IRIS MORALES is a lifelong activist, educator, attorney, filmmaker, and author. Her ongoing work with young people, educators, and artists focuses on issues of poverty, racial and gender equality, climate justice and the colonial status of Puerto Rico.
Currently as the founder and executive editor of Red Sugarcane Press, Inc., Ms. Morales produces books and projects about the Puerto Rican, Latinx, and African Diasporas in the Americas. Most recently, she published Latinas: Struggles and Protests in 21st Century USA, an anthology of poetry and prose reflecting on women’s lived experience and the ways that Latinas address the relationship between gender and social change. She is the editor and a contributor to the collection. Ms. Morales is also the author and editor of Through the Eyes of Rebel Women, The Young Lords: 1969-1976, the first account of women in the organization. Her award-winning documentary, !Palante Siempre Palante, The Young Lords! premiered on public television in 1996 and continues to be screened across the United States and Caribbean. She was among the first women to join the Young Lords in New York City, and served as Deputy Minister of Education. She was also co-founder of the Women’s Caucus and Women’s Union.
Ms. Morales has been widely recognized for her community activism and media work. She is the proud recipient of the Community Service Award from the Latina 50 Plus organization, the ImageNation Revolution Award, Teatro Vida Lifetime Achievement Award for Community Service, Latin Roots East Harlem – Celebrating the Living History Award from Community Works and the New Heritage Theater, Bayard Rustin Award for Social Justice from the Brotherhood/Sister Sol, and the Outstanding Leadership Award from Hip-Hop Association, Chica Luna Productions, African American Women In Cinema, Sister Outsider Entertainment, and New York Women in Film and Television, among others.
Photo credit: Jose Angel Figueroa
As a student at Julia Richman High School, an all-girls public school in New York City, Ms. Morales was introduced to the writings of Malcolm X. Inspired by his ideas of self-determination, she joined struggles for community control, became a tenants’ rights organizer in her neighborhood, and marched to protest the U.S. war in Vietnam.
After high school graduation, Ms. Morales entered the City College of New York and majored in political science. As a student activist, she co-founded PRISA, (Puerto Ricans Involved in Student Action), the first Puerto Rican student organization on campus. PRISA united with African American student organizations to fight for increased admission of Puerto Rican and African American students, to establish Black and Puerto Rican studies programs, and to expand the hiring of faculty of color. In addition to her student activism, Ms. Morales worked as a teacher at the Academy for Black and Latin Education, a community organization that prepared young people who had dropped out of school to obtain a high school diploma, and other youth programs.
Ms. Morales belief in social justice and activist experience led her to join the Young Lords Organization In 1969 in New York. During the next five years, she rose through the ranks to become Deputy Minister of Education, co-founded the Women’s Caucus and Women’s Union, and co-led the Young Lords’ chapter in Philadelphia. In 1975, Ms. Morales resigned from the organization, which by then had been renamed the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization. Her writings about her Young Lords experience have appeared in numerous publications, among them PALANTE (2011), The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2011), The Young Lords: A Reader (2010), and the Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College (2009).
After resigning from the Young Lords, Ms. Morales returned to work with young people in New York City as an advocate, teacher, and drug addiction counselor. After several years, she entered New York University School of Law where she was a Root-Tilden Scholar, the first Puerto Rican to receive this prestigious public service fellowship. After receiving the J.D. degree, she worked as an attorney specializing in labor and television law. She continued her activist work as a volunteer with groups such as Latinos in Media and Black and Hispanic Images (BHI), which challenged stereotypical film and television portrayals of Latinx and other people of color, and protested racism and the lack of access to jobs in the field. She also served on the boards of Women Make Movies and the Association of Hispanic Arts and on panels at the National Endowment for the Arts, POV Television Series, Urbanworld Film Festival, Media that Matters Film Festival, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and Independent Television Service (ITVS), among others.
In the early 1990s, Ms. Morales co-developed NEON, the New Educational Opportunities Network. NEON provided media literacy and video production training to hundreds of Latinx and African American youth from low-income communities for five years. After NEON closed, she joined the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund to serve as its Education Director, then became Director at the New York Networks for School Renewal. Her teaching experiences and closeup view of the failure of the public education system led her to organize educators and parents to form CLAVE, the Coalition of Latino/as for the Advancement of Visionary Education to fight for education reform.
In 1996, she completed her award-winning film, Palante, Siempre Palante, The Young Lords documenting this organization’s activist history. She also continued to organize for the decolonization of Puerto Rico, the release of political prisoners, and the end of U.S. military bombing in Vieques.
In the late 1990s, Ms. Morales joined the Union Square Awards as Executive Director to launch a new project. During a twelve-year tenure, she created programs that provided technical support and awarded more than $16 million to 238 community arts and social justice grassroots groups across New York City. During this time, she returned to school and earned an MFA in Integrated Media Arts. She used her newly acquired skills to produce short films and create US-PuertoRicans.org, one of the first multi-media, community-building websites dedicated to the Puerto Rican Diaspora. In 2012, she joined the Manhattan Neighborhood Network to lead the launch of a community media center in East Harlem, which she completed successfully in 2015.