Thank You, César Chávez
The Claremont Colleges don’t cancel class that often – I’m pretty sure we’ve never had a snow day, and even Presidents Day evades recognition. But there’s always been that Friday at the end of March when the dining halls serve brunch and professors don’t hold office hours. Since this is my first year actually having a Friday class – thank you, science GE – I’d like to take a moment to honor the man we are celebrating this March 30: César Chávez.
For those of you who didn’t attend California public schools, Chávez was a Latino civil rights hero who brought national attention to the plights of farm workers. In the 1960s and 70s, working conditions and wages for the men and women who grew our nation’s produce were pitiful. Chávez, along with Dolores Huerta, stepped in to form the United Farm Workers of America. To make their union effective, Chávez and Huerta didn’t just sign workers up for their cause – they built connections and asked for a deeper commitment. The union’s most prominent action was the table grape boycott. To gain national support for their cause, striking grape growers travelled throughout the country to share their stories. In 1970, grape growers contracted with the union and workers won their rights.
In this spirit, Pomona’s dining hall workers have been trying to unionize for the past two years. And while I support their cause, I think we can all agree that the working conditions in Frary are far superior to those in California’s grape fields in the 1960s. Especially as students, we’re fortunate not to face struggles on the level of those experienced by the farm workers. But when we leave the Claremont bubble, many of us will go on to advocate for social change. In doing so, we must resist the temptation to restrict our activism to creating – or worse, simply sharing – a YouTube video. While we may spend more time on Facebook than interacting with our real-life friends, Chávez’s organizing strategy of face-to-face connection-building is still the most effective way to gather support for a cause.
Which brings me to Kony 2012. Controversy aside, releasing a 30-minute video about an overseas, multi-decade conflict that has generally evaded mass-media attention and having it go viral overnight is impressive. If its goal was to make Joseph Kony famous, the campaign has been successful. Similarly, Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign reaches LGBTQ teens who may not otherwise hear a supportive message – that’s an innovative and productive use of digital communication. But neither campaign involves the shoe-leather, grassroots organizing that made Chávez’s advocacy successful. And that’s why they’ll only skim the surface of the larger problems.
On the second anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, I joined the Twittersphere in saying #ThanksObamacare. My tweet was picked up by a GOP parody account and re-tweeted by 50+ strangers. That may have been great for my Klout score, but I doubt my tweet actually influenced any of those people. Comparatively, about a month ago I attended an Obama campaign volunteer training in the Claremont village. I was asked to share why I personally support the president – and my story made a woman cry. That’s the kind of connection that promotes progress, whether to unionize farm workers or reelect Barack Obama.
This César Chávez Day, let’s commemorate Chávez’s legacy by remembering that achieving social change takes hard work. Tweet all you want – but tell your story to your roommate, too.