Words by Sarah Crumrine | Photos by J Olson
It’s a damp Friday morning, so it’s no surprise that it takes a little bit longer for folks to wake up. But as soon as Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera entered the room at the Minnesota Women’s Building for the YNPN-TC Leadership Breakfast, the energy erupted.
Annastacia, the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, shared her lessons and insights on leadership with the group while discussing her work. Common Cause Minnesota is, as Annastacia calls it, “the Wal-Mart of democracy.” As in, they do everything. They are a nonpartisan, grassroots organization working to uphold the values of American democracy by creating open, honest, and accountable government. They empower all people to make their voices heard.
Making your voice heard was the first lesson Annastacia gave the group, which happened minutes after the morning began. She posed a question to the group: “What is democracy?” After a long period of silence, she offered the first takeaway advice: “Seize the moment.”
“I just gave you a moment,” she said. “Your voice matters. Your ideas matter. But they don’t matter if you don’t speak up.” When she was asked what to do if you do not have the space to speak up, her answer was simple: “Create your own damn space.”
Throughout the morning, it was abundantly clear that Annastacia is a passionate, strong, and unapologetic leader. If she wasn’t given a seat at the table, she made one. And then she made a few more seats. “Being a leader means you’re treating someone better than you would want someone to treat you,” she said. “Better” was a key word here, and Annastacia went on to point out why: “I didn’t say ‘the same,’ because some of us take a lot of shit that we shouldn’t.”
Annastacia was open about the numerous experiences where she had to fight through people’s negative perceptions of her based on her race, ethnicity, and gender. In a previous position, she was a woman of color working among a sea of white males. She had to navigate being told she couldn’t provide feedback to her colleagues without also being told she was aggressive and not a team player. That didn’t slow her down, though. In fact, it fueled her fire even more. Her motivation to keep going? As Annastacia puts it, “Tell me I can’t. And I’m going to show you I can or I’m gonna die trying. Who the hell are you to tell me I can’t?”
Annastacia also went back to her roots. She remains deeply connected to Puerto Rico, where members of her family still reside.
After not being able to get in touch with family members in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Annastacia knew she had to do something. She got her gear in order—a backpack, hotel toiletries, pouches of water. She started calling friends, and found out that there were nearly 2,000 people stuck in an airport waiting to get to safety. While waiting, people were losing their lives, so eager for safety that they never left the airport lines. Annastacia knew she could make an impact. She thought of the number of Puerto Ricans here in the United States, and started organizing. Through her work in bringing people together, soon Delta Airlines was ready to bring 49 pallets of food to the people of Puerto Rico. When an engineer in California found out, he jumped in to provide the technology for air dropping the supplies, making this the first civilian-led airdrop in Puerto Rico.
While Annastacia told this story, attendees were sitting in awe. She reminded everyone that this all started with a backpack and wanting to find her family. She was also very adamant that this was not a solo effort, bringing up another lesson in leadership that she had for the group: know and recognize others around you. Even if you don’t have the title or the office, everyone is a leader. “You would be surprised who you’re leading and don’t even know it,” she said.
Even though the morning was winding down, the energy of the room certainly wasn’t. Annastacia shared so many incredible thoughts on leadership, and encouraged everyone to keep organizing, working, and doing important work in the world. Her request of the group was simple: “Please outshine me. I want to have shades on because you’re in the room.”