"Organize!" That was the imperative delivered to Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman on Wednesday by civil rights, human rights, women's rights and workers rights icon, Dolores Huerta - two days before Huerta's 80th birthday celebration benefiting the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF) at Los Angeles' famed Greek Theater.
As Huerta explained to Goodman:
"We’ve got to get good people elected, but we’ve got to go out there and do that hard, door-to-door kind of work to educate people..., because right now, unfortunately, not everybody has your [Pacifica Radio] program, Amy. Not everybody listens to you. But we have to get your message, and we have to take it to their doorstep and give it to them, person to person, and make people understand that we have the power, but we’ve got to take responsibility, and we’ve got to take action. And this is how we can get the kind of a government that we want."
For some, the proposition of going 'door to door and person to person to get good people elected,' may sound like a very lofty goal. But it's not too lofty for Dolores Huerta. It's not too lofty for the woman who co-founded United Farm Workers with her collaborator of 30 years, legendary labor leader and human rights advocate, Cesar Chavez. Not too lofty for the woman who helped initiate legislation to grant legal status to immigrants in 1986; who got voter ballots printed in Spanish; who helped remove the citizenship requirement so immigrants could receive public help; who inspired 17 million Americans to stop eating grapes, and who raised eleven children while negotiating labor deals to better workers' lives.
Indeed this goal is far from lofty for this powerhouse grassroots organizer who stood with Bobby Kennedy the night he was assassinated, and who was beaten so badly by San Francisco Police during a lawful protest in 1988 that her spleen had to be removed. For this indefatigable organizer, 'taking action to get the government she wants' is a natural component of living to be passed along to others to empower them to bring change.
To pass along these goals and the skills to achieve them, Huerta created the Dolores Huerta Foundation For Community Organizing, which uses the same methods to inspire direct action that she and Chavez learned in their early days in the CSO:
The basic approach of the Dolores Huerta Foundation is to organize intimate meetings in people's homes. The "host" invites six to eight people to their home where a trained organizer explains how poor working people have accomplished major changes through organization and direct action. At that meeting, those in attendance are asked to host other meetings. A chain of "house meetings" is conducted until 200 people have attended the meetings. They are then brought together to form an organization. They vote to form a committee and become a part of the "Vecinos Unidos" (United Neighbors). There are monthly meetings conducted where information is given on topics that they decide which range from immigration, safety, health issues, etc.
The innovation is that the group is further broken down to a neighborhood level to have a personal influence in taking on and solving the issues in the neighborhood. Each neighborhood elects a leadership committee. They form a Leadership Council. This Leadership group receives training and education on issues that they will pass on to their neighbors. Neighborhood groups also meet once month. They assess and evaluate their particular neighborhood and prioritize which problems need to be addressed.
The great outcome of this type of organizing is that the neighborhood committees can work to resolve multiple issues at once as well as form a large base to address issues that affect all of their community, be they state, federal or local issues."
Given Huerta and Chavez' tremendous achievements in creating the United Farm Workers, organizing the grassroots, and moving critical legislation forward, there's little doubt this training works. In fact, since DHF was founded in 2003, it's already brought changes, as Huerta points out:
"Some of the changes are absolutely miraculous. Some of our people have been able to get swimming pools in their communities. We have one community that actually had a gymnasium built at their middle school. You know, we’ve got another community that’s getting sewer drains for twenty-seven homes that didn’t have any kind of a sewer drain.
And we have a youth group, who are doing teen pregnancy prevention programs, financial literacy, the first micro-lending program for farm workers in the Central Valley of California. And the great thing about this is that the people are doing this themselves. On the Census, we knocked on 3,000 doors in one day. And then, of course, we had to do a lot of pressure on our Blue Dog Congress people to get them to vote for the healthcare bill that we were trying to get passed recently."
The organizing never stops for this 80-year-old force of nature. Even her birthday concert at The Greek, which featured notable stars in entertainment and politics, was designed around the theme of "Weaving Movements Together."
"This whole idea of bringing movements together is important, because it seems like each one of our movements has a different path. You know, we have our Greens over here, labor over here, the feminists, the LGBT movement. And I believe that in order to really get the progressive agenda that we are all looking for and searching for, that we’ve got to come together and, you know, kind of unite our forces. We are a—you know, we are the majority in this country, but if we don’t come together, well, then we’re not going to be able to win our progressive agenda."
True to form, on Friday night, the movements came together. The Greek was teeming with activists and activist groups from across the progressive spectrum. Of special note was the tribute from Jodie Evans, co-founder of CODEPINK, who has known and collaborated with Huerta since 1975. Evans took to the stage with actor/activist Danny Glover and members of CODEPINK.
"Dolores knows that peace and justice are won by the choices we make in our daily lives. She inspires us to action with every breath and believes in the goodness that comes with community engagement, working together and knowing each other. She listens and then uses her voice for those who can't, and then teaches them how to use their own."
The evening was filled with glowing tributes to Huerta from former Obama Green Jobs Czar, Van Jones and actors Ed Begley, Jr., Alfre Woodard and Benjamin Bratt. Martin Sheen took the stage with Huerta, herself, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa:
It was fitting that a tribute to so powerful a Latina leader should have three powerful Latina leaders there to pay her homage. L.A. County Supervisor, Gloria Molina, honored Huerta, as did labor leader Maria Elena Durazo and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who introduced a video presentation from President Obama expressing his appreciation for Ms. Huerta and wishing her a happy birthday.
In the hospitality room, I caught up with long time Huerta friend, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, who's been heroic in his efforts to thwart the implementation of Arizona's harsh immigration bill, SB1070. Grijalva expressed his admiration for his friend, and lamented that not enough people in America had heeded Huerta's wisdom. (Excuse the poor audio and ambient sounds. The transcript follows the video):
"Dolores Huerta is the biggest missed opportunity for this nation we've ever seen. She's helped change it. She's helped lead it. She's 80 years old and she continues to be part of this American legacy. I'm just disappointed that as a consequence of all this, we haven't listened to her. I happen to be very fortunate. She's my friend. She's helped me. I love her to death. But I think the rest of America is missing an opportunity to understand and to believe in a person that is much bigger than the rest of us. When people look back on history, she'll be part of it. When people look at icons, she's gonna be part of it. When people look at feminism, she's gonna be part of it. When people look at working people, she's gonna be part of it. When people look at Latinos and Latinas she's gonna be part of it. And what a full and grateful life she's lived. I'm just - I really love her."
In the amphitheater, the celebration rocked on. Performers Kayla Martin, Lila Downs, Zach de la Rocha and Huerta's youngest son, Rick Chavez, were stupendous. The evening also had the distinction of reuniting genius guitarist, musical innovator and human rights activist, Carlos Santana, with percussionist extraordinaire, Pete Escovedo, for the first time since 1972 when they recorded and toured together. The reunion was spectacular and the two never missed a beat. Escovedo's rhythms and Santana's riffs melded beautifully.
Santana was magnificent, taking the audience on a musical journey through rarefied hits and musical magic only he can perform. He's the master of his craft, and in my eyes, everyone else is an apprentice. He remains a unique and unparalleled artist - admittedly my personal favorite for over 40 years.
In 1972 while organizing the farm workers, Huerta and Chavez coined the term si se puede!, which remained mostly within the Latino civil rights and workers' rights arenas for years. Steadily, over recent decades, si se puede has emerged as the clarion call to action for progressives - transcending race, ethnicity and cause.
On the occasion of Ms. Huerta's 80th birthday, as her family, friends, colleagues, mentees and admirers celebrate her milestone atop the Hollywood Hills, we would all be wise to heed her declaration of commitment:
"... I’m committing the rest of my life, as I have all of my adult life, to organizing, because I do believe that we do have the power. Democracy can only work if the people take power."
Si se puede, Dolores!! Organize!!
On a personal note, here's a two-year-old photo of Diane Guthman Cancino (daughter of the late Ed Guthman, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Press Secretary to Bobby Kennedy), who's known Dolores her whole life and who attended the concert with members of the Guthman family, seated beside me and the indomitable Dolores Huerta (left to right).
I've admired Dolores Huerta my entire adult life. She's been a powerful force for women and a powerful force for workers. I thank her from the bottom of my heart for the incredible work she does. I echo the sentiments of Congressman Grijalva that Dolores Huerta is an integral part of America's legacy. America and Americans are better because of her.
Organize! We need to heed her call!!