Famed labor rights leader Dolores Huerta discussed her decades-long work in political organization and civil rights activism at a virtual event hosted by the JFK Jr. Forum and Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership Tuesday.
The event — moderated by VICE News Correspondent and CPL Hauser Leader Paola Ramos— coincided with National Voter Registration Day, a holiday to created to promote awareness about voter registration and civic engagement.
Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers Association in the 1960s with Cesar Chavez, said mass civic activism is necessary for change.
“We have a democracy in the United States, but the only way that democracy can work is if everybody participates,” she said.
Huerta also explained how political organizing works to solve the issues facing marginalized populations, citing her accomplishments in activism.
“We had one situation where the superintendent of schools was dipping into the money that didn't belong to him,” Huerta said. “Our committees were able to get some people elected to the school board and they finally got rid of them.”
“We find all of these things that are going wrong, and a lot of people don't know that they have the power to go to the school boards and say, ‘This is wrong,’” she added
Huerta also spoke about the obligation of the United States to provide aid to neighboring countries, referencing the current humanitarian crisis in Haiti.
“We in the United States should be reaching out to them and helping them in any way that we can,” Huerta said. “We are the richest country in the world. And yet, all of our neighbors to the south, instead of us uplifting them and helping them, we oppress them and take advantage of them.”
Huerta encouraged audience members to build coalitions and to not fear becoming involved in activism at all levels.
“It takes courage to reach out to people,” Huerta said. “But you can always start the conversation by saying, ‘Hey, don't you think that we should do something about climate change?’”
Even persuading a peer to call an elected official is a form of organizing, she argued.
“When you do that you get one person to call, then you become an organizer, you become an activist,” Huerta said.
She also urged activists — particularly those working on the issue of immigration reform — to persevere in their fight.
“We can never lose hope, because the only time that we lose is when we quit, and we're not going to quit,” she said. “We're going to keep going till we get it.”
Yet, Huerta — who has 11 children — acknowledged the sacrifices that are required of activists and their families.
“My kids are the ones who sacrificed because they didn't have the wonderful kind of an upbringing that I had,” she said. “What they got in return was experiences: adventures, meeting very famous people, being involved, and they grew up in a movement.”
“The one thing that you have to understand, when you are being an activist, you are making history,” Huerta added.
—Staff writer Joshua S. Cai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.