“You know, when we started the farm workers movement, I remember going to many conferences, and people [kept asking] how do we do this? . . . We had to convince people that they have power. Of course, when you say to a farm worker who doesn’t speak the English language, doesn’t have formal education, doesn’t have any assets, doesn’t have any money, that he or she has power, they say, ‘What kind of power do I have?’ And so what we had to convince the workers is you do have power, but that power is in your person. That power is in your person, and when you come together with other workers, other people, and they also understand that they have power, this is the way that changes are made. But you can’t do it by yourself. You’ve got to do it with other people. You’ve got to work together to make it happen.”
As the founder of the Agricultural Workers Association, the co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union, and the founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation for community organizing, Dolores Huerta has spent decades working relentlessly to improve social and economic conditions for farm workers and to fight discrimination in all forms. In the process she has improved the lives of countless children and families, especially poor and immigrant families. Huerta started out with a mission to be a teacher, but quickly realized that most of her students were children of farm workers who lived in poverty. She couldn’t stand seeing the children coming to class hungry and needing shoes and she thought she could do even more to help them by organizing their parents. Huerta’s many successes over the years have proven her right about the power every person can have once they are ready to claim it and work together with others for change.
When Huerta spoke to community and youth leaders at the Children’s Defense Fund’s recent national conference, she shared some of her wisdom from her long legacy of working for justice—starting with the point that the people who need change most are the best ones to make it happen. “The thing that we have to remember is that change comes from the bottom, okay? All of the changes that have been made, whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, the immigrants’ rights movement . . . we can make the change, but it’s got to start with us. The one thing that we have to always tell people is that nobody is going to do this for us. We have to do it for ourselves . . . and the one thing that we know is that the people who are suffering the problems are the ones that have the solutions. The people that are going through the suffering and the discrimination, they are the ones that have the answers to how to solve the problems. So the only thing that we need then are the resources for organizing so that we can share our stories.”
In this election year, she also had a reminder about the critical importance of including the electoral process as a piece of organizing: “And, of course, part of the way that we were able to make so many changes for the farm workers . . . is by getting out there and doing the civic work, registering people to vote, going door by door, convincing them you’ve got to vote [or] nothing is going to change. It’s like we’re in a war. We’ve got a war against immigrants. We’ve got a war against women. We’ve got a war against people of color, right? You know, a war against our LGBT community, against unions, and the only weapon that we have as insurance is our vote. And so if we don’t vote, it’s like we’re saying, ‘Okay, you won. I’m not going to fight. You can go ahead and put our kids in jails. You can cut our education. You can cut our health services, and I’ll just let you.’ And so, you know, part of our work – and this is what we did with the farm workers – you have to go out there, and you have to really convince people that their vote matters.”
As she was closing Dolores Huerta shared a Zulu word with the audience, wozani, that’s a call for people to come together in unity. Huerta reminded us that it’s time for all of us committed to pursuing justice for children and the poor to work together in unity and use our power and our votes. If you share, as I do, Mahatma Gandhi’s belief that “there are enough resources in the world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed,” and if you believe that preventable child poverty, homelessness, hunger, and illiteracy are a moral abomination in our nation with a Gross Domestic Product exceeding $15 trillion and when 400 of our wealthiest Americans made more income in 2008 than the combined revenues of 22 states, then get out to vote and make sure everyone you know does. Our democracy and our children’s futures depend on each of us.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.