Si Se Puede: We Can Do It!
Community Organizer Dolores Huerta Sends Women a Call to Arms
In this conversation with I.M.O.W., Global Council member Dolores Huerta argues that women's leadership is needed at every level--from individual households and workplaces to trade unions and national government--to steer a new direction for the economy. Huerta co-founded the U.S.-based United Farm Workers union with César Chávez and is currently the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which specializes in community organizing. Through her life-long dedication to social justice, Huerta has enabled enormous advances in both the labor and women's movements.
INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN: Throughout the debate about the economic crisis, the voices of women, particularly women and immigrant workers, seem to be markedly absent. Why do you think that is?
DOLORES HUERTA: In the United States, when the stimulus package was passed by the congress and promoted by the President, they kept using the words "shovel ready" which referred to building project--roads and buildings and whatever--that were ready and approved to go forward. So a large part of the stimulus money went into jobs that men traditionally hold, not women. The money did not go to social workers, or nurses or teachers, for that matter!
Had more women's voices been there when those decisions were made, they would have said, "Okay, a nurse doesn't have a shovel in her hand, but she's got patients that need to be taken care of! A teacher, again, doesn't have a shovel in her hand but she's got students that need to be taught!" It is so upsetting to think that we bailed out our banks, we bailed out our auto companies, but no one is bailing out our educational system! This is the most serious issue. You can have a bank fail, but if you don't educate our young people then you're talking about failure-not only of the economy but failure of our society, of our country.
We need a grassroots movement that organizes for women workers, that stands up and says, "Wait a minute, we're over here! We also need some of the stimulus money!"
I.M.O.W.: Many activists would contend that women can best find solutions to issues such as poverty because they experience them on a daily basis. Do you agree?
DOLORES HUERTA: In every one of our country's movements and struggles, women have always been at the forefront-whether it was the worker's movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement or of course the women's movement. Because women set the traditions for the family, they're in a very unique position to be able to come forward. Unfortunately, so many women are burdened with the work involved in family life that they feel they really can't find the time, even though we need their voices. Women need to understand that speaking out is as much a responsibility as it is to be a mother and a wife. As women we've got to find out what's happening in this world. Sometimes we have to then neglect other parts of our life. I would like to say in my own life, for every unmade bed, hopefully some farm worker family got a dollar an hour more in their wages, or got some relief out there from their work.
In Spanish they have a saying, "Es muy mujer!" What does that mean, "Muy mujer"? Literally it means "very much of a woman," but what does that mean? Well, that means that you're a good housekeeper! So we are going to change that. We are going to make "muy mujer" mean "a strong woman," a woman who is out there doing civic work and empowering other women. That's what we need to say about being "muy mujer," "very much of a woman."
I.M.O.W.: As an activist, have you seen that women are more ready to embrace leadership roles? And are men more ready to support them?
DOLORES HUERTA: Very much. Women evolve as leaders once they start to take on the work that gives them the skills to be leaders. And men, once they realize that their wife or their partner is not going to be there to do the cooking and cleaning, once men do it themselves or hire someone else to do it, then they definitely experience a change of mind-set. But a woman has to take a first step, and women, we don't like conflict. We don't want to take that step, because it's going to create some discomfort, some tension, but we just have to close our eyes and go forward.
People ask me, "How do you do everything that you do?" Do you know what I tell them? "Don't think about it." Because if you do, you start feeling responsible, thinking, "Oh, I just can't leave that sink full of dishes and that unmade bed." My mother told me something once that I think is very important. She said to me, "When you make a decision, think of the impact of that decision fifty years from today." Thinking of that helps with these decisions.
It's important with children too. A lot of mothers think, "Oh, I've got to give them all these toys to keep them entertained," but that's not what we ought to give our children. We need to give our children a love of social justice. Take those children out there on the marches. Talk to them about issues. They understand, even when they are little ones, they understand issues of justice because they are young and they are idealistic, so think of the impact you are going to have on that child fifty years from today.
I.M.O.W.: What kind of role has the leadership of women played in the farm workers' cause?
DOLORES HUERTA: The leadership of women was very important in the farm workers' movement. Of course, you had many women on the picket line, but I want to start with Cesar Chavez's wife Helen. Helen Chavez is not widely known, but Cesar never could have done what he did without Helen. She was his total support system. Helen was his fortress, his foundation, and she made it possible for him to do the work he did. But she was also engaged, she wasn't just a stay-at-home mom. Because we didn't have any money when we started organizing the union, Helen worked in the fields picking grapes and still managed her household with eight kids. When we started the first credit union for farm workers in the United States, Helen became the head. Helen, who had a high school degree! She didn't want to do it but she was drafted, we all voted for her. Cesar knew she was the one to keep our accounts straight. I think our credit union was started with something like three thousand dollars, but by the time that we merged with another credit union we had lent farm workers eleven million dollars of their own money. All those years, Helen directed the credit union, and with all of our audits, we never had anything wrong with the books in our credit union. She did an incredible job.
So, as we look at the movements, we know that women have always been at the forefront. But when the dust settled and when the positions were given out, what happened to the women? Often we would put women on the executive board and then they would resign! Why would you resign? I think that sometimes women have a hard time holding on to power or feel uncomfortable with it. They don't realize that once you have power, personal or collective power, you need to hang on to it and don't give it up so easily, because other women are depending on you!
I.M.O.W.: You have championed the philosophy of "grassroots" organizing. Does organizing at the grassroots bring forward more women's leadership?
DOLORES HUERTA: When you do grassroots organizing, women can definitely just step in there and take that leadership, because there aren't any prerequisites. The leadership goes to the people who do the work, and we know that women always do the work. In my own organization, the Dolores Huerta Foundation for community organizing, the grassroots organizing that we've done in the farm worker communities has sixty active leaders, and all but four are women. We don't discriminate against the men, but these are the people who step forward to do the work.
Grassroots organizing is when you go into a community and engage people that have never done anything and make them understand that they have the power to make changes. This is a very tedious type of organizing, because it's almost like a one-on-one. You meet in people's homes, give them that motivation and make them understand that they've got power.
If you invest in the people in a community and build that base, then once the funding is gone, your leadership is always there. It is through this--maybe we should call it "root organizing" instead of "grassroots organizing"--you really develop leadership. All of the sudden people realize, "Hey! I can be a leader! I have a voice! I can stand up before a city council, or a school board, I can protest, I can speak to the media!" Then, they are no longer afraid, they have courage and skills.
I.M.O.W.: What advice would you give an individual woman who wants to difference in her community?
DOLORES HUERTA: My advice to women is to get engaged. It's as simple as picking up the telephone and calling your local political representative. Watch the news, find out what's going on in the community, write a letter to the editor--these are simple empowering steps. There's always some kind of volunteer action that one can take. Just show up at a meeting, or help out with an environmental project. Everybody should go to a homeless shelter and help serve the homeless. I think that once a woman decides in her heart, in her gut, that she wants to do something, she has to just look around and see what the entry point is.
I.M.O.W.: What kind of leadership do we need in government at this time of economic crisis?
DOLORES HUERTA: We've got to be conscious and we've got to get feminists elected, men or women, because you don't have to be a woman to be a feminist. A feminist is somebody who cares about working people, cares about equal rights for women, cares about the environment, cares about our civil rights and our civil liberties. It's got to start from the bottom. We've got to ignore the media and ignore today's culture that makes women seem weak. We've got to make our women strong, make them understand that they can take these positions for the good of the country and for the good of the world.
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