Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Alexandra Whittington's scenario for schools that nurture children, that foster creative ideas and embody a collective spirit that affirms a public education system in the public good seems almost too idealistic to achieve.  The onslaught of criticism against the public's schools, used to justify drastic spending cuts, which then in circular force create the very weaknesses the critics claimed is more than a cynical attack on our teachers and on our communities' schools.  What seemed to be misguided, but hopefully short-lived,  policies to standardize are in fact the strategic tools to weaken, subvert, and ultimately privatize this valued public institution, this building block of democracy.

The task to hold onto, much less strengthen and make more equitable, our public schools seems impossible.  But we are not without models of courage against unthinkable odds, people whose basic, and to them unremarkable, sense of justice moved them to action. Even when that action seemed quixotic at best, futile at worst.

Dolores Huerta is my inspiration.  If the task of holding onto and enriching our public schools for all children seems daunting, Dolores Huerta shows us what it takes when no institution is even in place to serve the public interest:  everything has to be imagined, created, protected, and then sustained even for people to have their basic rights.  Rights for farm workers to organize for fair and safe working conditions, for bathrooms and drinking water out in the fields, for protection from toxic chemicals being sprayed from airplanes only feet above the workers and the children laboring beside them. A basic right to have a voice in one's daily work -- and the power of a collective voice.

I had the extraordinary honor of meeting and spending time with Dolores Huerta when she came to Houston in 2013 to confer the Rothko Chapel's Oscar Romero Human Rights Award to a courageous young woman organizing factory workers in her native Mexico.   This past August, the capstone of my summer was attending a People for the American Way event in Santa Fe where Dolores Huerta, a member of PFAW's board, spoke passionately in defense of democracy.  She radiated optimism about what it will take to reclaim --to enact -- democracy for those who are excluded, marginalized, and systemically oppressed because of their race, geography, recentness of immigration, language or other signifier used to justify a denial of voting rights or erecting of barriers to higher education or exclusion from civic participation.  Optimism because she's seen it all before -- and she's seen what collective action can do.

I love the story of "Sí Se Puede."  This was not a pre-emptive shout of victory. And it definitely wasn't created in a consultant's focus group!   Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and others from the California United Farm Workers group had been asked to go to Arizona, where worker conditions were even worse and the large agricultural owners even more intransigent, dominating a legislature and governor that not only banned organizing and strikes during the harvest season, but declared that (legally) "these people don't exist." Dolores and her colleagues were asked to assess the situation, advise on strategy, and inspire workers to keep organizing. The more they saw of the situation, the more hopeless it seemed.

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As Dolores recounts it, as Chavez fasted and workers' conditions became more dire, the overwhelming sense of futility became a chorus of "no se puede," essentially, "we can't do anything -- nothing can be done..." for the Arizona workers.  Almost as a sigh more of obligation than of hope, Dolores Huerta uttered "Yes, we can --  sí, se puede."  Her words were echoed back beyond her expectation as the Arizona farm workers shouted:"sí, se puede" and pursued their daunting course of organizing for their rights.

Now proud to declare she's in her 80's, Dolores Huerta brings her unstoppable energies to such national forces for justice as People for the American Way and to her own foundation
whose mission is the future:  specifically, working to assure an academically rich, equitable education for the youth in the Central Valley of California where she lives and confronts poverty and injustice and barriers with courage, no small amount of creativity and persistence, and always a smile and almost mischievous twinkle in her eye -- contagious courage and enduring inspiration.

We'll need no less as we pursue a vision of culturally rich, democratically governed, child-nurturing schools for our communities.  Gracias, Dolores.

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