Kica Matos spoke to a full to capacity crowd Wedenesday, noshing on cookies and tea, telling tales of her social advocacy and public service throughout New Haven and its environs.

Matos, the executive director of Fair Haven’s Junta for Progressive Action, explained the details of her own career working for various social justice groups at an informal tea at Dwight Hall Wednesday. Matos stressed the need for more Yale students to go out and do the same in New Haven neighborhoods.

In her discussion, Matos highlighted the large undocumented immigration population in Fair Haven, where 50.3 percent of the population is of Latino descent and where, she said, there is significant exploitation of the immigrant population. Matos said Junta provides many beneficial services to the community, such as adult education, free legal aid and after-school programs.

“We are working to empower and to teach,” she said.

Initially inspired by a college roommate, Matos began to work for Amnesty International, among other service organizations, before graduating from law school and defending those in danger of receiving the death penalty.

Matos began her death penalty work after experiencing what she referred to as “the only epiphany I have ever had in my life.” She said she noticed that the system was hardest on minorities and the socio-economically disadvantaged.

“The people who end up on death row are disproportionately racial minorities,” said Matos. “Every societal system you could look at had somehow failed.”

She said the work she did as a death row advocate was the hardest she ever encountered. Eventually, Matos said, she realized she would like to work preemptively to cure the social ills which she so often observed working on death row — that was when she and Junta serendipitously found each other, she said.

“I [needed] to do something more life-affirming,” she said.

A friend approached Matos with the possibility of working for the Junta for Progressive Action, the oldest Latino community-based nonprofit in New Haven. Originally, she thought she would be writing grants, but she was approached with an offer to work as the interim executive director of the organization, an offer which Matos light-heartedly said suggested desperation to her at the time.

Hanna Sufrin ’08 said her interest in social justice and nonprofit work prompted her to attend the presentation, in addition to her desire to gain a greater knowledge of New Haven nonprofits. She said she enjoyed the presentation, and it strengthened her resolve to get involved to a greater degree around the community.

“I really enjoyed learning more about one of New Haven’s most successful nonprofit organizations from a woman who has taken her life in the direction I would like to take my own,” she said.

Jane Bernstein ’05, who helped coordinate the talk, said she has known Matos for a year and felt that she would be a dynamic speaker, having turned Junta around. She said Matos would further Dwight Hall’s goal of forging a connection between social justice and public service.

Matos herself said she was thrilled to get this invitation to speak since Dwight Hall has a very positive reputation in New Haven. She said she is excited to see so many students interested in social justice.

As for the future, Matos said as of now, she is engaged in what she is doing and she generally follows her interest and heart, not to mention instinct. Although always open to new possibilities, she said she has no plans to leave Junta in the foreseeable future.

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