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Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta has a message for young people who want to make an impact

Photo by Gage Skidmore

If you want to make a difference but don’t know where to start, activist, civil rights icon and Pacific alumna Dolores Huerta has the answers. She was only 25 when she decided that “enough is enough,” and she became a lead negotiator for marginalized farm workers at a time when women were not negotiating anything, especially not women of color. 

During her June 23 appearance for the Pacific Alumni Association’s Leading Voices series, Huerta talked with Pacific Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Mary J. Wardell-Ghirarduzzi about her journey and how we can harness our personal power to overcome setbacks and make a difference in the world. 

Huerta was born in New Mexico but her family moved to Stockton when she was 6 months old. From there, she began her journey in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the Central Valley, attended University of the Pacific and later taught in one of the local elementary schools. Today, the 91-year-old Huerta is known and celebrated as a community organizer, a human rights advocate and a role model to many young people, especially in the Latine, Black and Asian-American communities.  

Many people are familiar with the phrase popularized by Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign “Yes, we can.” But did you know that Huerta was its originator? She coined the famous slogan, Sí se puede — Spanish for “Yes, we can” — in the 1960s when she became Cesar Chavez’s collaborator and co-founder of the movement that eventually became the United Farm Workers of America union. (Obama acknowledged Huerta as the source of that phrase when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.) 

 True to the motto of the movement she helped create, Huerta stayed focused on empowering people and energizing them in the fight for human and civil rights. She admits that building momentum can be slow, but she believes that a grass root process is the way to go. Although often times you have to “meet in people’s homes, one family at a time, six to eight people at a time,” she says that is how you really get through to them. You have to talk to people and raise their awareness to “convince them that they had to commit to make the change.” 

You probably heard the saying “the change starts with you.” Huerta believes that, too. She says that to enlighten and empower others, first you must believe in yourself and find your voice. That is what she calls “people power.”  

“No one from the outside is going to come and do this for you,” she said. “You’ll have to do it for yourself. And that’s where the power comes from. And once people understand that, it’s almost miraculous because then they know that they have a voice.”  

Although in her long life Huerta has had many setbacks including misinformation and fear mongering, she claims she never gets discouraged. What keeps her going is the strength she finds in her commitment and the belief that she is doing a good thing helping people.   

“When bad things happen or you have people opposing you, you can always learn from them,” she said. “They also teach you lessons of how to overcome those challenges and how to overcome that opposition.”  

So, if you are ready to make a difference in the world and harness your own personal power, don’t wait, there are plenty of opportunities to make your voice heard.  

“Get involved becoming the activists, volunteer with an organization whether for the environment or LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights or feminist organization,” she said. “You can become missionaries going out there, organizing other people for them. And sometimes if they don’t hear your message the first time, just keep on trying because sometimes it takes seven times for the person to be able to really get the message but you’re planting the seed into the consciousness of the work that needs to be done.”

You can watch her entire Leading Voices interview here:


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