, you know what? They are never going to like me. I can’t be like them. I can’t be like a white man because I’m not one. I can’t be like an older white lady because I’m not that. I just need to be me. I need to own who I am. If people accept that, then cool. If people don’t, then whatever. If people can’t accept having a mayor who has some debt, then don’t vote for me. If they can’t accept a mayor who is poor, well then maybe I’m not the one. If people can, then here I am. That’s what I would say to (Maegan’s) point. For people in the future who are looking to run for office you don’t have to switch up you are. You don’t have to do this code switching. Be you. Be your authentic self. If you’ve got some glitches in your past, then you’ve got some glitches in your past. Who the hell doesn’t?

It’s a great segway into my next question. In many of these candidacies, we are hearing stories that are all too familiar and it’s a reflection of the cities we are organizing in. It’s a tale of two cities with the haves and have nots with widening wage gaps between people of color and white people. This has been true for the LeHigh Valley as well. Starting with Maegan, how are you seeing this growing inequality affect your membership at Make The Road Action?

Maegan: There has been a growing shift of not having three classes. It’s just the poor and the wealthy, the rich. I think that the pandemic just amplified, highlighted in bold, and underlined the issues that were already there. It made it that much worse. Everything became a priority. We did an impact report to see how COVID has had a devastating impact on Latinx communities that highlight a lot of economic devastation the working class is facing because of COVID. The reality is those issues were already there.

We don’t have proper housing. We don’t protect tenants. We don’t protect anybody who is renting a home, undocumented or not. It doesn’t actually matter if you have papers or not although those that don’t are treated much more poorly. There was economic insecurity. Everyone was laid off and now everyone is looking for a job. That flip-flop in the labor market right now is causing a lot of issues. Our members are directly impacted by this.

The fact that there was a lack of federal relief for mixed status, undocumented immigrant families. There were organizations like ours who had to overnight create these solidarity funds to give to those families or those individuals that needed aid instead of the community, or the government, or the federal government giving that aid for them. They decided to exclude these groups of people because they do not have legal status. They made it more difficult for organizations like ours to have to then create this new entity and direct service so we could give people immediate assistance.

The impact was severe and we hear about it all the time with our members. We still host all the things we used to host digitally. We do some things in person – COVID safely of course. Because of that and meeting with them, we got to extend PA’s eviction moratorium last year. That doesn’t actually keep people in their homes right now. That doesn’t do anything for the lack of policy that protects tenants. To me, it’s like – which is why we endorsed Ce-Ce – how we will be able to work with our elected officials to help fight homelessness, to help fight for keeping people in there homes that are there now, to help fight for federal relief, to work with the government so we can provide assistance. Right now, we are helping people fill out rental applications. Why are we doing that!? Why is that not something that the government is doing!? And if we are doing that, why are we not getting funds as an organization to do that work? We are bilingual. We can do it. We have the capacity. We have the people. We have the power. Why aren’t we getting any compensation for doing that?

Hearing this Ce-Ce, you just rolled out a very expansive agenda addressing some of these concerns that Maegan just voiced. How have these concerns informed the policy that you are talking to Allentown residents about and how you see the solutions to begin to address these root causes of the injustices in the city?

Ce-Ce: Those are my platform issues. Those are the things within four years I hope to have accomplished with policy. What I’m not going to do is going to get in there and get a bunch of grants and dish out grants like that’s it. Grants are cool. But it’s the structure. It’s putting policy into place that will outlive me. I get four years. Maybe I’ll get another four years. What I want to do is put policies like inclusionary zoning into place so that for 10, 20, 30, 40 years we can guarantee either having money being put into an affordable housing fund or the actual construction of affordable housing. I want to make sure that we actually write in our budget this year investment into fixing up blighted properties. We finally passed land bank legislation. What good is land bank legislation if we don’t spend money on actually acquiring properties to be a part of the land bank. Also community benefit agreement ordinances ensuring that in the future that regardless of who is mayor any major development happening in Allentown will actually benefit the community. What I’m looking to do isn’t just feel good, pat myself on the shoulder while doing ribbon cuttings and have press there. No. I’m going to do the hard work to put actual policies in place that have impacts for decades after I’m gone from city hall.

I always think about Allentown as the third largest city in the state of Pennsylvania. There are people in Nigeria that decide out of all places in the United States that they are coming to Allentown. That’s awesome! We need to capitalize on that. We have people from around the world that decide to come here we don’t embrace. We almost squash it. What I want to do – and I don’t exactly know how to yet – is to institutionalize within city government the investment, not just embracing, but investing in our global communities and new residents in the United States and particularly in Allentown. I’m going to need help figuring how to do that. But we’ve got to. 

One way I’m thinking is we have a lot of small businesses. I got the list of the people who have received the PPP loans. How is that on 7th Street where all of those international businesses are – businesses owned by immigrants, none of them got loans. None of them. That’s not their fault. We should have gone out there as a city and sat down with them and helped them fill out the paperwork.

In the last year, we have seen historic uprisings demanding racial justice, police accountability, and a hunger for new leaders and voices in the seats of power that have the courage of their convictions. As a city council member Ce-Ce, how have these uprisings affected you personally and what did they mean for the city of Allentown?

Ce-Ce: It really meant taking a step back and having conversations with other people to help them realize that just because you’re in the skin you’re in and have had a positive interaction with a police officer doesn’t mean that everyone does. It doesn’t mean that the entire system is working. It really made me take a step back and think maybe things aren’t quite as they appear. What happens far too often is there is this kind of public relations department where the narrative is painted that everything is beautiful because police are serving ice cream to kids and shooting a basketball with them. That’s great! It doesn’t get into the structural issues. I would say that over the summer watching and learning in other municipalities some of the structural issues; like when it comes to why are the people who are doing the training the same people who have multiple write ups for police brutality? Asking questions like that of our own department. I know the local Black Lives Matter organization and Make The Road and Lehigh Valley Stands Up were active in getting the police department to release their use of force policies. Really taking a step back and thinking, ‘Wow, why weren’t they already public?’ Why did we have to organize and protest just to get that.

I’m now at a point where I don’t know what the data is when it comes to say stop and frisk or traffic stops – the disaggregated data. That’s a problem. One thing I would like to do – and it’s not going to make huge headlines and there’s not going to be huge protests for anything I want to do – is get the data. Let’s just sit down with the chief with the data and see if we have some structural issues which we probably do because every other city does. Let’s just talk about them and figure out what we can do to address them. That has yet to happen.

For me it was like – not an awakening, but ‘Oh yeah, we might have some issues here.’ I’ve honestly had only two interactions with a police officer. One, it was horrible because he was cranky or something, but the other one was all right! Not everyone has that.

Maegan, Ce-Ce has discussed in past interviews about her looking to guidance from progressive leaders like yourself. In many progressive circles, we are thinking actively about how we run leaders from our movements for office who are committed to models of co-governance with our communities. What does it mean for Make The Road Action to have an elected official looking for guidance either in governance or in their campaigns from a true movement building organizations like yours?

Maegan: I’m a big fan of organizers becoming elected officials. That’s one. We know elected officials work for us but what happens is they forget. What Ce-Ce is doing should be the norm. She’s talking to folks. She’s saying I don’t know this, but I want to figure it out. I want to talk to these people and these experts to bring them in and have a conversation to get educated and educate. That should be the norm. If you are going to work for the city then you should know the city, know the people, know the in and outs of it.

Our members are incredibly resilient. They have been put through things where they didn’t know whether they were going to survive – to quite literally survive. They are fighters. They have good ideas for addressing the systemic issues that the government can’t seem to get rid of. They are experts of their own communities. Our job as a movement organization is to elevate those voices and to make sure the people closest to the pain have a seat at the table, a voice in the conversation, and can talk about the solutions they identify. Being able to have somebody like Ce-Ce who just keeps it real, who just says I don’t know and I need help. Or educate me. Or let’s talk together and work through this. Or I see this as a problem and I am a member of the community who is directly impacted by this. That is how we should do things. That is how we should move to a place of co-governance and how we can move to a place where elected officials aren’t just making decisions and then everybody being impacted in harmful ways. We can actually see our folks to a path of thriving, not just surviving. That has been the ultimate goal. We want our people to thrive. We don’t want them to feel and continue to have so much trauma because they are consistently surviving and don’t know any other way. That is how it has been in Allentown. People are just surviving and they don’t know what else to do. Having someone as relatable as Ce-Ce who will work with other organizations, who are trusted organizations in the community, to make an impact that will actually be better and not be harmful is what I think is going to get us there.

I want to thank you both for your time and insight. I know it’s a crazy busy time for both of you. And as a final question I want to offer to both you – as inspiring women of color running for office and as an Executive of a movement group – is there something you would like to ask each other about the opportunities and challenges you face in these similar roles?

Maegan: I think for many years the same people have hoarded the seats that we are trying to break open and make an opportunity for people. Before I became an executive director, I don’t remember an executive director who was a Latina. It didn’t help that I was 25 years old. I had a lot of things working against me.

To Ce-Ce’s point, you said Ce-Ce ‘I was 24 or 25 being elected to the school board’ and now you’re trying to break this barrier of being a Black woman as mayor of our city. I think, as a challenge, how do you make it through to the other side? There’s definitely going to be nasty things that happen because you’re a woman and patriarchy and misogyny are real. Racism is real. We can’t ignore those factors, but to get to the other side. To get to May 18th and ultimately to November what gets you there?

Ce-Ce: I’d say it’s my why. My why is just thinking about my childhood and how I grew up. All the stuff that I have been through and meeting other people who have been through the similar situations that I have been through. I realized I got to do this. I have to. There are literally people in need of rent stabilization. There are people who are in need of a good paying job. There are people who are in need of a safe place for their kids to play – green space, grocery stores. We need these things. It is literally survival and then hopefully thriving. I’ve got to do this. It’s challenging as anything. I could write a book at this point. I gotta do it.

That would lead me into my question for you. One thing I have found is leaning in and on people and with people, especially people who can understand and relate. During the protests last summer, I had a lot of conversation with Kendra Brooks over on Philadelphia City Council and locally with Olga Negron. That was just incredibly helpful. Recently, with Paige, the Mayor of Scranton. Just talking with other women of color and other men of color. People who are marginalized to any degree has been helpful to realize that I’m not crazy. What I’m experiencing is unfortunately normal.

What I would like to know is post-May 18th how you see the relation between you as a human being – not as Make The Road’s Executive Director, but as a human – and then as your role as Make The Road director? How do you see that interacting with me as a human and then me as a mayor?

Maegan: Solid question! I would love to have a ‘let’s just talk about how hard this is’ relationship with you Ce-Ce because it is incredibly difficult. I have found it incredibly hard to make those relationships unless you are very intentional so I would be very intentional in making that relationship.

As far as Make The Road, I think we want to help you be the best mayor possible with love and kindness and accountability. That means it will be an interesting relationship, but it will be a two-way relationship. We want to support you and we endorsed you because we believe in you. I definitely believe in you. I want to make sure that we help you succeed. I think all too often women – and women of color – are set up to fail. I want to make sure that as an organization that stands with you, we literally stand with you and help you get there. Of course some accountability is necessary. It won’t all be easy, but we’ll figure it out.

Ce-Ce: I look forward to it!

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