That was the tenor of the keynote speech by the longtime civil rights activist Tuesday night, as a full house of close to 400 parents and children skipped the State of the Union address to hear from Huerta at Graham Middle School. Although best known for her work with Cesar Chavez in co-founding the National Farm Workers Association (formerly the United Farm Workers) in the 1960s and fighting for the rights of migrant workers in California, she remains active.
She and her foundation have taken a particular interest in making sure the state's schools receive enough funding to compete with the rest of the country, and that school boards and district administrators are spending money appropriately and engaging the broader community, regardless of income, language and ethnicity.
What that looks like in practice is an intimate, grassroots effort to organize parents at the local level, meeting in families' homes to talk about how the education system and disciplinary system works in the U.S. Many immigrant families take a hands-off approach to education and opt not to interfere with teachers, she said, but parents need to get involved to make sure their children are represented.
"We need the parents to also be there to support the teachers, and to help them," she said. "The parents have a big responsibility to make sure the students get all the help that they need."
Taking a passive approach to childhood education could mean missing out on resources. Huerta pointed out that California's framework for education funding sets aside extra money for students who don't speak English or come from low-income families, but the money isn't always spent for those purposes by local school boards. The process is supposed to include families from all walks of life in a community engagement process, but that doesn't always happen, she said.
When asked by Crittenden student Sofia Munoz Cruz about her foundation's work, Huerta said they recently discovered one school district in the Central Valley had an absurdly high rate of suspensions and expulsions that appeared to disproportionately target African American and Latino students. The foundation took part in a lawsuit against the district, which ultimately ended in a settlement in 2017.
Huerta repeatedly emphasized to parents that education is the foundation of a functional democracy, and that an uninformed and uneducated public will inevitably lead to a society run by the powerful, the greedy and the corrupt. Similar to organizing farmworkers, she said families need to make their voices heard through public demonstrations, but it needs to lead to real results — voting in the right people and getting the right legislation passed. She mentioned her recent participation in the teacher strikes last month in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where teachers reported getting stuck with classes of 40 students, which led to a historic deal aimed at class size reductions, raises and other improvements.
"We the people have the power to make the changes, and the things that we're talking about — passing the laws — that's what we did," she said. "We did the marching, we did the strikes, but ultimately we passed the laws."
Huerta's talk was part of the Mountain View Whisman School District's ongoing series of events called the Mountain View Parent University, which provides parenting- and school-focused workshops in both English and Spanish — along with child care and transportation — to families in the district. While Huerta focused on the importance of education and parent involvement, her rich history as a community organizer for labor rights was hard to leave out.
While Chavez was working with the Community Services Organization in San Jose in the 1960s, Huerta said she was busy working with the same organization in Stockton fighting to make it legal for green card holders to access public assistance, including disability and health care benefits that today reach 15 million people. She said she helped successfully push legislation extending unemployment insurance to farmworkers through the state Legislature three times — only to have it vetoed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan — and it took a change in leadership under Jerry Brown in the 1970s to finally get it signed into law.
More recently, she said the state won a big victory in Proposition 30, which boosted state funding for schools and was extended in 2016 through Proposition 55. The next frontier, she said, is scaling back Proposition 13 protections for commercial and industrial properties under a voter initiative called the California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act, which is expected to be on the ballot in 2020. The bill could bring as much as $11 billion in extra funding for education, she said.
"We're at the bottom of all of the states in the amount of money that we spend for every student, that we spend in our school system, and that is wrong," she said. "We all have to work very hard that we make sure to pass those initiatives."
Closing out the evening was a chant of Huerta and Chavez's most well-known slogan, "si se puede," which was later adopted in English as "yes we can" for former President Barack Obama's campaign in 2008. She recalled how she was fighting to rally Latino support in Arizona against a law that jailed farmworkers on strike, and how it was difficult to get the so-called "professional Latinos," like attorneys, to join in. They would tell her they couldn't do that — no se puede — but she refused to take no for an answer.
"They would say you can do that (protest) in California, but you can't do that in Arizona — no se peude — and I would say yes you can! Si se puede!" she said.
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