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Local Knows Best: Eric Salcedo

If you think you’ve had a hectic year, talk to Eric Salcedo. He’s had four jobs since January 2020—all national, public-facing roles (even amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic), and most recently with a little-known organization called the Democratic National Committee. That’s life in politics!

Growing up in the relatively homogenous town of Summit, New Jersey and being the child of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants primed Eric for a civic-minded and justice-oriented line of work. He says he was always aware of both racial and socioeconomic differences between himself and “well-to-do” classmates, but as he puts it, “you don’t fully fathom how well-to-do your town is until freshman year in college in your Intro to Sociology class when your town is held up as an example in one of your textbooks as a well-to-do town.”

After graduating from Northwestern University in 1999, Eric discovered Public Allies Chicago. “It’s almost by happenstance that I got in—I remember I was graduating, and I had no idea what I was gonna do,” Eric says. He ended up serving at the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a fair housing organization that was founded when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the civil rights movement to Chicago.

Working on a fair lending research project that sent Black and Latinx prospective homebuyers throughout Chicago and its surrounding counties to reveal widespread discriminatory lending practices was an eye-opening experience for Eric. “We all have the same worries and concerns, right?” he asks. “Bills, pay, jobs, blah, blah—but what are the other external factors that impact that?”

After Public Allies, Eric’s passion for freedom of speech and civil rights brought him to the ACLU during what turned out to be a pivotal time in United States history: both the 2000 presidential election, and the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. “People being singled out, prejudiced against, profiled,” he says. “That’s when I was like, okay, someone always needs to be there to help out and fight for the disempowered, give voice to the voiceless.”

Eric’s work for the ACLU landed him at the Illinois Attorney General’s Office for the next 10 years, first as Asian-American Community Liaison and later as Coalitions Director for the entire state. His goal there was making government accessible to the AAPI community, and working to include them in the process so they could feel like they have a say. “That’s when you have participation,” he explains. “They can give you feedback or they can complain . . . but at least they know where to go.”

Working statewide in Illinois meant working within not only Chicago and its surrounding counties, but also the rural communities downstate, and the Rust Belt communities of Western Illinois; areas that included Latinx, Polish, and Afghan communities, among others. “Public Allies forced me to go outside of my immediate circles, and have the wherewithal and the knowledge and the skills to build bridges to other communities,” he says.

Eric cites Public Allies’ focus on Asset-Based Community Development as a critical shift in perspective for him: looking at the strengths, infrastructure, and networks existing within communities, rather than their needs or lacks. “I feel like that has propelled me in every stage of my career so far,” Eric says. ABCD has helped him to understand that it’s the local cultural norms and mores that make communities unique, and recognize that what worked in Illinois may not work in other places. This lesson has been crucial in Eric’s transition to national organizing.

Since May of 2021, Eric has taken on the role of the AAPI Outreach Director for the Democratic National Committee. “Every time I talk to someone new, I reinforce with them my philosophy of how this relationship ideally works. I’m coming in, I trust them to tell me candidly what’s going on on the ground,” he describes. “You can’t assume that you know how people live without being there . . . Local knows best.”

One of the struggles of national organizing and of being in the partisan space that Eric points to, is the shift in our nation’s approach to issues as red vs. blue or you vs. them, when so many issues should be us issues. He notes that one of the critical skills Public Allies taught him is coalition-building: what coalitions look like, how to build them to ensure everybody is included and participating, and how to recognize the ways in which different communities’ interests intersect.

The next phase Eric sees in his career is what he calls pipeline development. “I always thought by the time “we arrived,” there would be this whole mass of people behind us,” he says. “But now that I’ve arrived… the pipeline is really small, and there’s gaps.” However, he sees great hope in the fact that so many racial justice organizers and advocates have been motivated to act at such a young age.

Eric says his next responsibility is to help build younger organizers’ development from where they are now to where they want to be, touching on his desire to mentor today’s Allies and recent Public Allies graduates doing similar work in AAPI organizing and politics. “I’ve only got to where I was because of the people who’ve mentored me in this journey,” he explains.

“Growing up, I was like, I can’t wait to eradicate racism and discrimination in my lifetime,” Eric says. “It’s morphed into, I hope we can get it to a point where my kids don’t have to worry about certain things.” As a young person, Eric says that you could count the number of AAPI families in his hometown on two hands. Since moving back home with his own family, however, he’s encouraged that Summit has seen a huge demographic shift.

One big focus for Eric these days is how to be a role model for his kids on responding to racism and not just sitting on the sidelines. Eric says that while the roots of racism come from structures that our society doesn’t want to acknowledge, Public Allies gave him the tools to start uprooting those structures. “We have to take that long view, knowing that it’s not going to end overnight,” he says, “But it’s still our responsibility to keep going in that direction and laying the foundation for it.”