After Confronting Senator Jeff Flake in an Elevator, Ana Maria Archila Is “Still Grappling” With Her Public Role as a Survivor of Sexual Violence
Badass Women celebrates women who show up, speak up, and get things done.
Ana Maria Archila has been fighting for others’ rights for years. Having moved to the U.S. from Colombia at the age of 17, she started out her career building Make the Road New York, an organization for immigrants’ rights. Today, she’s expanded her horizons, but her ultimate goal — to create communities where everyone has the freedom to thrive — remains the same. And she's doing just that as Co-Executive Director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a national organization that partners with community-based groups to transform local and state policy.
After a lifetime of activism, it wasn't until September 2018 that her efforts first made national headlines, when she confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator on Capitol Hill. It was the day after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, accusing the judge of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers in Maryland in 1982. Along with another woman, Maria Gallagher, Archila blocked the elevator doors from closing as she recounted the experience of her own sexual assault, demanding that Flake take action. The entire encounter was broadcast live on TV — and it served as a turning point in the hearings, prompting Senator Flake to call for further FBI investigation into Dr. Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh.
While Flake ultimately joined his fellow Republicans in voting for Kavanaugh to be confirmed, Archila’s courage in that elevator wasn't in vain. It stalled the process, highlighting the deep cultural impact of the hearings along the way. But it wasn’t something that she had planned out in advance. “In a split second, I made the decision to use my voice and my story,” she tells InStyle of choosing to approach the Senator. “I wanted to force him to grapple with the gravity of the message he was about to send to women by voting to install someone accused of sexual assault in the Supreme Court. I didn’t have time to think about what I was going to say, but I trusted my gut and went with it.”
Following the elevator incident, Archila’s world was forever changed. The entire nation had learned the most personal details about her life in an instant, live on TV. As expected, that fact alone took a minute to set in. “I had never imagined telling my story of sexual violence publicly,” she says. “I hadn’t done it for more than 30 years, and I didn’t know how to integrate that experience into my life. But the visibility of my confrontation with Flake thrust me out there publicly and made my identity as a survivor the most known fact about me. I’m still grappling with that and trying to understand how to hold this public role responsibly. But more importantly, I am now super clear about the urgency of inserting people’s stories into public debates — and I am committed to making sure more of us do that.”
It’s bold efforts like Archila’s that have the best shot of grounding politics in reality. “Politicians walk around without really having to talk to the people whose lives they impact,” she says. “They live in a bubble of lobbyists and donors and busy schedules. Confronting Flake reminded me of how important it is to interrupt that flow in order to make democracy work, and in order to give people hope and a sense of their own power.”
Of course, confronting Flake isn’t the only powerful move Archila has made. Here, she opens up about the biggest hurdles she’s overcome, the women who inspire her, and the most badass thing she’s ever done, outside of that elevator.
Rising above it: Archila looks up to those who, like her, are constantly pushing forward. “Badass women draw strength from what makes them vulnerable,” she says. “Those who I admire most are always practicing, in ways big and small, how to walk past their fear and doubts to do something that feels important to them. I see badass women everywhere. I see them getting elected to Congress against all the odds; carrying their children for thousands of miles to reach the U.S.-Mexico border in search of safety and a job; interrupting elected officials, leading protests and telling their stories to make our democracy work for us; dancing in the parks; writing books; and reclaiming their time.”
One woman she looks up to who’s making huge strides is Cristina Jimenez, the executive director of United We Dream, a network of immigrant youth commonly known as Dreamers. “I met Cristina when she was a young undocumented student, at a time when most undocumented youth stayed in the closet about their immigration status out of fear of deportation,” explains Archila. “Before the Dreamer movement burst into the public consciousness, she was one of the first young people who decided to say publicly that she was undocumented. Her courage inspired others, and together they built a powerhouse organization that is truly led by young people and transformed the debate on immigration in our country.”
Power moves: When she thinks of the most badass thing she’s ever done, two things come to mind for Archila — the first of which was giving birth at home. “In order to do it, I really had to cultivate a sense of trust in myself and in my body,” she says. “I had to own my decision and defend it from the worries of people who love me.” The second is, indeed, that televised moment: “Holding the door of that famous elevator where I confronted Senator Jeff Flake about his intention to vote for Kavanaugh a day after hearing Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony,” says Archila, explaining that her home birth and confronting Flake share something in common. “In both of these experiences, I drew inspiration and strength from watching other women confront their fears and walk past their pain to do something powerful.”
Words of wisdom: The best career tip that Archila has ever received? “‘Notice when you’re feeling small, and force yourself to take up more room,’” she says. “I like this advice, because it invites you to observe yourself and cultivate self-awareness, but also practice stretching past your comfort zone. It’s hard, but good!”
Balancing act: As co-director of the Center for Popular Democracy, Archila has a lot on her plate, and the decisions she has to make aren’t always easy. “I have to straddle two very different kinds of responsibilities,” she says of her work. “On the one hand, I’m an organizational manager, which involves raising money and thinking about un-sexy operational questions. On the other hand, I’m a public leader tasked with inspiring others and driving a vision. The toughest part, for me, is switching between both roles — and, of course, trying to do both well.”
Achieving greatness: Archila spent her twenties and early thirties supporting immigrants’ rights through her work with Make the Road New York. “I feel very proud of having built, with many others, a space where thousands of immigrant workers and families find community and build power together,” she says. “This is really the place where I learned that the fight for our lives and the fight for our country are one and the same — because by fighting for our lives, we build the country of our dreams.”
She’s proud of how far the organization has come since its inception. “When I started, the organization was quite small, but today, it’s one of the largest and most powerful in the country,” she says. “We have hundreds of staff and thousands of grassroots leaders whose activism has resulted in policy victories that make a real difference in people’s lives, from better wages and decent housing to better schools and more rights for LGBT youth.”
Overcoming obstacles: “I came to the U.S. from Colombia when I was 17, so I didn’t grow up here and I didn’t have a wealth of relationships to draw from,” Archila says. “I feel that ‘deficit’ every day, especially as I try to raise money for our work. I don’t move with the same ease in the world that others do, and I notice how much people engage with me ‘across difference.’ It’s like we are constantly having to travel a bridge of culture and gender to have the most basic conversations.”
For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.