Labor activist Dolores Huerta: Pacific influenced my life and the importance of organizing

Dolores Huerta

Labor rights icon Dolores Huerta is a Stockton native and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Pacific in 2010. 

Labor rights icon Dolores Huerta is not afraid to speak truth to power and at age 91 the lifelong activist shows no signs of slowing down.

Still a volunteer in the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which she established in 2003, Huerta remains committed to empowering communities and shared her youthful passion with University of the Pacific at the Alumni Association’s most recent Leading Voices event.

“She continues to organize communities even now in the Central Valley that have a global effect,” said Mary Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, who interviewed Huerta.

Huerta said growing up in Stockton, where her friends and neighbors were from all corners of the world, and attending Pacific had an impact on her trajectory as an activist and organizer.

“University of Pacific had such a great influence on my life,” she told the online audience.

“My introduction to art and to music came from the university because they brought all these symphonies and they brought all of these great artists.”

Huerta, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Pacific in 2010, attended Delta College (then a part of Pacific) in the early ’50s, where she earned a teaching credential. She touched on many topics in the interview, including her time as an organizer, and how people can start a movement and get involved.
Her roots in community organizing

Wardell-Ghirarduzzi asked the trailblazing Latina about her work co-founding the Agricultural Workers Association and why it was important for her to organize the farmworkers to fight oppression.

Farmworkers were so mistreated and injured, Huerta said. Stockton was the hub for agricultural workers and that’s why the Agricultural Workers Association was started—to protect Mexican farmworkers. Huerta visited the fields and fought against policies that further hurt migrant workers. In 1962, she helped co-found the United Farm Workers union and played a critical role in many of the union’s accomplishments for four decades.

“Organizing—the way that we had to do it back in the day and the way we still have to do it today—is when you have to sit down with people so they can understand what the problem is,” she said. “And this is the way we organized the farm workers.”

“They have to understand they have the power, but if they do not commit some of their time and some of their resources to build an organization, it’s not going to happen, nothing is going to change,” she said. “No one from the outside is going to come in and do this for you. You have to do it yourself. And that’s where the power comes from.”

Protests and marches are necessary to get the message out to organize people, but things have to become a statute, Huerta said. Changes have to be put into law so that law can be implemented and enforced and people can be held accountable.

The intersection of race and gender

“You’ve paved the road for me as I try to pave it for others,” Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said, asking Huerta what she would say to young women coming behind them. “We all stand on the shoulders of women like you.”

“We need to teach our young women that they can speak for themselves, no one should get in the way and never be afraid to take leadership,” Huerta said.

If there’s a job they aspire to do, they should not feel as though they are not ready to take the job, Huerta said.

Huerta quoted Coretta Scott King: “We will never have peace in the world until women take power.” She said she would change the word women to feminist. If there is a board meeting somewhere and it is all men and not an equal number of feminists at that table, they are going to make the wrong decision, Huerta added.

The long path to justice

Wardell-Ghirarduzzi asked Huerta about what she says to herself when she becomes discouraged, particularly in an era of misinformation and fearmongering.

“We know we have a lot of work to do and we have a lot of people that need healing in our society,” Huerta answered. “Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that racism is a sickness and I see the work that we’re doing—and this is what we say to our organizers—that we have to be the healers.

“I never get discouraged … The path to justice is a very long path and people get in your way and even from your opponents and people standing in your way they also teach you lessons of how to overcome those challenges and how to overcome those oppositions.”

Leading with purpose

“My purpose … I just want to organize as many people as I can so we can bring justice to our world,” Huerta said. “And I know we can do that.”

“We can create a just society,” she said. “We can make it happen. Sí se puede.”

It’s important to have Huerta speak to the Pacific community, Wardell-Ghirarduzzi said. What is happening today is not new. Her words are “timely, innovative, very relevant.”

The inspiring conversation ended with Huerta’s iconic chant, "Sí se puede," and the group in unison:

“Who’s got the power?”

“We’ve got the power.”

“What kind of power?”

“People power.”

To watch a recording, visit the Alumni Association’s website