The co-founder of the labor union that would become the United Farm Workers (UFW), Dolores Huerta is a legendary figure, and the slogan she developed for UFW, Sí, se puede (roughly translated as “yes we can”), spurred generations to fight for labor and civil rights.
On Tuesday night, the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics hosted Huerta in conversation with journalist and HKS alumna Paola Ramos MPP 2015. Ramos, currently a Hauser Leader at HKS’s Center for Public Leadership, began the conversation by admitting that being an activist, especially lately, can be overwhelming. “I've been on the road a lot. I'm tired. Every time I feel a little bit inclined to give up, I literally have found myself asking ‘what would Dolores Huerta do in this moment?’” Ramos said. “The response is always the same one: she would be keep running faster than me, and she would probably end the sentence saying, ‘yes, you can keep going.’”
Acknowledging that her history of activism and the rallying cry of Sí, se puede have influenced many, including Barack Obama, Huerta also brought attention to current work that The Dolores Huerta Foundation for Community Organizing is doing, particularly in education reform. “We just settled a lawsuit in Bakersfield, California--Kevin McCarthy’s district,” Huerta said. “We filed the lawsuit because the high school expelled 2,000 Black and Brown students in one year. The settlement requires the district to examine their implicit bias against kids of color and sets benchmarks they have to meet for improvement.”
“It's just paying attention and then getting involved. When you do that, then you become an organizer, you become an activist.”
Huerta’s foundation is also focused on protecting the well-being of immigrant children in the school districts. “One district had $300,000 that they were going to put into more police on the campuses in the elementary school,” she explained. “Well, we don't want that. We told them that money needs to go for counselors, for smaller class sizes, for nurses, but not for more police. For more social workers, not for more police."
Ramos asked Huerta what she thought when she saw images from the U.S.-Mexico border where agents were attacking immigrants from horseback. “People forget this about you, Dolores,” Ramos noted, “that the San Francisco Police Department brutally attacked you in 1988, they broke your ribs and ruptured your spleen while you were demonstrating. When you see these images of brutality still happening today, do you wonder if is this who we are as a country?”
Huerta paused before answering. “Yes. This is who we are as a country,” she said. “Democratic Representative Karen Bass and Republican Senator Tim Scott were trying to do something about police misconduct with their bipartisan bill addressing police reform (also with Democratic Senator Cory Booker). It failed, it failed. Then, you think of all of the people that were marching after George Floyd was murdered, all of the young people all over the country, all over the United States, all over Europe demanding justice and to do something about police misconduct. And yet their bill failed in the Senate of the United States of America. Yes, I think the answer to the question, Paola, is yes, that is who we are.”
But Huerta, always moving forward, was not content to let the conversation stop there. “I think the other question we have to ask is this: Is this who we are going to continue to be? Or are we going to rise up, and are we going to change this?” she asked. “There might be a solution which means that all of us have to get in there, register to vote, get city council people elected that actually have our values and save that money we're putting out there for the police and use it for more teachers, more counselors, more support systems, more social workers, and stop militarizing the police.”
Ramos also emphasized moving forward, noting that the American public largely supports a comprehensive immigration reform plan, and there seems to be a chance that Congress will pass one. The challenge, Huerta believes, will be in the Senate: “We see that they're struggling right now to pass the Build Back Better Act, which is going to bring universal childcare, it's going to expand healthcare, give two years of community college for everyone.” She said, “We see that act is struggling to pass in the Senate right now as we speak, and they have not even included immigration reform. I think it's going to take a while.” But Huerta doesn’t think it's hopeless. “I would just say, we just have to keep working. We have places like Texas. Latinos in the recent census are now shown to be, if not the majority, very near the majority of the state of Texas,” she said. “And today is National Voter Registration Day. We have to do everything we can to create a culture of voting.”
Above all, Huerta wants to be remembered as an organizer, because an organizer makes things happen. “It's just paying attention and then getting involved. When you do that, you get one person to call, then you become an organizer, you become an activist,” she said. “It only takes a little part of one's day to do that. People use the word ‘icon’ to describe me. My youngest son says ‘Mom, you’re not an icon. You’re an I-can!’ I think that’s what we all have to do. We have to be ‘I-cans.’”
You can watch this special Forum celebrating Latinx Heritage Month here.
Banner image: Dolores Huerta with Monica Ramirez MC/MPA 2015 on the 50th anniversary of the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.