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Madina Zermeño draws on her experiences growing up in San Diego as a Muslim child and later volunteering abroad as she pursues a career improving lives in underrepresented communities. [4½ min read]

Growing up as a Muslim, Latina, and Filipina woman of color, Madina Zermeño taps into her multi-faceted identity to promote societal change.

Zermeño, a senior majoring in political science at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, grew up in San Diego, a diverse city bordering Tijuana, Mexico.

“There are so many minority intersectionalities that make up my identity, which sparked my interest in social justice. Growing up in such a multicultural city, I was encouraged to stand up for the communities where I come from,” she said.

Zermeño is passionate about prison justice, including mass incarceration and juvenile justice. Several members of his family have been incarcerated, which gave him insight into the similarities between neighborhoods and minority communities that struggle with poverty, gang violence and incarceration.

This personal experience sparked his interest in protecting communities from the generation-to-generation pattern of incarceration that his family struggled with – a personal battle that Zermeño channeled into a passion for societal change.

Zermeño also focused on education, equity and access. Both of her parents work in education, so she was able to identify ways in which American youth can use education as a tool to break societal patterns that have affected minority groups.

“It made me want to value education and advocate for quality education and access for the most deserving, underserved and underrepresented young people,” she explained.

She finds herself linking issues of prison justice and education, equity and access, to the issue of wealth inequality.

“I never grew up with a ton of money,” she said. “It taught me the importance of education because without it people can get stuck in the cycle of violence, addiction and incarceration that is rooted in poverty. I am passionate about ending this cycle by advocating for generational wealth in minority groups.

Empower peers and gain extensive experience

Madina Zermeño studied abroad in the spring of 2020 in Chefchaouen, Morocco.

Zermeño started a youth empowerment club at her high school during her sophomore year. Founded and led by her and her fellow students, “Ignite” (short for “Individual Goal-setters Nourishing Inspiration Through Empowerment”) was designed to empower high school students to become future leaders.

“Especially for people of color, our mission was to empower ourselves to be the leaders we want to see,” Zermeño explained. “Our motto was ‘I don’t give up anything, I transform everything.

Zermeño has also volunteered abroad. In her second year, during the winter holidays 2019-2020, she participated in a program in Rajasthan, India, where she gave private lessons to children from the Dalit community. She says her experience revealed many similarities between the historical factors preventing the Dalit community from rising out of poverty and the systems and institutions preventing underrepresented communities in the United States from moving up the social ladder.

Three days after completing her work in India, Zermeño traveled to Morocco, where from January to April 2020 she spent an internship for the non-profit organization Jossour Forum des Femmes Marocaines, an organization founded and run by women. which impacts women and youth in the Middle East and North Africa region.

“Being completely immersed in another culture was so overwhelming and unforgettable,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity from USC and to have taken a leap of faith to volunteer in both countries.”

Internships with prominent political figures

In the summer of 2020, Zermeño completed three different internships, including one for the Borgen Project which focused on wealth equity and global poverty. Here, she was able to learn about the roles and power of US government officials and better understand the different ways government works.

Last summer, she was able to put that knowledge to good use and apply it to her internship position in the office of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. “The entire office is representative of San Diego’s diverse communities, so it was nice to see that our mayor appreciates that,” Zermeño said.

Zermeño also completed a second internship, this one with U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar in Washington. She has met and networked with a wide variety of young women of color in Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley.

Last semester she interned for the LA County Office of the Public Defender, and this semester she is an intern for the Refugee Legal and Advocacy Center based in Cape Town, South Africa through the Fellowship International Benjamin A. Gilman of the United States Department of State.

Zermeño hopes to one day attend law school and later become a civil rights attorney or criminal defense attorney.

“It comes from a love and a passion for societal change,” she explains, “and if it’s not us, if it’s not me or other members of the communities I come, then who? It’s not that I like politics. These are things that have a direct impact on me and my family, so I have to defend them.

“I just walked into the room with confidence and let people know that even though people may underestimate me because I’m a woman or a person of color or someone from a different religion them, I’m just as knowledgeable, just as knowledgeable, and I deserve a seat at the table.

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