My Grandmother Worked To Build Black Futures — And I Am, Too.
By: Carmella Gadsen, Make It Work Nevada Ambassador
The activists of Las Vegas began Black History Month 2017 by celebrating our rich Black HERstory at February 3rd’s “An Evening With Ruby Duncan and the Women of Operation Life.” I am proud to be a grandchild of one of its founders, Emma Lou Stampley.
Like many black families in the 1960’s, my great grandmother Emma Lou Stampley migrated to Las Vegas from the south. When she got here, she found herself in a city just as a racist as the Mississippian one she left, and living in a neighborhood with unstable access to basic utilities and little political representation.
It is through her tenacity, despite the systems of classism, sexism, and racism, that she found Ruby Duncan and the other women of Operation Life, a community social service agency run by and for the poor. The Welfare Rights movement in Nevada began as a fight against institutionalized racism. Black laborers were relegated to low-wage, behind-the-scenes jobs with poor working conditions in the Las Vegas casinos. They hardly made enough money to feed and clothe their families despite working 40-hour (or more) workweeks, and their children attended poorly funded schools. Upon applying for assistance through the Department of Welfare, they found themselves subject to harassment and benefits that hardly covered the basic costs of living (you know, like utilities and food). There were some families whose benefits were cut so significantly they were thrust into homelessness.
On March 6, 1971, in one of the most iconic displays of resistance in Nevada, they galvanized a crowd of over 1,000 to march down the Las Vegas Strip. They even halted gambling at Caesar’s Palace for an hour. This day was followed by a series of actions including eat-ins, and a particularly gangsta incident where they broke into the Welfare Director’s office, carried him over their heads, and seized the policy manual for welfare programs from his office. (I might have to start referring to my grandma as “OG Emma Lou” out of respect, y’all).
The women formed a group, Operation Life, to advocate for and meet the needs of black families. They built their community’s first children’s medical clinic, library, and more. Black and poor families’ livelihoods were won on the backs of these women and I am forever grateful to them. You can read all about their legacy in Annelise Orleck’s “Storming Caesar’s Palace.”
Today, they serve as an example of how fights can be won when marginalized groups band together.
Fighting for a future that dignifies all of us — our labor, our humanity, our whole selves — is what my grandmother and these incredible women committed themselves to in their generation, and it’s the same work I’m committed to now.
As a proud Make It Work Ambassador, I advocate for working women and families who deserve more than survival — we deserve to thrive. Fighting for paid family leave, paid sick days, livable wages, equal pay, and affordable child care aren’t simply good policy, they are positive indicators of a society where every person who works is greater than the hours they clock or the economic outcomes that race, gender, and class all too often predetermine.
Like my grandmother, I am committed to a future where whole people can be their whole selves. I’m also a full-time violence prevention program coordinator at UNLV, where I bring the campus community together to end gender-based violence. This includes sexual assault, domestic and dating violence, and stalking. However, the often invisible part of that is violence perpetrated against those outside of the gender binary: Transgender, Genderqueer, and Gender Non-Conforming people. I try my best to be an ally to these groups, passing the mic or advocating on behalf of them accordingly.
I know that none of these battles can be won alone. Operation Life demonstrates that a strong leader paired with a focused team can break down any barrier.