Five Minutes With
Five Minutes With Dolores Huerta
SOURCE: Flickr / ericxguo
“Si se puede. Yes we can.” Before this slogan of hope and self-efficacy united a nation in the 2008 presidential election, it was the slogan of the United Farm Workers, coined by its cofounder Dolores Huerta.
Founded by Cesar Chavez and Huerta in 1962, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) was the first union to successfully organize farm workers. Through boycotting, picketing, and collective bargaining agreements, UFW was able to secure better working conditions, increased wages, and political power. This mobilization helped improve the quality of life for thousands of farm workers and their families. Prior to organizing, these workers had no substantial way to advocate against the poverty, occupational hazards, and other hardships they endured. Their collective voice and non-violent approach captured the hearts of consumers and attention of the growers to make significant changes in the agriculture industry.
Almost 50 years after Huerta left her job as school teacher to work for la causa, the plight of the farm worker, she continues working for social justice.
What inspired you to work for on the behalf of others?
That is pretty much the way that I was raised and that was the way we were taught. If somebody needs help, you help them and don’t wait for them to ask you to help them. And you don’t expect any kind of admiration or gratification for what you do. The fact that you help somebody is enough. You shouldn’t expect anything in return.
What are the rewards of your work?
When you see the results of your work. I’ll give you a couple examples:
When we got the first union contract with a medical plan, and farm workers [finally had the] money to pay for their doctors bills and their hospital bills. That was gratifying to know that you had thousands of workers that didn’t have to worry about going to the doctor, and [that they] now get a pension plan from being in contracts.
When we got contracts, again, you had people that had cold drinking water, and individual drinking cups, and toilets for the first time. That was very gratifying. And families had steady work, so they were able to get unemployment insurance so their children were able to stay in school and go to college. All of those are great, great, big rewards and very gratifying when you see all of that just happening.
What advice can offer to the next generation of progressive leaders?
Well, we have so many things to do. It’s like we have so many different issues to work on at the same time. I think my advice for future leaders is that they should try to work on other issues if they can, but not to burn themselves out, and to get other people involved to help them.
I would tell them not to be afraid and to be courageous. And know that you will get criticized, but not to let that criticism stop you from doing what you have to do.
You cofounded UFW with Cesar Chavez in 1962. What have you learned working on a long term team to progress a cause?
Well, what you learn is that sometimes the victory you want is taken away from you, but you can’t let that stop you. You have got to keep working. Even some things that you think you won-- there are always people opposing you and trying to work against what you do. You can’t let that stand in your way. You can’t become cynical and not do anything. You have to keep working.
What strengths and experiences do you draw upon when working to obtain social justice?
Whatever you learned from the previous actions you took, you try to remember those. And the mistakes that you made, you remember those too. You learn a lot from your mistakes
When you talk about experiences, a lot of those experiences have to do with things that didn’t work out or things that you could have done better.
So one of the things we do in our organization is anytime we do a plan or have an event, we do an evaluation. What went well, what can be improved, you know? And to see how to make things better.
And the thing is, the people you are working with, they will give you the answers. So, you don’t have to have all of the answers when you start. As long as you have an idea of what you want to happen and start working on that idea, then the answers will come.
Immigration reform is still a hot button issue, almost 50 years after you began fighting for it. What do you think needs to happen next for it to move forward?
We need to organize and get people to understand all the contributions immigrants give to our society. Like the food that they pick so we can eat every day, the food that they prepare in restaurants that is served to us, the fact that many immigrants that are undocumented take care of people’s children, the elderly, and the disabled. And they are cleaning buildings and building buildings and really contributing to our society. The one thing that people don’t understand, that they have to understand, is why people come here in the first place. We have to change our policies in the United States to help people in Mexico and Central America rebuild their own economies instead of us taking them over.
How do you think politicians and activists can work together to reach a common ground and achieve a common good?
Well, I think that politicians will do what people ask them to do. Most of them depend on people that live in their districts to tell them what they do, basically. So they have a lot of people in their districts that say we want this law passed.
I know the President wants to move forward on climate change. But if [politicians] don’t hear from the people in their districts then they won’t do anything. It is really the people in the districts that make the politicians do what they are supposed to be doing.
In recent years there has been a movement by leaders such as yourself, John Podesta, and former President Clinton to inspire leadership, activism, and civic engagement through your respective programs. What personally inspired you to create the Dolores Huerta Foundation?
Well exactly that—exactly what you just said. I think a lot of people don’t realize they have the power to make changes, right? And that they have power to go out and get people engaged.
There are a lot of people that thought when President Obama was elected—that he was going to do it by himself. Well he can’t do it by himself. Like someone said, he is a president, not a dictator. He can’t just order things to happen. All he can do is call on Congress to pass laws that he can sign. If Congress doesn’t pass the laws then he can’t sign them.
Holistic Entrepreneurial Liaison Projects (H.E. L.P) is a student a student-designed initiative aimed at extending the services people receive through existing infrastructures—What advice do you have the passionate and ambitious trying to help the world?
Well I think one thing when you do any type of service project is that you have to get the people that receive that service engaged, also. If not, it becomes charity, and I don’t think you want to make people victims. If we help them and they don’t do anything to help themselves, I think that is really bad. I think that when the service is extended to them, then they have to give back also. Not with money, but by doing some action themselves and getting involved. You have got say, I am going to help you, but you have to do this. You have to come to this meeting. You have to write these letters. You have to get your family involved. You have to come to this demonstration. It takes action entire actions. We might put a mandate on their problem but we want to solve the entire problem and get them engaged politically and in a civic way also.
Is there anything else that you would like to say to the readers of Campus Progress?
We are in a real critical situation in our country, and in our world. We have an imbalance in the world: a financial imbalance, a power imbalance. We’ve got to make it better and the only way to make it better is if we do it, okay? I don’t think somebody else is going to come and do it for us. So we have got to get involved. Find out information, become knowledgeable and then take action. Also, whatever we learn, pass it on to other people so that our collective democratic power can grow. We are the majority. But we have to come together and work in an organized way in order to make the changes and keep the faith. Don’t give up, and we can do it.
- Love Triangles With a Side of Sex-Ed: Welcome to “East Los High”
- All You Need to Know About The Heritage’s Problematic Study [LINKS]
- Approaching Mother’s Day, Undocumented Youth Ask to Reunite With Deported Mothers
- Amendments to Immigration Reform Bill Are In, See How LGBT Families Are Impacted
- Amid Immigration Reform Talks, Obama Makes His Position on LGBT Families Clear