Rosalinda Guillen: Movement-Building for Farmworker Justice

BLUE HEART: You have an incredible history of organizing. I’d love to start with your story and some of the milestones that brought you to C2C.

ROSALINDA GUILLEN: I was first recruited by an organizer into the Rainbow Coalition for the campaign to elect Jesse Jackson, way back in the day. I resisted it a lot. I wasn’t political. I wasn’t even registered to vote. I was an operations officer in a local community bank. We started forming the Whatcom County Rainbow Coalition during that campaign. We conducted several electoral campaigns, and then we were approached by farmworkers to support the Chateau Ste. Michelle boycott.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest winery in the state of Washington. There was a group of farmworkers that had been enduring sexual assaults and poisonings with pesticides. One of the workers had actually shot and killed a supervisor after the supervisor raped his wife. It was awful. I was a former farmworker so I was assigned by the Rainbow as a lead on the boycott. My next big life-changing organizing experience was learning about Cesar Chavez, and the grape boycott, and developing the Chateau Ste. Michelle boycott following Cesar Chavez’s model.

In 1993, I quit my job. I did that because Cesar died. By August of that year, I was in Sunnyside, Washington, in the fields with the farmworkers. It was because of Cesar’s death that I did that, because I’d learned all about him, and tried to find ways to meet him, and then he died. So I never did get to do that, but I thought, “Well, he’s gone. I can do this.” The long story short is that we won that campaign. On Dec 5, 1995, we signed a collective bargaining agreement with Chateau Ste. Michelle. It was the first-ever union agreement with their company in Washington.

From there, I went to California and worked with the United Farm Workers of America, reallylearned about Cesar and the movement, met thousands and thousands of farmworkers that went back generations, and learned about the struggle from the bottom up. I lived in Sacramento for four years, 1999 to 2003. And that’s where I really understood the power of the agricultural industry. I was the only farmworker lobbyist, with like 40 corporate lawyers. During that time, I went to the World Social Forum event in Porto Alegre, Brazil. That was another life-changing experience for me, in terms of organizing and the work that we do. For the first time, I understood the power dynamics and how to strategize to build power within our people. I left United Farm Workers in 2003, and immediately jumped into the formation of Community to Community.

BLUE HEART: Can you talk a little bit about some of the differences between electoral organizing and in-the-field farmworker organizing?

ROSALINDA GUILLEN: Well, the electoral organizing I did was mobilizing low-income working class white voters. I think it’s very different in that you have a very specific, clear goal, and it’s a contained environment. I had a certain number of precincts, I had the boundaries, I had a list. And you have a lot of support, people to do analysis with, and all of that. I loved it, it was so exciting to try to reach those numbers.

Farmworker organizing is totally different. First of all, it’s bilingual and you have to be in the culture. It’s undoing oppression, basically, inspiring and mobilizing them to a goal that you may not reach. With voting, everybody understands we should do it and we may not win the campaign, but the process is established and a lot of people have a lot of confidence and trust in it. But I think that in Washington state, and in many areas, the farmworkers have lost confidence in the system. Trying to lift that confidence and work with them to take action, because you can’t do it for them, that’s the thing about organizing.

BLUE HEART: What is your confidence in the system?

ROSALINDA GUILLEN: I don’t really have confidence in the current system. With the farmworkers, what I’ve learned is how deep the lack of confidence is, and how really bad things had gotten. I’ve grown to understand that the system is structured for us to lose. It is structured for us to participate only to a certain level, and then the structure kicks in and barriers start dropping in all over the place. We’re meant to believe that it’s going to work and if it doesn’t, it’s our fault. And I’ve learned that’s just not true. That’s bullshit, you know?

BLUE HEART: Can you describe the basics — the why and what of Community to Community — for our readers?

ROSALINDA GUILLEN: Community to Community was formed to try to gather resources for women leadership and give women and people of color and impacted communities a voice. That was the main reason — can we form an organization that’s led by women? What will that look like? We formed C2C to try to model some of the organizing in Brazil, but also go back to the roots of Cesar Chavez’s organizing and see if we could reinvigorate some of that in the farmworker community.

The core of C2C is food sovereignty and farmworker rights, and everything that intersects with food, through the lens and leadership of farmworkers. What we’re trying to do is build enough confidence and power within ourselves — collective power and collective confidence — to address fundamental reforms and changes to the systems that are not working for us.

We cannot do what everybody has always done to farmworkers, which is develop solutions for us. Policy regulations are legislated and then implemented, and we’re expected to just walk into it and accept it and be grateful. We’re saying that you cannot legislate and create solutions without us, because most of the time it doesn’t work. We need to be part of the oversight, the evaluation of that policy, and we need authority and power to adjust it if we need to. That’s the essence of Community to Community and the work that we do. We only participate and act in places and spaces where we will have fundamental equity in the process, whatever that may be.

One of our biggest goals, set in 2004, was to create a political environment for an independent farmworkers union to form. We reached that goal in 2016 and now they’re working under their own union contract in Skagit County. That bargaining union has over 600 workers so it’s not a tiny little contract.

The farmworkers see the union contract as only a step toward food sovereignty. They’re saying, “We need more options. We can’t just have union organizing be the only option.” So our other big project is to develop and form a farmworker-led community land trust, so they have land to produce. Because that’s another big issue: we’re a landless population. Nothing irritates me more than all of these training programs for farmworkers on sustainable farming. They don’t have land! So they learn how to do sustainable farming, but then they can’t.

We developed a culturally appropriate cooperative development process for farmworkers. We call it Pasaporte Cooperativo, which is “cooperative passport.” We look at it as a road that you go down to change the whole consciousness of capitalism to collective work. Since we started that in 2007, we developed six farmworker-owned co-ops, and they all failed because we don’t have enough access to capital for them to succeed. We took a pause during the formation of the union, from 2013 to 2017. During those four years, they learned not just how to organize for a union contract and negotiate a contract, they also learned about food sovereignty, solidarity economy, and collective power in worker-owned cooperatives. We’re working with folks from the state on budget appropriation, money going toward economic development projects. The new co-op will be incorporated by the end of April. They’re looking at land. Right now there’s a total of about 98 acres in several different locations for lease and purchase.

We also do direct action. We speak truth to power at the moment that it’s needed and we’re not shy about it.

We’re really direct. Farmworkers have a voice and this is the truth. We say to the legislators, when they want to talk about pesticide use and regulation and reform and all that, “the only reform we’re looking for is for you to stop using the stuff.” That’s it, period. There’s no way you can protect us from those poisons, there’s just no way. We know, we’ve lived it. We die, right? How can we participate in that kind of reform when we know it’s not going to work? It has never worked.

So that’s who we are.

BLUE HEART: Wow, you have a lot going on!

ROSALINDA GUILLEN: Yes, there is a lot going on! These are big goals, but I feel like that’s the legacy that C2C can leave behind, even if in our one county: a radical shift in how farmworkers’ lives and futures are shaped, by having all of these different options.

We’re doing all of this work also with a lens of ending white supremacy, ending patriarchy, ending capitalism, and addressing settler colonialism.

Everything we do, we have to have all of these values and principles worked into it. We do a constant review of ourselves and how we’re doing the work, because I believe the only way you can change these things is to model them, and to have people see that modeling, and that’s what we try to do. We’re not perfect, it’s hard, but we’re trying.

I think that’s a challenge that we give people — if you’re going to work or volunteer or be part of this organization, this is the way we work. If it’s too difficult for you, please find somewhere else to go help.

And we really don’t need help, we’re asking you to follow our lead for what we need.

BLUE HEART: That’s so amazing to hear. The vision that you have and the approach that you take — you’re living it and you’re doing it. How are you doing it with so few people?

ROSALINDA GUILLEN: Well, I think that’s the difference between a regular non-profit and a movement-building organization. We’re a movement-building organization. We don’t function like a regular non-profit. People create their own change. You’d be amazed at the sacrifices, how much work people do when they’re in control of their own destiny and their vision is being worked on. We bring in the resources and support the work. We have a lot of allies. We have a lot of farmworkers participating, we have tons of volunteers with different talents and skills that we need. And so we have a lot of support and we get a lot done.

Our big gap right now, honestly, is having the resources to hire a social media person, somebody to take all of this work and amplify it. That is a huge gap. And the other is having the resources to hire a service person to do farmworker intake and file complaints with labor and industry on farmworker issues. This is work that can’t be done by a volunteer; we’ve tried, but these are jobs. Those are the two big gaps.

BLUE HEART: I’m curious if you could give a specific example of what power-building can look like in your work.

ROSALINDA GUILLEN: I think that the biggest example we have, right now the hardest example, is trying to pass the sanctuary ordinance for undocumented immigrants, because a lot of the farmworker population is undocumented. So we have to address that. The city of Bellingham still is disrespecting our community in that process.

So, for a year now, we have organized weekly vigils at city hall, the Bellingham police department, the sheriff, and the county courthouse, every Monday from 11:30 to 1:30. Through those vigils, we have recruited more and more and more white allies and people of color that are just amazed that we’re there, and that we’re saying things that they were afraid to say. Then we have “Dignity Dialogues” on Monday nights, where we dissect policies and issues in detail. For example, we dissected the city’s ordinance and compared it to the ordinance we wanted, article by article, with discussion and dialogue with community members about why we were opposed. Then Dignity Dialogues move into a People’s Movement Assembly. It’s celebration, it’s building community, it’s music, it’s poetry, and then it’s creating visionary opposition and a better world — showing that another world is possible and engaging our allies and our impacted communities in solutions that they want to take on.

We do not take on a project at the People’s Movement Assemblies without somebody taking the leadership. It’s our belief that leaders are all present in all impacted communities, but there’s just no political space for them to lead. So, no matter what the issue is, if you are not a member of the community that is impacted by that problem, you cannot lead it. You have to be viscerally impacted and understand what the changes need to be.

The vigils are between 12 and 50 people every Monday. The Dignity Dialogues are between 40 and sometimes 100 people, and at the last People’s Movement Assembly, we had 226 people attend. So we’re creating this process of participation, where you move from direct action, to deep understanding of the action and the reason, to the solutions of what we do next together as a community.

Our biggest success is that the homeless population has started joining our vigils and going to our Dignity Dialogues. At our last People’s Movement Assembly, the homeless population was a big part and it was amazing. It was a huge shift in the community. The homeless population and the leaders, many of the ones that attended, their dignity just shot up, and the support for building tiny homes in Bellingham has just grown tremendously, because they, along with farmworkers and other people, were part of an equitable process where they were listened to. They had really good ideas, and they exposed the problem at a level that a lot of people had never seen. That’s the best example I have right now, that includes farmworkers taking a lead, creating a shift, not just for ourselves but for other impacted communities. We’re working with the leadership group of the homeless community and farmworkers in trying to create a participatory democratic processes for ourselves.

All of this is making the city council, the county council, and the law enforcement incredibly nervous, and we’re being attacked by them. The agriculture industry has developed a website, hired a consultant, a public relations person to send out misinformation and try to harm our integrity about what we’re doing, which is a good sign in my opinion, because they actually are paying attention, you know?

BLUE HEART: It’s really been an honor to speak with you. I’m blown away by the work you have done, what you are building, and how much you’re capable of with such a small staff. Thank you for the work you do.