In middle school, when she bemoaned that cars were causing pollution and contributing to climate change, Gabriela Santiago-Romero’s teacher suggested she pursue a career as a scientist. Not interested in math and science at the time, Santiago-Romero rejected that idea. Maybe she could effect change as an elected official, her teacher suggested. Santiago-Romero recalled her dismissive response.
“’Aren’t they all just old white men?,’” Santiago-Romero said she asked her teacher. As a young, queer, immigrant woman of color, Santiago-Romero was none of those things. “I did not think at all that was even an option for me,” she said.
Today, a candidate for Detroit City Council District 6, Santiago-Romero still names environmental justice as one of her top priorities. But it took a career devoted to activism to get here and multiple calls for her to serve.
“I’m running for office because I’ve been asked to do so for a really long time,” Santiago-Romero explained. “I see the difference that it makes having someone who really cares doing that work. I’m a social worker and a community organizer. I care deeply about my community. So I said yes to the challenge of running for office.”
Santiago-Romero is currently on leave as the policy and research director for We the People Michigan, a grassroots organization that builds multiracial power to gain economic prosperity and political power for working-class people and families statewide. Santiago-Romero also worked for Sen. Stephanie Chang when Chang was her state representative and served as an assistant to Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. She was an organizer for the Hillary Clinton campaign and served in the cabinet of Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Casteñeda-Lopez when she ran for re-election.
It was through her work for Chang — a mentor and friend — that Santiago-Romero learned politics doesn’t have to be about “old white men” making decisions behind closed doors. Witnessing government change via forces both external and internal, “I realized that we need to really demystify what is ‘politics,’ because we actually have a lot of impact that we can make,” Santiago-Romero said.
In addition to the same concerns for the environment she had as a middle school student, Santiago-Romero pointed to other environmental issues plaguing her community, including the need for protection against flooding and access to clean water.
Just as important, people want their streetlights to work.
“Something that I hear every single day on doors…is [the lack of] basic city services,” Santiago-Romero said. “I think after the bankruptcy things have just not really gone back to normal for many neighborhoods. People’s garbage doesn’t get picked on time.” Like many of her neighbors, streetlights are missing on Santiago-Romero’s block, too.
“People just want a safe, clean neighborhood,” she continued. “They asked for basic things that you see 20 minutes away from here and in the suburbs.” Santiago-Romero said people tell her they’re moving because they aren’t receiving the city services they pay for through taxes.
Detroit’s District 6 is one of its most diverse, comprising the cultures of Corktown, Midtown and Southwest Detroit. It represents strong Latinx, Black and Middle Eastern communities.
And while the city leans left, it has been Santiago-Romero’s experience that Detroit is less progressive on LGBTQ+ issues.
“The patriarchy is still very real,” Santiago-Romero noted. “Just from experiencing things week to week, there’s always a man asking me if I’m married. There’s always a man asking if he can call me and take me out to dinner. [Being LGBTQ+] is a part of me that I hope is accepted. It is who I am.”
Santiago-Romero’s unapologetic stance about her identity is a far cry from how she felt in middle school, when she was closeted and afraid. It wouldn’t be until she was a grad student that she felt ready to come out. And while she said she has always supported LGBTQ+ rights, Santiago-Romero said her fears may have been related to her Catholic upbringing.
Today, endorsed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the Unity Fund and LGBT Detroit Mobilization, Santiago-Romero stands to become the first openly LGBTQ+ councilwoman in Detroit. She’s also been endorsed by 30+ other organizations and numerous elected officials including Chang, U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, and Santiago-Romero’s current city council member, Casteñeda-Lopez. Having these three strong women of color as mentors has shown Santiago-Romero that “there are good people that can be in office.”
“There are people who would just follow the status quo to not be engaged [and] held accountable, to not do their work and to really serve my community,” Santiago-Romero said. “We should be running to be more like Rashida, Raquel and Stephanie. And we should be running to unseat the folks who failed to engage us, who failed to work for us.”
Santiago-Romero’s activism was nurtured by her interest and talent for photography. She was documenting sit-ins and telling people’s stories visually well before she knew it was a viable career option. And although she’s continued to document movements, and said she loves her work for We the People Michigan, she’s ready to take the leap into political office.
We asked Santiago-Romero whether her family supported her political activism when she was growing up. Santiago-Romero said her mother’s first concern was for her daughter’s safety at the protests she documented. But that’s not the only thing her mother was worried about.
“Not anymore, but still very recently, [my mom] would ask me, ‘What are you doing with that business degree?,’” Santiago-Romero said. “And I just kept telling her that it’s not about the work making me money. It’s about the work being meaningful, and so she’s supportive of that. And I’m really grateful for her.”
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Absentee ballots are currently available.