On Wednesday, Oct. 26, civil rights activist and American labor leader Dolores Huerta came to campus to speak for the fall Political Awareness Committee event. The Lion’s Pause was packed with excited St. Olaf students, faculty, staff and Northfield community members by the time Huerta began her talk.
Throughout her life, Huerta has played an integral part in many efforts to improve the rights of marginalized populations in the United States. She began her activist career in Stockton, Calif., where she worked as a lobbyist for a branch of the Community Service Organization. It was there that she met César Chávez, with whom she organized what would later become the United Farm Workers (UFW).
Through the UFW, Huerta fought for the rights of farmworkers, eventually playing a key role in the Delano Grape Strike, one of the most prominent strikes in history. As a result of the strike, American consumers boycotted non-union grape companies, resulting in better working conditions and labor agreements for over 10,000 workers. Huerta has spent her life acting on her belief that all people are equally deserving of humane treatment and equal opportunity.
“I have always felt discriminated against [and] I have always felt inferior,” Huerta said. “As a person of color, I can tell you [racism] has always been here.”
Huerta demonstrated how deeply her worldview is rooted in United States history. She discussed numerous historical struggles, movements and tragedies, from genocide of American Indians during the colonial period to slavery.
“These are the things people have to learn, so that they know the history of the contributions of people of color [to the United States] … This country was built by people of color,” Huerta said.
Citing the fact that the White House was built by slaves, Huerta spoke about how her work has been shaped by the oppressive foundations of the U.S. She adopted this belief into her life’s work, beginning as a union organizer and continuing her career into the present as a public speaker and as president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Her passion for and dedication to her work began when she was exposed to the inhumane conditions of migrant workers.
Huerta used her life experiences to contextualize current social and political events in the United States. Born in 1930, Huerta has lived through some of the most transformative periods in U.S. history. From immigration reform to social security for public workers, Huerta has covered many of the most controversial and integral issues that threaten the rights and welfare of United States citizens on a daily basis. She emphasized the importance of labor unions when it comes to protecting workers from what she referred to as the “corporate powers of greed.”
“If it were not for labor unions, we would not have a 40 hour work week, we wouldn’t have minimum wages [and] we wouldn’t even have public education,” Huerta said. “[However], if our minimum wage had kept up with the cost of living, it would be 30 dollars an hour. There is no reason why people working really really hard should not have a comfortable life.”
To move forward as a country, Huerta argued that the United States needs more widespread education concerning these issues. The reality is that the world is changing, and inequalities will continue to be challenged by those affected by it.
“One of the reasons we have this huge ignorance in our society is because we don’t have ethnic studies in our schools,” Huerta said. “Ethnic studies, women’s studies and labor studies should not be electives, they should be requirements.”
Huerta believes that as it stands, the U.S. population is not aware enough about the intricacies of inequality in its own country. She challeneged audience members to become involved in social justice in any way they can.
She said it is okay that not everybody wants to go into activist work, as all occupations have value and importance. However, she advised that if everybody could just find one issue to be passionate and active about, change could be a much more attainable goal.
In closing, Huerta reminded the audience of the importance of selflessness and sacrifice.
“[No matter what you want to be], don’t just think about being a millionaire, because as much as you can earn, you can only eat three meals a day. Think about the legacy of justice you leave behind.”