Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

Activist, Advocate, and Student: What’s Next for Rhodes’ Aylen Mercado

Though she is young, she has already committed most of her life to serving others and working with organizations that aim to make change in the city of Memphis.

Aylen Mercado is a rising junior at Rhodes College. Currently, she is doing research on the role of danza and music in Latinx communities and has plans to create a documentary about it. Serving others and organizing change across communities has been a part of Aylen’s life since birth. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Argentina and, after realizing that the numerous labor intensive jobs available were not enough to sustain a good life, they began working to change systems that keep people in poverty. Aylen’s sister is also involved in community organizing, so her desire to participate is supported by her entire family.

“We each have our own focuses. My parents were focused on labor reform when workers we experiencing wage theft or bad treatment in the workforce. My sister was the West Tennessee Organizer for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, so we did a lot of lobbying and workshops and educating through that. When I was in high school I was plugged into all of these things but I also wanted to create a community on my own, so that’s why I shifted to the Student Farmers Workers Alliance,” Mercado says.

Along with being a member of the steering committee for the Student/Farmworker Alliance at her high school, Mercado was able to be on the board at Centro Cultural. Through her position at Centro Cultural, Aylen was able to use her art skills to teach art classes to people in the community who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford or take those classes. She also helped to find teachers for other classes, and even organized the Tamale Festival here in Memphis.

As she entered college, Aylen decided to step away from her leadership roles with these organizations in order to focus on being a student. She turned her focus to student life and how students, especially students of color, were experiencing college.

See our Q&A with Aylen below:

C901: How has being a student at Rhodes College impacted your community organizing?

Mercado: I think there are a lot of people [at Rhodes] who care a lot. I have found a lot of support from faculty and staff. Because it’s a smaller school I think it’s easier to get to know deans and senior staff, mostly because I’ve put my face in front of them a lot.

C901: What impact do you hope your service has on the committees you’re serving?

Mercado: I don’t see my service work as service. As a student of Rhodes I have some privilege and some leverage of power so I try to use that as best of a way that’s also fair to the people I’m working with. Working with other parts of the community I try to not make assumptions or dictate how things should change. I think that’s very common among students and they read a lot about research and then they enter these spaces and try to suggest these things. So with this service-mindedness that I do and working with communities, I try to remind myself that it is mutual learning and it’s a process.

C901: What are some of your career goals and aspirations for the future?

Mercado: As I’ve grown and learned I’ve realized that I want to work more with people who are like me and who are experiencing or who have experienced things similar to my life experiences. There have been a lot of shifts academically of what I want my focus to be because I want it to be everything. I think I want to work more with black and brown youth in Memphis. I know for sure I want to stay here. I love the city and I couldn’t see myself long term living anywhere else. So my continued involvement in the city changes a lot. I want to go into education. I might want to work in non-profit fields.

C901: Do you have any suggestions or advice to give to young people looking to make an impact or get involved in their community?

Mercado: I have a lot of friends who ask me “Aylen, what can I do?” and that’s exhausting for them to put that on me. I think that youth who want to get engaged in the community need to be very reflective about their impact entering these spaces and also self-educate. There are a lot of organizations to get plugged into, whether it be the official BLM chapters or different groups in Memphis like SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). Supporting financially is also another big step. There’s a lot of places to get plugged in and offer support.

Follow Aylen Mercado on Facebook.

Go here for some suggestions on how to engage in social justice work in Memphis.

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