Marcela Betancur is director of the RI New Leaders Council, vice-president of the RI Latino Political Action Committee and a policy associate with the ACLU. She was raised in Colombia and moved to Rhode Island when she was 12. She graduated from Rhode Island College with a BA degree in political science and public administration in 2012 and since then she has been busy applying her talents and skills to help Rhode Islanders. She recently found time to answer questions from RI Future.
Can you tell me about the New Leaders Council?
The New Leaders Council Rhode Island has been around for seven years and nationally for eleven years. It was founded locally because our state has so many young progressive individuals that needed support with policy, advocacy, campaign training, fundraising and our goal in Rhode Island is to make sure professionals from diverse backgrounds are able to connect with one another and in our communities.
In 2014 I was a fellow – each year twenty individuals are selected. My time there helped me with my confidence, with my skills and I was able to meet people who are now part of my community – they are my friends and this really helps me see how the work we do has an impact in our state and at a local level.
What is your role now?
I am director of the board and I have been one of the directors for three years. We help each class – every January there is a new class and I help the other amazing people on our board put this institute and our alumni program together. We have a board of about 15 that help the organization grow. We are all volunteers.
What else do you do in your ‘spare time’?
I have just been elected vice-president of the Rhode Island Latino PAC as part of a new board until 2020. It is a non-profit, non-partisan community organization and we educate the Latino community about candidates and issues during election season. We do endorse candidates but that is done by a separate committee to the board.
In the first part of your career you worked on housing issues. Can you tell RI Future about that work?
I worked for a public housing organization for four years and then a non-profit and it really opened my eyes to how many issues there are with housing in our state and nation wide. My main focus for long period was project management and resident outreach. A lot of our housing infrastructure has been suffering and it is no longer built to fit the needs of our population.
And what do you do now?
I am a policy associate with the Rhode Island ACLU. I am one of the lobbyists during the General Assembly session and out of session on local & state policy and I have been doing this for nearly a year.
What bills were you concerned about? Can you give an example of a bill you were pleased to see pass?
During the Obama administration there was an executive order that incarcerated parents had to be provided with a modification for their child support order. Because they are incarcerated most of them cannot pay out of pocket because they are barely earning anything. It is called voluntary unemployment – but that’s not what it is. What the legislation does – and it was passed this year thanks to Representative Diaz and Senator Lynch Prata who both sponsored the bill – is to allow the state provide a modification form to stop payment. It is a really big issue because studies from the Brennan Center and others show most of these parents are growing their debt and would end up going back to jail because they could never pay back all the child support they owed. So it has benefited everyone.
And how about stopping what you thought was a bad bill?
There was a bill introduced in the house that aimed to put cameras in the highway to charge out of state drivers who did not have insurance. There were many issues with the bill and no group testified in favor – the DMV, the ACLU, the state police and several other organizations testified against it, yet the bill passed the House. It was going to pass on the day of the special session in September. At the last hour the Senate President decided not to vote on the bill.
And other work you have been pleased to be involved with?
The ACLU and other organizations were able to petition the Department of Education to put regulations together for transgender student policies in each school department. The federal administration has taken so many protections away from our transgender community and it became a big issue to see that the state protected our students. All these students should have to worry about is their education and not how they will be treated or mistreated by their fellow students or by the administration of their school, so we were really happy to see that the department and the commissioner mandate a policy to protect our students and this is something I am very proud of.
What are you concerned about in 2018?
We are worried about DACA recipients and how their legal status will be in 2018 and it should worry many people. There are several things our state and our municipalities can do to protect our immigrant communities and last Spring the ACLU put out a model ordinance for municipalities to make sure that their law enforcement wouldn’t question or arrest people simply because of their immigrant status. Right now, the only municipality that has adopted it is South Kingston and that was with a community effort.
So what can people do?
In your city or town you need to voice your concerns with your council. Our model ordinance is on our website. When the general assembly comes back in January hopefully there will be legislation to extend drivers licenses and to protect our DACA recipients so paying attention to what is happening is important. Call your representative or your senator and let them know that you care and this legislation is important to you.