Wednesday, March 30, 2005 | For working families living in poverty, San Diego in 2005 is an increasingly tough place to make ends meet, much less to build a bright future for kids. Working families face impossibly rising housing, energy and gasoline prices; see their kids struggling in and eventually dropping out of school; and worry about the next health crisis around the corner. Local government, consumed with its own “crises” of debt and finger-pointing, seems too distracted to offer much hope to struggling families. A half century ago in a poor neighborhood in San Jose, a young Cesar Chavez was struggling to start his own family, facing his generation’s seemingly impossible challenges. The way he faced those challenges over the rest of his life, and the lessons he passed on to those close to him and to those he never met, offer a great deal of hope to everyone interested in a fair and decent future for San Diego.
San Diego is blessed with a relatively little known and under-appreciated asset. Like the cluster of Nobel Prize winners who helped build the University of California, San Diego and our local scientific community, a group of prominent Chavistas have devoted the bulk of their lives and careers to building locally critical and nationally recognized labor and community organizations. As young men and women, our local Chavistas had the great fortune to spend countless hours at Cesar’s side, learning directly from him the profession of organizing. Many of these Chavistas gathered on Good Friday at the Catfish Club, to celebrate Cesar’s life and their connection to it. I have had the great fortune to learn at the side of a few of them, and I asked these mentors how Cesar would approach San Diego’s current challenges.
Ken Seaton-Msemaji and Fahari Jeffers founded the United Domestic Workers in 1979, at Cesar’s request. From the time he founded the United Farm Workers in 1962, Cesar had searched for people willing to take on the parallel task of organizing domestic workers in California’s cities. Just as Cesar had repeatedly been told that organizing farm workers would be impossible, nobody accepted his challenge and offer of training and support to organize domestic workers, until Msemaji and Jeffers did so in the early ’70s. Three decades later, Msemaji serves as president and Jeffers as secretary-treasurer of the nation’s fastest growing union. The UDW represents over 70,000 homecare workers in 29 counties throughout the state, including just under 20,000 in San Diego County.
Msemaji and Jeffers, at the time community organizers in San Diego’s African-American community, were introduced to Cesar by his then assistant, Richard Ybarra. Ybarra, who grew up in Logan Heights and attended St. Augustine’s and San Diego State University, volunteered to work with the UFW in the summer of 1969, planning to return to school in the fall. His life changed permanently that summer. Ybarra not only committed to become a full-time volunteer with the UFW, working for $5 a week, but fell in love with and married Cesar’s daughter Anna. Ybarra spent the next six years traveling around the United States and the world as Cesar’s personal assistant. He went on to run the California Conservation Corps under Gov. Jerry Brown, to hold senior positions on Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, and to eventually return to San Diego to direct the Eureka program. Ybarra now runs a public affairs and organizational development consulting business with his four children, and serves as a senior advisor to Msemaji and Jeffers at the UDW.
David Valladolid grew up with Ybarra in Logan Heights, before becoming one of the great civil rights, as well as community, labor and political leaders in the history of San Diego. Valladolid became close with Cesar as President of CAFÉ de California, a state employees organization. Cesar provided Valladolid with close counsel as he worked not only to build the organization, but as he began to help Latinos organize for greater political and economic power in San Diego. Today, Valladolid serves as president and CEO of the Parent Institute for Quality Education, which has helped over 500,000 low-income and immigrant parents play an active role in the education of their children.
I started by asking Ken, Fahari, Richard and David what issue or issues Cesar would throw himself into if he were organizing in San Diego in 2005.
Fahari: “Cesar would be very disappointed in people’s current conditions, and would raise these conditions as a priority for everybody. The issues that Cesar focused on were the issues that mattered directly to people. He saw part of the job of leadership as paying attention to trends and issues that people might not yet be aware of, but he never got too far out in front. By staying close to people and listening to them, he would know which issues were most important.”
Ken: “Cesar would be focusing first and always on the problems, needs and aspirations of the working poor. Today, that means anything concerning homecare workers, janitors, hotel workers. He would support the living wage movement, and would likely develop an extensive series of programs and projects dealing with homelessness. He was ahead of his time in focusing not just on economic justice, but on economic empowerment. He would be helping poor people establish their own businesses and institutions, not just as a means of making money, but as a strategy to take control of their own lives.”
David: “For Cesar, the key to any issue would be how committed people are to it. The key is action – those issues that people care about, they will take action on. If the people aren’t willing to act, the issue would not be a priority for Cesar. He believed in both political democracy and economic democracy, and saw participation and ownership as critical to both. For farm workers, that meant eventually starting worker-owned co-ops. For parents of kids in our public schools today, that means participating and holding the schools and the school system accountable.”
Richard: “Cesar would see a major disconnect between the people governing and the people being governed today. Politics at all levels in this country is in a state of glamour – enamored with itself. Cesar would look past the fanfare, and ask how much people are actually affected by the issues politicians and the media focus on. Most of the people whose voices are heard today are going to be OK today, and OK tomorrow, no matter how any of this stuff plays out. Cesar would go to the people whose voices aren’t being heard, and would listen – especially to poor people. He knew firsthand that poor people aren’t dumb, just poor.”
What advice would Cesar give to working families struggling today?
David: “He’d remind people that we can’t sleepwalk in a democracy. Our democracy will only be a democracy if we force it to. And we must never accept injustice. Cesar had an incredible belief in the value of the common person, which our system has lost. People will always be strong as long as they speak for themselves.”
Fahari: “Cesar would help people approach the issues they care about strategically. He believed in drawing attention to issues in the present, while always organizing and building for the future. That could mean organizing a food bank to help people directly, while using the food bank to draw attention to the reality of hunger. And he would encourage people to vote, both because it’s a way of building power, and because it’s a personal act everyone can do.”
Richard: “Cesar would help build people’s courage to act. He would first ask people to do what they could for themselves, and to help those worse off. This would develop people’s confidence, and then he’d push people on all sides, including poor people, out of their comfort zones, and towards meeting and working with people they never met before.”
Ken: “He would show people that they’re not alone, by getting them involved with organizations like the Parent Institute, the Urban Corps and the Domestic Workers Homecare Center. But he’d make people see themselves as contributors, capable of helping someone else while receiving help themselves. And then he’d help them get organized and form networks and coalitions, so that they would succeed when they act.”
What advice would Cesar give to local political leaders and those in positions of influence?
Richard: “He’d direct them to the people for their salvation. He’d encourage the creation of citizen committees to address issues, but he’d keep people with horses in the race off of those committees. And he’d encourage leaders to put aside their own interests and propaganda, and just relax. Don’t be afraid to innovate. Organizations in every sector are learning to trust people, and are retooling to act on that trust. Politics needs to catch up.”
David: “Leadership should take on the role of encouraging a dialogue of all people. Cesar would connect all of these issues. He’d talk about the ripple effect that budget crises have on housing, health care and education. And he would point to ethical issues as a symptom of non-participatory politics.”
Ken: “Cesar would encourage leaders to look beyond their short-term self-interests and political battles, and to keep focused on what really matters to people. As an example, the UDW engaged in a 15-year war with [the Service Employees International Union] over who would get the opportunity to represent homecare workers in California. Now, we’re working together on forming a credit union available to homecare workers in both unions. In fact, even though the leaders of SEIU Local 434b in Los Angeles never met Cesar, I’ve said publicly that of any union in the country today that carries his vision forward, they are the closest. If we can get beyond 15 years of fighting and recognize a common vision, there’s a lesson there for others.”
Fahari: “Stay close to the people, and listen.”
Richard Barrera is the San Diego-Imperial Counties Regional Director for the United Domestic Workers of America. A proud graduate of El Cajon Valley High School, he holds a bachelors degree in history from UCSD and a masters in public policy from Harvard University.