Taylor Center event highlights the power of our stories
“Sharing our stories is such a powerful tool that I think is underutilized … I know that our experiences connect us, and it’s us sharing our stories that allows us to come together. I hope that today you realize the power of your story and push yourself beyond the fear of failure — something I’m learning to do every single day.”
That’s the message that Daniel Alejandro Leon-Davis shared with St. Olaf College students during an October 23 event titled “The Power of Our Stories” hosted by the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion. Davis, a designer, entrepreneur, and cultural architect, shared his story of resilience as a gay, Latinx, formerly undocumented immigrant and emphasized the power of storytelling through creative mediums as a form of resistance.
I know that our experiences connect us, and it’s us sharing our stories that allows us to come together. I hope that today you realize the power of your story and push yourself beyond the fear of failure.Daniel Alejandro Leon-Davis
A native of Venezuela, Davis was raised by his single mother in Florida. His mother’s resilience made him the man he is today. She came to the United States knowing little English and went from working three jobs — barely having enough food to feed the both of them — to being the head of interior design for Mercedes Homes.
“Like so many immigrants in this country, she built her American Dream,” he says. Although he was unaware of how large a role that immigration would later play in his life, his mother told him early on that education would be the key to freedom. He loved school and excelled academically, but was also drawn to the arts. However, his mother really wanted him to pursue a more lucrative profession, such as a doctor or lawyer. Davis admits that she also feared the arts would “make me gay.”
When he came out as gay his junior year of high school, it put a significant strain on their relationship. They didn’t speak for almost a year. Eventually she came around, but they soon faced another challenge in his journey.
During his senior year of high school, Davis applied to a number of Ivy League schools and received full rides to every single one. But when it was time for him to fill out his Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), his mother sat him down and told him he was undocumented. “Things began to click,” says Davis. “Every time my mom saw a mall cop with a badge, she’d pull me in closer. When I found out I was undocumented I tied it together and realized that she thought anyone with a badge had the power to deport us, so it was about safety.”
Knowing he was undocumented created a new obstacle for Davis. “The fear that was instilled in me caused me to go into another closet. I came out of the gay closet and went straight into the immigration identity that I hadn’t even known was a part of me… I was undocumented and very, very afraid.”
As an applicant for residency for nearly a decade at this point, his mother had been hoping he’d receive it by the time he graduated. He didn’t, however, and his scholarships were rescinded once college officials became aware of his immigrant status.
Although it wasn’t a part of his original plan, he went to Seminole State College of Florida. He was working three jobs, taking 23 credits, and still involved in music and an honors program. Davis eventually received the opportunity to intern at the Clinton Global Initiative University — the first undocumented immigrant to do so. As he approached his final year at Seminole, he was encouraged to call different scholarship organizations to share his story as he planned to transfer to his top school, American University.
“I called 96 scholarships and shared my story anonymously. Only three of them told me I could apply,” he says. But after working tirelessly for months to keep his hopes and dreams alive, he faced another setback. The director of the honors program at Seminole informed him that the school found out he was undocumented and decided to de-nominate him from the scholarships he applied for. Because undocumented immigrants are unable to take out loans, these scholarships were the only ticket Davis had to his top school.
“I went to my car and didn’t cry a single tear. I called my mom and I remember I was so fired up. I knew I wasn’t the first or last undocumented student, and I needed to do something to change something on campus,” Davis says. He spent his last four months on campus organizing people to support undocumented immigrants and getting the scholarship organizations to send emails affirming that it didn’t matter that he was undocumented. That work led to a meeting with Seminole’s dean, president, and other administrators demanding that they foster a supportive environment for undocumented immigrants “because there are many in our community.” Since then, many policies changed and there are scholarships just for undocumented students.
Yet on his graduation day, Davis remembers that his mother told him to reconsider American University because he really needed those scholarships in order to attend.
He told her “Mami, I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I am going to American University.” On that day, he won one of the nation’s most prestigious scholarships: the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship of $200,000. He transferred to his top school, American University, where he danced professionally and majored in international studies and music theory.
Despite the many roadblocks Davis faced, he was able to accept his newfound identity as an undocumented immigrant by using narrative. He stresses that “there is no one that has had the same exact experience as you.” He reminded St. Olaf students and community members that everyone’s uniqueness is what connects people; not everyone has the privilege to share their story, so it’s important that people have the strength and courage to do so.
I really started realizing that telling my story was my power. The more I talked about being undocumented and unafraid, the more I actually gained power.Daniel Alejandro Leon-Davis
Davis has continued to tell his story to audiences across the nation. “I really started realizing that telling my story was my power,” he says. “The more I talked about being undocumented and unafraid, the more I actually gained power.”
His goal is to encourage others to speak their truth and find the power in their own stories. In the spring Davis, in collaboration with the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion, will host two workshops where students will learn and be mentored on how to use art and their stories to create a media campaign for social change. The goal is to have a competition and showcase the students’ work. Stay tuned for more details.