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Making Change A Conversation with Iconic Civil Rights Activist Dolores Huerta

"I am so thrilled with the idea of bringing people together," the legendary civil rights and farmworker activist Dolores Huerta told a large crowd assembled on October 12 at Rutgers University–Camden, for an event celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month. "This is what inspires me: to come together and make change," said the 88-year-old Huerta whose slogan "¡Sí se puede!"—translated as "Yes we can!"—inspired Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

Before her powerful address that day, I met Huerta in person and checked the content of the interview that I had done with her over the summer. As part of an independent social science project, I'd been volunteering with the New Jersey-based nonprofit Migrant Worker Outreach over the summer, interviewing Hispanic blueberry pickers at several migrant camps in southern New Jersey. After talking to them and learning about their lives, I decided to reach out to Huerta, a 2012 recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. I was interested in learning more about what the future holds for these migrant workers.

Dolores Huerta has worked for more than half a century as a civil rights activist and labor leader. In 1962, Huerta launched the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers, together with the legendary Cesar Chavez. In 1965, she was a lead organizer of the five-year long Delano Grape Strike, one of the most important commercial strikes in U.S. history. Huerta worked toward the establishment of the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Her efforts also led to the enactment of disability insurance coverage for farmworkers in California. Today, she heads the Dolores Huerta Foundation that is working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for Latino and African-American high school students in her community.

At the time of the interview, a new documentary about her life called Dolores (by award-winning filmmaker Peter Bratt) had been released. Also, she had just returned to her home in California from Texas, where she had joined activists and concerned citizens to protest immigrant family separation. Huerta was proud that "some of the rights that we won for farmworkers are now covered throughout the country. For instance, workers have toilets; they all have to have toilets in the fields. They all have to have drinking water in the fields. That is mandated all over the United States." Yet, she expressed concern that the laws protecting these workers "are not always enforced" and that poverty remains "a big factor among farmworkers [...] Often there's no daycare for children, and mothers work out there in the fields. They don't make enough money and so they can't get decent, adequate housing." When I asked Huerta how climate change is affecting farmworkers, she responded, "Of course, the heat is always an issue. Farmworkers can die out there in those fields when it gets too hot, especially if there are no protections for them." She added that global warming "is changing planting patterns," which means less work and income because "some crops can't be planted and some [growing] seasons don't last as long as they used to."

Given the challenging circumstances migrant farmworkers face today, I ended the interview asking Huerta what Americans can do to create change. "The hope is in organizing," Huerta answered. "I think change depends on elections, who gets elected and what laws are passed."

As Huerta concluded her Q & A with the large and diverse audience gathered at Rutgers, she again implored people to vote because "if people don't vote, we don't have a democracy." People cheered when they heard her say, "I am 88-years-old, and I am still knocking on doors."

Moderated by Jake Cornelius.

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