by Jason Frerichs
Progressive Voices of Iowa is starting a new series called Progressives Deserving Praise. The purpose of this series is highlight progressives who are doing excellent work. Ms. Cano is an activist based in Des Moines and is known for her work with CCI. She is a powerful leader who passionately works to help our immigrant communities. She inspires people to take charge, roll their sleeves up, and do the necessary work to get things done. She has the honor of being the first person highlighted in this new series.
PVI: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from? How did you get interested in political action?
I’m originally from the small town of Plano, Illinois. I grew up in a household where politics was a taboo – we didn’t discuss it. But little by little I couldn’t help but connect the dots.
I had a great teacher in high school named Mr. Sanders (ironically) and he taught our Peace and Justice course. I went to a Catholic all-girls high school and this course was focused on social justice and political issues; it related important moments in history to our moral compass. After I graduated from the University of Iowa in 2013 I moved to Spain to teach English. It was pretty eye-opening to see how the United States was perceived internationally – typically as an imperialist tyrant. I just remember feeling really angry. I was angry with my country for being so hypocritical on foreign affairs while behind closed doors we organized coups and overthrew governments that didn’t benefit our capitalist goals. But I was also angry with myself – how could I have been so ignorant for this long?
I moved back the US and made a promise to myself that my career and my life would have meaning. I wouldn’t become another link in the capitalist chain, a forgotten lowly worker. While I’m not religious anymore (I consider myself a recovering Catholic), you could say this was my “calling” moment. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for per se. I didn’t see myself working in the political system as it was (and still is now). I put out a call on social media with some hardline requirements: 1) I want a job that allows me to create real change, small or large scale, 2) I want to work with my Latinx community and continue to use my Spanish, 3) I want my career to be out of the ordinary – no cookie cutter 9-5 funny business. An old friend from high school sent me the organizer position with the Latino Project at Iowa CCI – it was love at first sight.
Working at CCI has been the most transformational three years of my life. It’s hard work but it’s meaningful work. I get to work with amazing, passionate people both in the office and in my community. It also ignited my passion for movement politics – to change our current political system into something better, something truly democratic.
PVI: Explain to us what your role at CCI is? How long have you been working with them?
I’m a community organizer for Iowa CCI. I’ve been organizing with them for almost three years. When I tell someone my job title, people get a very confused look on their face. So I try to simplify it for them. My job is a two-fold: I organize with affected communities specifically on immigration and labor issues and I also work to advance local and statewide policies that advance a progressive agenda that will improve the lives of my immigrant community and working-class Iowans.
There is no such thing as an average day at CCI. I develop a strategy around local and statewide campaigns, conduct community outreach to bring more folks into the “CCI hug” as we say around the office, fundraise to ensure the continued success of our organization, and most importantly lift up stories of everyday Iowans to make sure their voices are heard.
PVI: Do you do any other work outside of CCI?
Absolutely. My professional and personal life are pretty intertwined. My passion for social justice doesn’t end and the end of the work day.
I’m involved with another organization called New Leaders Council – a professional development program for young, progressive professionals who are interested in building a more progressive Des Moines metro through entrepreneurship and political work. I was a Fellow of the program in 2016 and now I sit on their board as their Recruitment Chair.
PVI: Which issues are you particularly passionate about?
Immigration and foreign affairs are my two biggest passions and they are intimately intertwined. My great grandparents came to Iowa as undocumented immigrants. They lived in the shadows for many, many years – eventually getting papers in their later years. My grandfather worked for the Rock Island Railroad company, performing back-breaking labor for decades while my grandmother took care of the kids. I grew up very disconnected from my Latinx roots. It wasn’t until high school that I really pursued my cultural identity. Working to win some justice for my immigrant community gets me fired up. I have a broad worldview on issues – everything is connected. But man, if you get me talking about the US involvement in Central and South America over the years, you’ll never get me to shut up.
PVI: What can you tell us about the CCI convention this summer?
It’s going to be our biggest and boldest Convention in our 42-year history. If the past election cycle has taught us anything, it’s that we need to elect movement candidates not business as usual candidates. And that’s exactly what this Convention will be all about. It’s time to focus on getting everyday Iowans into office who truly put people and planet before corporate profits.
I can’t begin to express my excitement for our speaker line-up. We have some REAL movers and shakers coming from all across the country that are rooted in grassroots organizing and community building. Of course, our friend Bernie Sanders will be there. But I’m truly pumped for some kickass WOC (women of color) leaders who will be leading several workshops on the issues that are core to our values.
All I have to say is – YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS IT!
PVI: What would you like to see happen in 2018?
I’d like to see a tidal wave of progressive platform candidates running for offices big and small. And I’d love to see as many of those folks take those positions as possible. But most importantly I want to see these candidates actually working with their communities to co-govern. Top-down governance is a thing of the past.
PVI: Any plans to run for office in the future?
I’m interested in a local office, maybe eventually working up to the State Senate. But I firmly believe in local control and the power of local communities. I think my best work would be done at a city or county level position.
I’m also a huge policy nerd. And I could see myself working as a policy advisor on a larger platform or campaign.
PVI: Anything else we should know about Maddie Cano?
I’m honest to a fault. You can always count on me to tell you the truth…even if you don’t want to hear it.
I enjoy jumping on stage for an occasional improv show.
And I recently started working on watercolor calligraphy. If I like you, maybe I’ll make you a homemade card (I refuse to give any more money to Hallmark).
PVI: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. PVI looks forward to all the great work you continue to do.
Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Progressive Caucus