The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa is pleased to announce that David F. Peña Medina, age 18, of Des Moines is the winner of its Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award.
The ACLU honored David with the award for his work in founding Los Busca Metas, or The Goal Seekers, a group and safe space for illegal immigrant students at his Des Moines public high school.
The group is an open forum for illegal immigrant students, DACA recipients, and asylum seekers to share their life experiences. Speakers are also brought to field questions for students on various topics, including career paths and how to navigate higher education.
David, now an Iowa State University student, realized that such a group was needed because he personally had to search far and wide to find a sense of community and belonging.
His family came to the United States from Mexico when he was three years old and moved frequently until settling in Iowa. David struggled with the stigma surrounding being an illegal immigrant—something that few, if any, of his classmates could relate to or talk about. His feelings of loneliness and helplessness intensified when the Trump administration rescinded the DACA program in 2017.
“I knew that I was (an illegal immigrant) since day one. My parents were really honest with me. But it’s taken a lot of self-exploration of who I am to fully believe that I belong and deserve to be here,” he said.
David said that Los Busca Metas was almost immediately successful. Students discussed experiences like not being able to apply for financial aid, lacking a driver’s license, or not having a social security number. School counselors supported the students too.
“Many students reached out saying they didn’t feel so alone anymore. There was just a comfort in knowing that there were other people at school that were dealing with the same thing and it helped them with their mental health in regards to self-image and motivation,” he said. “There’s a power that comes from telling your story and putting yourself out there.”
David also focused on creating community spaces in other ways. He relaunched a tutoring group at his school with an emphasis on ESL students and took on leadership roles at Al Éxito, a statewide organization whose mission is the empowerment of Iowa Latinxs through education and college attainment.
“David is a true example of leading by serving others. His will to persevere, despite immigration status disadvantages, inspires me as I hope it will inspire you,” said DREAM Iowa President Mónica Jazmín Reyes Rodríguez, who met David two years ago.
Additionally, he volunteered with the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to advocate for Latinxs and immigrants. During an event, he spoke with Congresswoman Cindy Axne and shared his story, including his experience as an illegal immigrant in Iowa.
Soon afterward, Congresswoman Axne’s office began coordinating dinner with Los Busca Metas. Unfortunately, the dinner was canceled before graduation.
“That dinner being canceled was my biggest letdown from COVID-19,” David said.
David now studies actuarial science at ISU, and he is starting a similar group there called ISU Dreamers. He is also interested in starting a scholarship fund for illegal immigrant students.
“I don’t want (illegal immigrant) students to feel lost or lack community. I want to be able to tell younger students that there’s a place for them here, there’s a community for you. This work is so fulfilling and I don’t see myself ever stopping.” he said. “The goal is to make it easier for everyone that comes after me.”
The ACLU of Iowa Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award is a $500 cash prize given to a young Iowan aged 14 to 19 who has demonstrated a passion and advocacy for civil liberties. It is named as a memorial to Des Moines attorney and civil liberties advocate Robert Mannheimer.
“We are delighted to honor David for the many ways he has helped his peers find support and inspiration through community. His efforts are a wonderful example of how, through reaching out to share our stories and serve others, we can find our own needs are also met,” said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer.
A second-place award goes to Hanna Seago of Davenport. She started the first Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school in the face of administrative stonewalling and bullying from her peers to the extent that she completed high school online rather than in person.
A third-place award goes to Dominic Eastman of Sioux City. He co-founded the Siouxland chapter of March for Our Lives, attended caucus events to question candidates about their policy positions, volunteered at his caucus site, and promoted voter registration even though he can’t yet vote himself.
For more information on the Robert Mannheimer award, click here.