Facing Race: A National Conference in St. Louis, MO — November 20-22, 2024

Sulma Arias

Executive Director | People’s Action
Pronouns: she/her

Sulma Arias is the new executive director of People’s Action Institute and People’s Action, a
national network of state and local grassroots organizations dedicated to fighting for justice and
helping communities take control of their destinies – or what we call, “power-building.” Arias is
also the first Latina immigrant to lead the two organizations.

At a time when more than half the member organizations of People’s Action are led by women of
color, with the underpinnings of democracy itself under threat, Sulma Arias is the right leader to
bring the power of organizing to bear on the future of all people seeking a hand in their own

In taking on this role, Sulma is coming home to the network, having previously served as the
lead for immigration and worker justice at National People’s Action, one of three organizations
that merged in 2016 to become People’s Action.

Arias has been organizing on the ground, training organizers, engaging in strategic planning and
directing organizations for more than 20 years. This includes leading the country’s largest
coalition of grassroots immigrant rights groups with Community Change, organizing in Kansas
with Sunflower Community Action – and, once before, working with People’s Action – on a
range of issues that includes healthcare, payday loans and worker justice. While on staff at
National People’s Action between 2008 and 2011, she also helped develop and launch our
long-term agenda.

Sulma’s approach to leadership and organizing for political and economic power is rooted in her
personal story. When she was a child, her best friend took up arms, only to be killed in the civil
war that tore apart El Salvador, her birthplace, for more than a decade. By the time she was 12,
she and her four siblings were mostly raising themselves. She crossed the Texas border at 13
with a niece and nephew who were both less than half her age.

In her new home of Wichita, Kansas, Arias immersed herself in the Bible, and the church. In her
20’s, religious studies led her to discover liberation theology. The interpretation of the Bible that
addresses inequality and oppression and underscores the “wisdom of the poor” inspired her to
search for something more.

Ideas in liberation theology brought back memories of El Salvador’s civil war over economic
justice, human rights and other issues. She thought of her best friend, Chato, and the other boys
and men from her town that went to war. “I realized, ‘Oh, so this is what they knew. This is what
the fight was about,’” she recalls today.

In late 1999, Arias came into organizing when Laura Dungan, founding director of Sunflower
Community Action, needed an interpreter to help knock on doors in Wichita’s Latino
community. Dungan was mentored by Shel Trapp, one of the founders of National People’s Action, and has deep connections to People’s Action. Trapp went on to train Arias. Within
months, Sunflower hired Arias to organize Latinos in Wichita.

In 2010, Arias’ deep experience in the Black and Brown communities of Kansas made her the
ideal leader for a campaign centered on spreading the word about then-Secretary of State Kris
Kobach’s policies targeting immigrants and voters from marginalized communities. These
policies ranged from a voter ID law based on the false idea that undocumented immigrants were
voting fraudulently, to voters being kicked off rolls due to a verification system riddled with

Throughout the campaign, organizers reached more than 100,000 Black, Brown and poor white
voters who hadn’t been going to the polls, helping them become more involved in local and state
politics. The campaign also left an impact on organizers, many of whom went on to lead other
grassroots efforts or to run for office in local elections.

Kobach continued peddling his ideas in Kansas and beyond, leading the Trump administration’s
ill-fated Election Integrity Commission – which shut down in eight months, unable to produce
evidence of voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election. But in hindsight, the policies Arias and
her team exposed were early signs of what was to come – a nationwide assault on democracy,
mostly on the state level, touching everything from the number and location of absentee ballot
boxes, to who gets to count votes. We are living through nothing less than a full-scale attempt to
maintain political and economic power in the hands of white men tied to one political party.

In Kansas and elsewhere, Arias has approached her decades of grassroots organizing with what
she calls a “warrior” mentality deeply rooted in the social movements of Latin America’s history.
This includes maintaining “resilience,” a quality that is developed from withstanding tragedy and
learning that the struggle for justice and equality is continuous, and not tied to winning or losing
a particular election, or campaign. Her approach to organizing and building people power draws
not only on the resilience of human beings, but on the joy that comes from work worth doing.
“Good organizing,” Arias says, “radically transforms people and changes their lives forever –
like it did mine.”

Presentations from Facing Race 2022

Meeting the Moment: The Future of Governance and Multiracial Democracy

The opening plenary panel will set the stage for Facing Race 2022. Coming just weeks after the midterms, our political context requires our movement to be strategic, rigorous, and disciplined. This panel will discuss the just, multiracial, democratic society that is possible when racial justice is a fundamental principle of our society. The panel will focus on building collective power and strategy to root out systemic racism, to challenge and put an end to political violence and the rapid march towards white authoritarianism. Key questions will include:

  • Given the midterms, what is our analysis, what do we need to be doing going into 2023-24?
  • What in the last two years have we done well? What do we need to strengthen?
  • What do we need to do to win? And how do we do it?
Moderator(s): Glenn Harris Speakers: Michael McAfee, Sulma Arias, Grecia Lima