40 Change Makers: Melania Brown

This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.

Emerging activist and writer, Melania Brown, has been pivotal in the fight to end solitary confinement. Brown’s life was changed forever when her sister, Layleen Extravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latinx trans woman, died in a Rikers Island solitary confinement cell after suffering an epileptic seizure. Since then, with the help of AVP, she has mobilized to demand #JusticeforLayleen, speaking out against the suffering endured by tens of thousands of people in the U.S. who are placed in solitary confinement – a practice classified as torture by the United Nations.

On solitary confinement and Layleen, Melania writes: “The system killed her like it kills so many Black people and other people of color.”

How did you first get involved with AVP?

I learned about AVP in June 2019, right after the passing of my baby sister, Layleen. When I first got the call that [AVP] wanted to meet with me and the family. Right away, I was just like, we’re going, we’re going to definitely go. They are doing this for Layleen. I already knew that I wanted her story to be heard.

Can you describe your experience witnessing and being a part of AVP’s work?

I can’t explain it. It’s amazing watching a group of individuals that truly care about human life, and they want to be there and want to change the world one day at a time. Just watching them work endless hours, every single day, out there fighting and trying to make a difference. It was amazing. It’s truly amazing to be part of it.

I mean, to me, the first thing that stood out to me is just being in the room, I didn’t feel like I was alone. I remember we were all in that room and we were all crying. We all had eyes full of tears, the whole team, the whole AVP team, everyone. The love was definitely felt. I remember I felt every emotion that day, but I knew I wasn’t carrying that weight alone that day because I had [AVP] there.

What’s something you’ve learned through AVP’s work?

I learned to be more humble. I’ve learned that I’m not the only one going through the worst right now in my life. There’s other people out there that are going through much more. I’m going through the worst, but they’re going through much more, much more pain than I am going through. Just be humble, try to help when I can, be there when I can, and just be more connected to earth.

What was it like speaking at AVP’s Justice for Layleen Rally?

It was very emotional.

It was heartwarming to see all those people there for my baby sister. It was just like, wow, they care. People are listening to her story. They actually took the day to come out and hear anything that we had to say about my sister Layleen. I really wasn’t expecting, to be honest, a whole bunch of people like that. It took me by surprise.

It was definitely an experience that I will never forget, an emotional one, and I didn’t even know I had that in me. AVP pushed that out of me. I didn’t even know I was strong enough to do half the things that I’ve done with you, so I’m thankful for that.

[AVP] gave me a way out and my way out was to speak my heart. That’s the only way I know how to grieve now. That’s why I am still popping up at rallies, I am still showing up because this is how I let my emotions out. You guys gave me the key to what I needed, to bring justice to my sister, although I’m not so happy with the justice that they tried giving her. But the platform that you guys helped me build, it saved so many other people. It didn’t save my sister because she was already gone, but it helped save a lot of people, including myself.

Is there anything you want people to know about AVP?

AVP is amazing. They helped me through the worst time of my life, they gave me something that I didn’t have, they gave me a platform to fight for my sister. When I felt like life was done for me and I did not want to be part of this world anymore, I felt like AVP grabbed me from the black hole that I was in and gave me this platform and reminded me this world still needs you, you can’t leave yet. You got work to do. AVP gave me something to look forward to, to continue to fight. I’m grateful for that. They gave me life when I felt like I had none left.

It means a lot to me because I’m part of an organization that’s out there fighting every day. It feels good to be part of a team that wants to make a difference, and just be part of a change that is going to come.

What words do you have for other family members of trans and gender non-conforming folks?

What I would say is you don’t know the struggles that they go through on a daily basis. Just because they smile, that smile carries a lot of pain and a lot of hurt and don’t be like me. Don’t wait until after your sibling passes away for you to start digging into their life and knowing that, “Wow, they were really going through more than what she was letting us know.” Do your own digging, do your own investigation if you have to. Because one thing that I do know that I learned from my sister is that sometimes the scar is so deep that they just throw bandages after bandages after bandages on it, because they don’t want to bleed on everybody that they love and sometimes they feel like they scar so deep that no one would understand it.

They need your love. They need your support. It starts from home. There’s nothing like support that starts from home.

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