Ms. Matos spent her early career as a community organizer and human rights advocate, working for such institutions as Amnesty International and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. While at NAACP LDF, she often traveled to the deep South, organizing in communities of color to fight for the lives of death sentenced African American inmates. She went on to earn a law degree from Cornell Law School and subsequently became an Assistant Federal Defender in Philadelphia, representing death row inmates in state and federal courts. Ms. Matos observed that people of color and the poor make up a disproportionate number of the criminal justice system's bleakest cases. She decided to focus her work on advocacy and community building in order to provide those at risk with alternatives to lives of crime and deprivation.
In 2002, Ms. Matos became Executive Director of JUNTA for Progressive Action, accepting the leadership of the oldest Latino community service organization in Connecticut. She was JUNTA’s first female Executive Director. Prior to her arrival, JUNTA had fallen into disrepair, even as the city's Latino population surged in number and need. In a few short years, Ms. Matos transformed JUNTA into a nationally recognized service provider and a powerful community organizing force, expanding the group's mission and programs while dramatically growing the number of people served.
Ms. Matos became Deputy Mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, overseeing social service and community programs. She launched new initiatives including those on pressing issues such as prisoner re-entry, at-risk youth and immigrant integration. She oversaw the creation of the groundbreaking Elm City Resident Card, an identification card for all residents, which helped integrate immigrants into New Haven’s civic life while also addressing public safety concerns. While the program has now been replicated in nearly a dozen cities (including New York City and San Francisco), she faced considerable pressure and hostility at the time from anti-immigrant and white supremacist organizations, receiving several death threats.
Most recently, Ms. Matos has been a national advocate, fighting for the rights of the undocumented and pushing for immigration reform legislation at the federal level. She works closely with immigrant rights organizations around the country to ensure grassroots voices are a central part of the immigration debate. She has both met with the President, White House officials and leaders on Capitol Hill as well as been arrested in civil disobedience actions outside their offices.
Kica Matos is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She has an M.A. in political science from the New School and a law degree from Cornell Law School. Originally from Puerto Rico, she grew up and went to school in Trinidad and Tobago, the Fiji Islands and New Zealand. She has received numerous awards, including the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award; Yale Black Men’s Union Woman of the Year Award and the New Haven Register’s “Person of the Year” award. She and her husband (Henry Fernandez) live in New Haven, with their nine year-old son (little Henry) and dog (Logan).
- Social Justice and the Future of Our Democracy