Marcelas Grows Up in Community Organizing, Finishes What His Mother Started

History loves a hero. The historic health reform legislation signed this year by President Obama received its hero in the form of Marcelas Owens, eleven-year-old Seattleite who, in the weeks leading to the bill’s passage, became the country’s most visible spokesman for reform.

A boy of color from a low-income family, Marcelas stared down right-wing attack artists, won the heart of the country, and stood next to President Obama for the signing of the health reform bill. It reads like a tale of individual triumph. But, as with all heroes, there’s more to Marcelas’ story.

Marcelas the solitary hero

The White House invited Marcelas to the bill’s signing ceremony, because his story–which he’d shared with dozens of print, television, and radio reporters nationwide, as well as with Congress–humanized the need for reform. His twenty-seven-year-old mother had died of pulmonary hypertension after losing her job, insurance, and regular health care. It was a devastating story Marcelas related with remarkable eloquence and charisma. In the process, he caught the attention of Washington Senator Patty Murray, who repeated his story on the floor of the Senate, helping spark a media sensation.

Marcelas quickly became part of the story about the story. Conservative attack artists Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Michelle Malkin called Marcelas a “kiddie shield” for the Democrats and “informed” him that even under health reform his mother would have died. Racially and class-coded language imbued many right-wing attacks. National news outlets such as McClatchy and CNN quoted Marcelas’s astutely gracious response: “My mother always taught me they can have their own opinion but that doesn’t mean they are right.”

In the end, health reform won, and Marcelas remained in the spotlight for the photograph that will come to memorialize the victory: Marcelas standing next to President Obama at the signing table, Vice President Biden’s hands resting on his shoulders.

Marcelas grows up in community organizing

As courageous and eloquent as he proved to be throughout the debate, Marcelas wasn’t just a solitary boy striking out on his own. He came up in community organizing, and community organizing played a big part in his journey to the White House.

In 2001, his grandmother, Gina Owens, had joined the Washington Community Action Network, the state’s largest grassroots community organization. Over the years, Washington CAN! has provided a lot to Marcelas’ family—training, a sense of community, the opportunity to help lead campaigns to change state and federal policy.

After joining Washington CAN!, Gina started going to meetings, workshops, and conferences where she met other people struggling with the day-to-day issues of trying to make ends meet. Through the group’s leadership development program, she learned how to share her story, lobby lawmakers, and speak with the press. And she fought to expand access to food assistance and to keep Washington’s Medicaid program affordable. A few years later, her daughter Tifanny became active, too.

Tifanny Owens testifying in Olympia, WA - Feb, 2005
Tifanny Owens testifying in Olympia, WA - Feb, 2005

When Gina and Tifanny went to trainings, protests, and the Capitol building in Olympia, they took Marcelas along. Gina explained to one reporter, “He would see us on stage speaking at events, and going to a lot of workshops and conferences, and it piqued his interest.” Soon Marcelas started the leadership development process at Washington CAN!, too.

Like Gina, Marcelas didn’t just learn the nuts and bolts of organizing. Growing up in community organizing, Marcelas was surrounded by people who believe that low-income people and people of color should have a place at the policymaking table. And he absorbed that belief.

Then came the national campaign for health care reform, an issue that meant a lot to Marcelas. Washington CAN! joined a national coalition, Health Care for America Now, and began organizing new opportunities for its members to speak publicly about the need for reform. Grassroots leaders participated in press conferences, protests at health insurance companies, and mass rallies. It was at a Mother’s Day march and rally that Marcelas got on stage, shared his story, and caught Senator Murray’s attention.

Finishing what his mother started

Speaking to New American Media about his work with Washington CAN and the health care campaign, Marcelas explained, “My mom—she was always going to town hall meetings and speaking about health care, so I wanted to finish what she started.” Marcelas was taking up his mother’s role as a grassroots leader with a community organization—his emergence as a national spokesperson came not from thin air, but from this history of family activism.

Gina and Marcelas at health care reform action
Gina and Marcelas at health care reform action

This, in part, is what Marcelas and Gina were letting the world know when they wore their Washington CAN! t-shirts in the halls of Congress. They belonged to a team of grassroots leaders that shared their values and hopes and had supported them in their barnstorming tour of Washington, D.C.

The role of community organizing in Marcelas’ trajectory wasn’t lost on the right-wing commentators when they launched their assault. After attacking Marcelas’ family, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck turned on Washington CAN!, parsing the group’s mission statement which emphasizes such perplexing things as social justice, racial equity, and true democracy.

We can all draw strength from Marcelas for his courage to speak truth to power and so ably deflect the ugly right-wing commentary. And we should also acknowledge the contributions that Marcelas, his grandmother, and leaders from community organizations nationwide make every day even when the cameras aren’t rolling.

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