I see my job as, first, letting immigrant workers know they have rights — and then helping them learn how to exercise these rights and “take action.” Our program uses “Popular Education” methods. We encourage participants to surface the knowledge they already have and build upon it, practicing new skills and then applying these skills to solve problems they’re facing at work. Role playing and interactive activities allow people to learn with and from each other.
We give workers a range of options, since they face unique situations in terms of risks and resources. As a first step, they may be willing to simply document a problem, something that involves zero risk. Next, they may go to a meeting with other workers to discuss the situation or get help from an organization. They then might be ready to talk to a manager, file a complaint with an agency, or talk to the media or public officials or shareholders. Some workers become ready to organize other workers or lead campaigns.
You’re also not waiting for people to become adults before they learn how to speak up. You’ve written a bilingual children’s book about immigrant rights. Why?
As a parent of school-aged kids and as a former teacher, I have faith in the next generation. I want children to feel needed as participants in democracy. The starting point is asking: “What do you find meaningful? What changes do you want to see?” Then, they need information and help developing the skills — like story-telling or talking about the problems with others — to make those changes a reality. Teaching how to participate actively in a healthy democracy should be like teaching basketball, with real-life demonstrations and hands-on practice. Don’t give lectures, no boring blah blah blah.
Children’s books need more than just more diversity in their characters. I wrote my book because we need more books that help young people question the systems, policies, and laws behind the situations individual characters face. One example: Many books talk about the immigrant experience, but not many children’s books invite kids to change the policies that affect immigrant workers and Dreamers.
Books can be mirrors, windows, or magnifying glasses that expand our vision in so many ways. I want children to realize that they can lead, they can make the rules, they can create a better world.
Are you feeling optimistic about stopping “life theft?”
Yes! COVID has elevated the issue of health and safety for “essential workers.” Workers — including immigrant workers — are demanding that their lives be considered just as valuable as the lives of owners and investors. They’ve shifted the narrative. Employers can no longer normalize worker deaths and injuries and act like there’s nothing they can do.
But we need to remember that stopping “life theft” needs to involve all of us — as consumers, voters, community members — and not just workers. Anyone who buys fruit or goes to a clean office or uses electronics has a responsibility here. These workers are our relatives, our neighbors, our people. We’re all responsible for saving workers’ lives.