A Conversation with visionary Human & Civil Rights Leader Dolores Huerta
¡Si Se Puede!
I think we’re living in some very exciting times right now. […] I think there is an awakening in our country after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all of the people of color that have been killed. I think there is an awakening and people are calling for police conduct reform. They’re calling for universal childcare, which we do. We know that is something that women need, the Equal Rights Amendment, immigration reform, so that our undocumented people can have access to citizenship in the United States of America. […]
I had the opportunity to speak with the inspiring Dolores Huerta this week about her current work addressing the impacts of COVID on vulnerable communities, her advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment, Health Care for All, and about her new project, the Peace & Justice Center, in Bakersfield, CA. It was also an opportunity to congratulate her on her 91st birthday on April 10!
Below are edited excerpts of my conversation with Dolores Huerta:
Bia: Dolores, the Women’s Foundation California has a long history with The Dolores Huerta Foundation. We have worked together on a number of issues, and I know that you care deeply about many different issues like workers’ rights and healthcare for all. I know that throughout your many years of being an advocate, and being just an amazing person, that you have done so much. Today, I wanted to talk to you about three things in particular: the Equal Rights Amendment, Health Care for All, and the Peace & Justice Center. Let’s start with Health Care for All and what you’re doing right now.
Dolores: This weekend, we’re having nine different food banks here in the Central Valley of California, in Fresno and Tulare and up in the Antelope Valley and California City, giving out fresh food and sacks of flour. While we’re doing this, we’re combining a couple of other projects with it. Number one, we’re doing a community survey about the census, asking people to fill out some questionnaires to get the information that we’d need to make sure that redistricting is done in a fair way. And then we’re also passing out postcards and getting people to sign them for us to send to Governor Newsom, to Speaker Anthony Rendon, and to Tony Atkin, asking them to support healthcare for all of our undocumented people in the state of California.
We know that right now people are covered up to the age of 26 years old, if they’re undocumented. But we want to have people above 26 years old to be able to get coverage under the California Medi-Cal plan. And this is really important because we saw that with a pandemic so many of our vulnerable populations, Latinos, people of color, our indigenous population, that they were so severely hit. And when you think of the people that lost their lives, we can think, maybe there’s some way that we can save the lives of those that are left behind by giving them the kind of healthcare that they need. And so this is very cost effective to provide medical care to the rest of our population. We shouldn’t, we’re going to have part of the population that is going to be covered with healthcare and the other population, we don’t care about them. Many of these workers are essential workers, they’re farm workers, construction workers, they’re people that do the heavy lifting. You might say in our society, to keep our society fed, safe, clean, and healthy because they include daycare workers, childcare workers. These are the people that need to be able to have access to health care themselves.
Bia: What are you asking the legislature and Governor to do?
Dolores: The bill is Assembly Bill 4 by Dr. Joaquin Arambula, asking the Governor to include in his budget healthcare for everybody in California. And you might say it’s an expensive item, but it’s also an investment in health. We shouldn’t think of it as an expenditure, we should think about it as a safety investment that we’re going to give into our undocumented people.
Bia: I know that for many years you worked on health care coverage for vulnerable communities, even before Obamacare. California started covering children earlier than most other states. I’m wondering how is it for you to be in this position to have to continue to fight for healthcare for all these years later? How can we get to a point that we accept that everybody needs and deserves health care?
Dolores: Most of my organizing, as you know, has been at the grassroots level. Whenever we have meetings with families and we ask them, what are the most important issues that you care about? Number one is healthcare. Number two is education. Number three is immigration, but healthcare has always been number one. Every family is concerned because when somebody in the family gets sick, it can devastate their budget completely.
We have also been focusing on education for the last few years, because of the great disparities and the inequalities that we have in our education system. You know, we sued our local high school district because they expelled 2,100 students of color in one year. That’s crazy. You can imagine, 2,100? Well, after our lawsuit, we got that 2100 down to 21, but we’re still not there yet, because what they’ve done is [to] transfer the students into these alternative schools. And the graduation rate for our African-American students is still very, very dismal. We have a lot more work to do in that area, but we’re active in about 20 different school districts. We organize the parents and the students to go to the school boards and make recommendations of how they can improve the schools. Over half of the recommendations that our communities have made, have been accepted. So we’re really proud about that.
We’ve been able to make some really serious changes on composition of the school boards, to take out some of the, I’m going to say the word racist and misogynist homophobic [members]. I remember, one of the previous school board members who was actually the chair of the school board, when they passed the law in Sacramento, that [schools] had to have multi-gender bathrooms, he said, ‘we’re not going to obey that law. We don’t care what the Governor or the legislature says.’ I’m happy to report that he’s gone. He’s been replaced. And in some of our other school districts where we’ve got our people elected to the boards, they found that there was a lot of corruption, and they had to get rid of some of these superintendents that were literally stealing money from the taxpayers, they’re stealing money from the funds that were there for the students.
Now we’re working on COVID. Today we have 70 people that are going door to door, signing people up for their [COVID] tests. They’re giving [people] information about what resources are available to them. And of course, they’re passing out masks. So, whether we like it or not, we’re already in the healthcare field. So now we want to expand it and to start really addressing some of the issues that affect our communities, because so many of the illnesses that we have in the Latino and low-income communities, like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, these are preventable diseases, and yet they really affect so much of our population.
Bia: This brings me to a really beautiful project that you’re working on, the Peace and Justice Center, which will also include an organizing institute. I would love to hear from you about your vision for the Center, for the organizing Institute, and what would you like to see 10 years from now, after the Institute has been working and creating these amazing advocates that are already here, but now will have more tools.
Dolores: One of the things that we are totally convinced in our method of organizing is that people have the answers to their own problems. They have the solutions, but we’ve got to engage them. And once they’re engaged and organized, then they come forward and they say, ‘this is what needs to be fixed. And we’re the ones that can make it happen. That we’re the ones that can do it, and this is why we’ve been able to accomplish so much.’ In the past, we were concentrating a lot on infrastructure. We have communities where people wanted a neighborhood park in the area, another community wanted a swimming pool, another wanted streetlights and sidewalks, and all of this happened. One of our communities, called Weedpatch, [in] South Bakersfield. This is where Grapes of Wrath, the great classic film was filmed. Well, they wanted a gymnasium for their middle school. They passed a bond issue and they were able to build a state of the art gymnasium, this is people power, right?
And throughout the whole Central Valley of California, the San Joaquin Valley, we have so many places that look like a third world country. Really, if you go to some of these places and you say, ‘my goodness, who lives here?’ Well, who lives there, the farmer has lived there and what are the farm workers? They feed the nation, they’re the essential workers. And yet they do not have the resources coming to them, unfortunately. We teach them how to fight for those resources, how to fight for their own representation, and get themselves elected to school boards, city councils.
I should mention that we’re also working on redistricting, which is very important because depending on how those electoral lines are drawn, [it] will [affect] how many of our people can get themselves elected to these city councils, school boards, and boards of supervisors. The electoral work is a very big part of the work that we do. We worked very hard on Proposition 15, which unfortunately we lost, but by a very small margin. The idea is that we need to get more funding to come into our schools. When I was growing up in my school, we had art lessons, music lessons, dance lessons. I learned how to play the violin when I was eight, because we had music teachers that came into our school, and I got my first dancing lessons, tap dancing. I had a tap dance teacher that came to our school to teach us how to do tap dancing. That’s when our schools had art and they had drama and they had all of these wonderful perks that now schools do not have. At one time, California, we were number one in the nation in terms of the money that went for each student. Now we are number 36, and before we passed other propositions, […]we were number 49. We were next to Mississippi in terms of the resources that we give to our schools. So, we still have a lot of work to do. I’m happy to see President Biden, when he gets this past the Congress, bringing a hundred billion dollars into our school systems throughout the country. Our kids of color are the ones that are left behind. And now of course, because of the pandemic, they’re going to be even further behind. So, we have a lot of work to do.
Bia: What have you seen as the impacts of COVID in the school districts in the Central Valley, and the kinds of learning losses we’re seeing nationally, but definitely more acutely in vulnerable communities.
Dolores: We have been devastated. So many people that have died, especially in the farm worker communities, the Latino communities. Students are so far behind because they didn’t have the broadband that they needed. They didn’t have the computers that they needed. And sometimes you have a family where you have three or four children, but then to be able to get online for classes and everything was very difficult for them. So, we’re going to have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to education for our young people here in the Valley.
Bia: Where are you in the process for the Peace and Justice Center project?
Dolores: We’re making some progress. We have our local labor council that is supporting us, we’ve secured the site, which is very important. Now we are trying to get the support of the city to help us with our project. And we’re going to be doing a big fundraiser sometime in August. We’ll let you know about it, so we can raise the money for it. And we have a budget ask into in the [CA] legislature to try to get some money from the state. The Center will have a childcare center and the credit union. We have a big youth group with our organization. Right now we’ve outgrown our facility because we have over 45 full-time staff people, and 70 part-time staff. The Self-Help Credit Union is also helping us with our projects. It’s going to take $20 million to build it, and I think that we’re going to make it happen.
Bia: Dolores, from hearing you in the past and, and of course, reading about your work, you are one of those people who understood intersectionality before there was a name for it, before we talked about it the way that we do today. In terms of equal rights, in terms of reproductive rights, in terms of all of these things that are related to what communities need to be able to thrive, I wonder if you can talk about how you’ve come to understand all the interrelationships and also the work that you’re doing right now to support the Equal Rights Amendment?
Dolores: That is so important. I think a lot of people just assume that somewhere there was a law that said that women have equal rights to men and many are surprised to find out that it isn’t a law. There is now a proposal for a law that is in the U.S. Senate. This is something that we really have to work very hard for, because in 2021, we can make history and we can make an amendment to the constitution of the United States that says that women have equal rights to men. Something that should have been done centuries ago, but we’ve got to make sure that it happens. And I do want to say to all the listeners out there, we know, especially all of you in California, we know that during the presidential campaigns, recently in the election in Georgia, that we have people in California doing phone banking and they phoned into the other States and they get people to go out there and get people registered to vote, etcetera.
Well, what we have to do is start phone banking, calling into the other States and have them get their senators to vote for the Equal Rights Amendment. We can make it happen. The state of Virginia was the 38th state that made it possible for us to go in there and get the Equal Rights Amendment, but it’s not going to happen unless we do the work, because unfortunately, we have some Senators in our government that don’t believe that women should have equal rights to men.
And we know it’s around the issue of abortion. This is a very important issue, especially for women in the community, in communities of color. In a way we can understand it, because there has been genocide against Black people, there has been genocide against Mexican people when this country took over parts of Mexico. So, we can understand why they have that mentality. But they have to understand that this should not get in the way of voting for the Equal Rights Amendment. So, we’ve got to get that out there. And when you asked me the question about my own views, as you may know, I had to transition from the idea that abortion is a sin to the idea that abortion is not a sin. Abortion is a healthcare right that all women have in terms of being able to govern and take care of their own bodies. We just have to continue to work on that. It’s unfortunate that this is what they’re using to try to prevent women from getting equal rights. We have to get that message out there very strongly. Be sure and tell everybody they’ve got to contact their Senators. We know in California that we have two senators that we don’t have to worry about, we’ve got Diane Feinstein and we’ve got Alex Padilla, the first Latino U.S. Senator from California. We’re okay. But we got those Senators in Texas, like Ted Cruz.
Bia: In 2019, we held a convening with young women in Fresno, Grassroots Womxn Rising, and you spoke to so many young folks. It was clear that you are such an inspiration to so many, across different generations. I’m wondering, who are your inspirations, where do you get your inspiration?
Dolores: I think today we have so many great women that we can look up to. Starting with Hillary Clinton, who had the courage to run for the presidency. And of course, now we have Kamala Harris who is the Vice President of the United States of America. We have Hilda Solis, who is a Supervisor in Los Angeles County, who, in her very quiet, humble way, does so much for so many programs in Los Angeles that are helpful to the low-income communities. And then of course, we’ve got the Squad, those wonderful women in the Congress like AOC and the others that are there protect our voting rights. I forgot to mention the John Lewis for the People Act. Because we know that all of these legislatures in the South and in the Midwest are passing all of these bills to continue voter suppression. And of course, when we pass the John Lewis for the People Act, it will make it impossible for them to prevent people from voting.
Bia: One of my dreams is to have a conversation with you and AOC together and listen to how you connect. It would be amazing! Anything else you want to share with the folks listening to this podcast in terms of what’s ahead and in terms of what folks need to do, to mobilize.
Dolores: I think we’re living in some very exciting times right now. […] I think there is an awakening in our country after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all of the people of color that have been killed. I think there is an awakening and people are calling for police conduct reform. They’re calling for universal childcare, which we do. We know that is something that women need, the Equal Rights Amendment, immigration reform, so that our undocumented people can have access to citizenship in the United States of America. We do see that there’s a lot going on and we can’t forget the work that Jane Fonda and Greenpeace and the other organizations are doing in terms of preserving our planet, fighting for environmental justice and fighting against climate change.
We are so busy, we have a lot of work to do, but I’m always glad to see that the Women’s Foundation California is always a part of making sure that people are informed, that people are engaged and that we as women are in the leadership of all of these major issues. […] I always like to quote Coretta Scott King, who said that ‘we will never have peace in the world until women take power.’ And I think that’s something that we can reflect on, when we still see that there are needless, I’m gonna use the word needless wars that are going on all around the world. And we know that those wars are about power. They are about resources, and those are things that we know that women can manage a lot better than men can do. I do like to use the word feminist, because I know we have men out there who really support women’s leadership, women’s reproductive rights. So I [would] like to change that Coretta Scott King quote, to say ‘we will never have peace until feminists take power,’ because at the same time, we know there’s women out there that still haven’t got their light turned on in their brain, and think that they have to be supportive of what men think of, what men do and not honor their own abilities and their own thoughts.
Bia: Dolores, you are always very inspiring. I also want to take this opportunity to say happy belated birthday, which was on April 10th, now a California Dolores Huerta Day. I do know that one of your wishes for your day is for folks to get activated and go out and do the work that needs to be done. At the Women’s Foundation, California, we feel so privileged to have this really close relationship with you, and with the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Thank you.
Dolores: The Women’s Foundation was, I think, the first foundation that ever gave a grant, when we started way back 15 years ago, when there was just my daughter and myself, my daughter, Camila Chavez, and myself. And then my other daughters Alicia and Lori, but there were just the four of us. I did get a grant from the Puffin Foundation for a hundred thousand [dollars], to start the [Dolores Huerta] Foundation. But the first grant was from the Women’s Foundation. I want to thank you for having faith in the work that we’re doing and that you continue to be there and help all these different organizations that are headed up by women. Because we know women are going to make the changes that need to be made and that we have that ability. And as we’d like to say in Spanish, ganas, we have the will to make it happen. So again, I’m very grateful to the Women’s Foundation. Congratulations, and keep on doing what you’re doing.
For more information:
Dolores Huerta Foundation, https://doloreshuerta.org
Women’s Foundation California, https://womensfoundca.org
California Legislators & Governor’s Office:
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