Chávez – Organising for Humanity

The rich have money – the poor have time. (César Chávez)

Cesar Chavez - statue at Austin by wallyg CC FlickrFor some time, I have been aware of other figures than Saul Alinsky who have taken forward the community organising tradition and made it their own. One of those is César Chávez (1927-1993),a Mexican-American who has become deeply influential in the West and Southern states and who has become known as one of the greatest civil rights leaders in American history. You should please read more about his life and work by following the leads below but I wanted here to write about his legacy and how it might shape organising in the UK.

Wrestling for Justice

Chávez was a firm believer in the principles of non-violence struggling for justice with only the weapons of peace. He stood up for the rights of hundreds of thousands of farm workers and helped them achieve the dignity, fair wages, benefits and humane working conditions of citizens. Born in humble surroundings, he went on to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) which became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in which he campaigned for poor people throughout the American continent through strikes, boycotts, marches and eventually even before the US House of Representatives. His ethnic background as a Latino man gave him a special place in the affections of Mexican-Americans to this day; he is remembered in three US states on César Chávez Day, his birthday 31 March each year.

The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating. (César Chávez)

Chávez fought for the rights of rural workers who were ignored by the legislation of the time. They were often migrant and low-paid, with appalling conditions as a result. in 1965, he was at the centre of the Delano Grape Strike which called for a boycott of Californian table grapes across the world and after five long years of conflict, brought the growers to negotiate a contract with the workers guaranteeing them the state minimum wage. Chávez stood against the demeaning of the farm workers and the way in which their family lives were crushed by the behaviour of the growers. The actions of the union called the growers back to their part in the common good and held them responsible for the poverty and exploitation of the rural community.

Humanity at stake

Today in London’s most excluded communities there are many who work two and sometimes three jobs just to feed their family. Many travel long distances to humiliating work that puts their lives at risk and are paid less than it costs to feed and clothe a family of four. The least in our society are often the cleaners and the kitchen staff who remain hidden from most people by their role and their oppression. Often from other cultures and languages, these most vulnerable of workers are badly served by the union movement, often unrepresented or poorly resourced and always in fear of losing their job for having an opinion. We need to live in solidarity with such dispossessed workers and fight for their rights to a living wage, safe working conditions, a family life and the right to organise. Their humanity is OUR business.

Community organizing is very difficult. You can’t put it in the freezer for a couple of years and then thaw it out and you’re in business again. (César Chávez)

Chávez was a deeply committed man who was thrown into prison on several occasions. He also followed one of his inspirations Gandhi in undertaking spiritual fasts as both an act of penance and of non-violence. As a devout Catholic, his personal investment in the struggle was exceptional but it shows he was immersed in the concerns of the people. He actively sought to embody his belief and principles in his own life and to link his whole life with the cause.

Making the political personal

For community organisers today, the attitude to the work is profoundly important. Is the organiser hired to do a job or is their work a vocational act of solidarity and defiance? The reality is that organisers approach their work with a mixture of these two. Many seek to fill the bellies of their family first and having any job is a blessing in deprived communities. Many again see organising as a step on a career path, giving them the experience that will inform their career choices in future. A few see their role as organisers as a lifetime commitment which dominates their values and perspective and a few again have conviction of a ‘calling’ or vocational aspect to their work, that a higher good provides meaning to their organising. Motivation is as varied as the organiser profession but Chávez’ example causes me to reflect on how I view my organising.

Being of service is not enough. You must become a servant of the people. (César Chávez)

Our understanding of service today is highly coloured by history and the market. We talk of ‘service industries’, of ‘public service’ and ‘table service’. But Chávez took a deeper line on service. He saw that being of service retained a distance, a control. And he saw that ordinary farm workers understood that you had not given over yourself to the will of the people. Being in service comes from a different place. Becoming a ‘servant of the people’ delivers the service not from a place of superior knowledge or truth but from the experience of the people themselves. It bends the organiser’s will to the purpose and values of the community with whom he or she is working. Being of service is a temporary state whilst being a servant is a permanent objective.

Listen to the past

Chávez was no saint and made mistakes on the way. But he saw an essence of organising – and wrote and spoke about it extensively – that few understand today. I have been inspired by reading his words and I recommend them to my readers. Organising in the UK would be very different if we took César Chávez as one of our examples and as an inspiration.

Resources

César Chávez (2008) An Organizer’s Tale – Speeches Penguin Classics

Wikipedia Cesar Chavez  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cesar_Chavez (Accessed 18 Nov 2012)

Frank Bardacke (2012) Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers  Verso (Reprint)

United Farm Workers (n.d.) The Story of Cesar Chavez – the official biography from Chavez own union

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3 Responses to Chávez – Organising for Humanity

  1. Andy Gregg says:

    Great post Mark. I had forgoten Chavez and will now check him out again. Keep up the great service!

  2. Peter Durrant says:

    Great, and although with others I am now retired we’re still, stubbornly, trying to interest key figures within the third and local authority sectors in Cambridge to think critically and well about community social work and community development theory and practice. But, working from the outside, is incredibly hard work although a group I am working with, and we are all unpaid, on realife.org.uk is (a) currently trying to buy a pub to use for community and educational use (b) we have some interest in a really helpful middle-management lady who is interested in the Bromley-by-Bow Health Clinic approach (c) I’m increasingly interested in the work of family conference groups who seem to have so much to offer to us all (d) after fifteen years our credit union might, with luck, be merging with others and (e) the more radical interpretation of personalisation theory seems, and we some good examples here in Cambridge where a mother is employing eight personal assistants to care for the considerable needs of her, again to represent a more radical approach as it, hopefully, develops in a generic fashion. Any interest anywhere around people who are ageing continuing to make a shared contribution? Peter Durrant. 01223 415597

    • Mark Parker says:

      Hi Peter – thanks for your comment. I am sure that there are many of my readers who would share your concern to see the considerable contribution of older volunteers valued and developed still further. In an aging population, we will be more active for longer and the voluntary labour of people of experience will be critical to tackling our community challenges. I am not sure how I can help with your group’s project in Cambridge but I wish you well with trying to bring real and lasting change to such a diverse community.

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