Power Malu

Critical Voices: Power Malu

One weekend this spring, Power Malu's eyes lit up as he scrolled through the photographs on his phone, showing off a newborn baby in the arms of her mother and father. Malu, a longtime organizer and the founder of Artists Athletes Activists, is no relation of the infant's but through his critical work helping New York's swelling migrant community over the past year, he was an essential part of that happy day. "The mom came in eight-and-a-half months pregnant. They detained her and her husband, but then let her go because she was pregnant and kept her husband, no rhyme or reason," he recalls. "She came to New York and she's trying to get in touch with him and I finally got them in touch. She gave birth two days ago and then we were able to get him released, so they came to visit me. Those are the stories that are so meaningful."

Since he was first informed of the situation last summer by his friend, the immigrant rights activist Adama Bah, Malu has been on the front lines serving some of the tens of thousands of migrants who have made their way to New York, some of them bussed in by Republican governors as political stunts and all of them neglected by an inadequate response from the federal, state, and municipal governments. While the overblown threat of a surge caused by the recent end of Title 42 has dissipated, the city still receives dozens and sometimes hundreds of migrants a day, increasing the burden on an underfunded shelter system already at record capacity. Most days, Malu heads to the Port Authority Bus Terminal or one of the local airports to meet New York's newest inhabitants, who often arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Along with a network of fellow grassroots organizers, he then begins the long process of getting them settled in the city, assisting with everything from MetroCards to school enrollment to mental healthcare. But, contrary to the prevailing vicious narrative, he says the first thing most of the migrants ask him for is work. "They don't want to rely on the system. They want to provide for themselves, they want to provide for their families," he emphasizes. "They want to be able to pay rent and pay for their own things. They don't want handouts. The people that are coming in are workers. They came here to find a better way, a better opportunity."

Malu, a lifelong resident of the Lower East Side, has been an organizer for decades, ever since he was inspired by an uncle who taught him about the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party to dedicate himself to helping his community. In his day job, he works as the director of special events at Overthrow Boxing Club, where he installed a community fridge outside its Bleecker Street storefront early in the pandemic. Alongside his work with migrants on the ground, he has recently also shifted his focus to campaigning for policy changes, from increased resources for housing members of the LGBTQ+ community to a smoother path to legal working status. The change he says he would most like to see, however, is better training for the city workers who are meant to help navigate an inscrutable bureaucracy that has been struggling for decades to meet the needs of New Yorkers. "The migrants came in and helped to shine a light on this system that is not for the people," he says. "It's not humane, the way people are living, the conditions that you have them in. There's no pathway for them to get out, there's no incentive for them to get out. I think that we have to really change the system right now to be able to help them."

Over the twelve months since Malu first began welcoming migrants to New York, he says that city officials and other organizations tend to show up only when reporters are there, leaving the day-to-day work to individuals and scrappier groups like his. "We do what the city should be doing and unfortunately that's the way it is," he says. "If you're going to be critical, it's hard for you to get support and that's where we are. We've always been for the people." He has been meeting with members of the municipal government lately but says that after a year of groundwork, at this point he and his fellow organizers are better equipped to handle the situation. "Hand over this responsibility to the people, to the organizations that are really doing the work. Support these organizations that are really doing the work. Get the politics out of it," he says. "Grassroots organizations don't want to work with the government. They don't want to work with local or state officials so the people that suffer are the migrants. They need to hand over the responsibility of this so-called crisis to the organizations and let us do the work."

As a longtime activist, Malu says that he has been heartened by the rise of social justice movements since 2020 but sees how common it is to slide back into complacency. Through Artists Athletes Activists, he hopes to encourage those in the first two groups to use their power to catalyze change. "There's [too many] people that get blessed with a platform and then they don't want to use it to really push the narrative because they're afraid that they're going to lose it," he says. Still, he insists that anyone can be a force for good, even in the face of seemingly intractable issues, simply by starting with a smaller focus. "We need more action on a local level. I think that people, wherever they're from, they need to actually hone in on that community and see how they can support their community because it's all about the waves," he adds. "Keep those waves going. We created the ripples or we built off of the ripples that were created and we have to know we can contribute to change things."

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Grooming by Emma Elizabeth. Photographer's assistant: Benjamin Oliver.

As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.