In this post-Citizens United era, where it seems cash has more say in elections than people do, Greg Cendana did something remarkable. This past April, Cendana outpolled former four-term D.C. mayor Marion Barry and D.C. Councilman Jack Evans for a delegate seat at this year’s Democratic National Convention. Cendana, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, will be one of 44 delegates representing Washington at the DNC, which nominates the Democratic presidential candidate this year. How did Cendana beat these D.C. political heavyweights? Believe it or not, good ole grassroots organizing.
Cendana’s volunteers knocked on doors, sent out press releases, utilized personal networks and organized events to spread awareness about Cendana’s bid for a delegate seat. Realizing that most people weren’t even aware that they had a choice in who represents them in North Carolina’s Convention, Cendana’s team employed voter education techniques. He stood outside the Democratic Party headquarters in D.C., raised awareness on early voting and explained to folks that they didn’t have to vote for Marion Barry.
Ever since Cendana’s high school counselor advised him to skip college and apply for the assistant manager position at Togo’s sandwich shop instead, he’s been raising his voice and advocating for the most marginalized. Thankfully, Cendana didn’t take his counselor’s advice and went on to study at UCLA on scholarship. He spent his college years neck deep in student organizing. After serving as the internal vice president at UCLA, he ran for president on the progressive Students First! slate against the conservative Republican-leaning Bruins United party in UCLA’s incendiary student elections. After graduating, Cendana became the president of the United States Student Association and later moved on to his current position at APALA. In his free time, Cendana organizes D.C.’s LGBT community.
My former Bruin classmate and Samahang Pilipino alumni has always prioritized serving the people. His journey into national politics with his seat at the DNC is exciting–and sure to be but one stop in a continuing trajectory to the top. As he said in March, “I am running to create the kind of party that won’t have their members guess who will represent our issues at the national level.” That’s the kind of person I want representing me in politics, that’s for sure.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Gregory Cendana.
Anna Sterling: What was it like when you found out you beat Barry?
Gregory Cendana: When I first found out it felt unreal. The first thing that came to my mind was that no matter the odds, organizing works. For me, it was an example of how it’s important to go back to the basics and think about grassroots organizing when we’re running campaigns.
The basics were knocking on doors, making phone calls, and peer-to-peer direct contact with folks. One thing I’ve been hearing a lot about recently was that we have all this technology and social media. I think those are important in the broader picture, but they shouldn’t be done in silo from grassroots organizing.
AS: How did you become politicized?
GC: My politicization was a process. There are different people and institutions that helped me get to where I’m at now–everything from my training with the USSA [United States Student Association] and the UCSA [University of California Student Association], to my involvement with Asian American studies and the Campaign for Pilipino Studies, to my experience in high school. I mentioned in my interview with the [Washington] City Paper about the importance of having educational access for our communities. These are all the different roles and different players leading me towards the direction of where I’m heading.
AS: What are some of the biggest issues facing the Asian Pacific American labor community? What are APALA’s biggest goals right now?
GC: One is the work we’re trying to do within unions and the labor movement. For us, it’s important to advocate on workers’ rights, immigrant rights and larger social and economic justice. We continue to fight back against wage theft and support collective bargaining. [We want to let] people know that when Asian Pacific Americans [APAs] are in unions, there’s a difference and it’s a positive difference. There are many benefits to being in unions and it’s important to support organizing drives particularly for APA workers. We know that sometimes there’s language barriers and sometimes there’s worker intimidation. We want to see more APA union members take on leadership roles and see the growth of the labor movement.
APALA also cares about the broader community and civic engagement. We host trainings and we’re spearheading a national effort around APA civic engagement. We’re coordinating at the national level voter registration, education and GOTV [Get Out The Vote] across the country.
AS: Aside from your labor organizing, you do a lot of LGBT community work. How do you incorporate the two?
GC: One thing I tell folks is that while I am E.D. [Executive Director] of the APALA that wherever I go and whatever I’m doing, I bring all of me into my work. It’s natural for me to talk about the intersection of being Asian American, Filipino, being young, being openly gay and being a man, and the different challenges and privileges that come with that. Particularly for LGBT workers, APALA works closely with Pride at Work who is the contingency group for LGBT laborers and allies. In terms of LGBT workers, there are a lot of issues that the LGBT community faces that everyone else faces, but the things that are particularly helpful are making sure that the union contract language is inclusive of the LGBT community. How do you define family? How do you define partners and spouses and how does that look like in the union contracts? An important thing is making sure there is transgender inclusive healthcare for workers. One of the big benefits of union contracts is health care, but if it’s not inclusive of a broad definition of family, what do we need to do to ensure that that’s the case?
AS: You went back to confront your counselor about discouraging you from college. What was her response?
GC: It wasn’t much of a response to be honest. It was clear that the message was heard and it was clear that the message resonated by the facial and body language reaction. There was not much she could really say. I tried to be respectful but very assertive in my belief that there’s a lot of power that lies in the abilities of counselors to influence the trajectory that students and young people will take. Who knows how many people she said that to and didn’t apply to UCLA because they took to heart what was said? I continue to use that as a motivating factor to advocate for educational access, so more young people know that despite the challenges they face, there are people who want to support them and who are willing and ready to provide the support that’s needed for them to succeed.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
GC: Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy stayed grounded, true to herself and had a lot of love for family. She exemplified this throughout the movie. I hope I emulate that kind of love and energy in my world and to the people around me.
I would say that my sister, mom and grandmothers are the biggest heroines in my life. I always talk about how they love me and challenge me in ways. They’ve taught me a lot about sacrifice, working hard and being more compassionate with other folks that have varying views and different experiences. I owe a lot to them for giving me my analysis around intersectional organizing and even understanding my own intersectional identity. I look forward to finding more ways to honor their work and to live a life that follows their example.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
GC: My one drink would be Caribbean Passion from Jamba Juice. My one food would be pancit. I’m a pescatarian so I’d substitute it with shrimp. I’d get my noodles, vegetables and seafood! I would take Audre Lorde. To this day, I find myself quoting Audre Lorde and look to her readings for inspiration. She was a great communicator and I would be excited to talk more with her and hear stories of her experiences in person.