In September of 2014 West Leadership Academy students attended a presentation at the second annual America’s Latin Eco-Festival (ALEF) with a focus on the contributions of Cesar Chavez in the environmental and social movements against industrial corporate agriculture in the 1960s.
Around 580 WLA students crowded into an art gallery in the McNichols Civic Center for the presentation organized especially for this event by ALEF Associate Director Kendra Sandoval. A celebrity panel led by activist writers, actors, comedians, and Chavez friends and family led the day-long presentation and discussion:
- Rick Najera- Broadway star, award winning author, and CBS producer of Diversity Comedy Showcase
- Edward James Olmos - Actor & Activist
- Andrew Revkin - DotEarth, NY Times, author of The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest
- Denise Zmekhol - Filmmaker, Children of the Amazon
- Cesar Chavez Family - Liz Chavez and David Villarino
- Dolores Huerta - civil-rights activist, recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Although Cesar Chavez is principally known as a civil rights activist who fought for farmworker’s rights, his work to protect the workers was just as important as protecting the health of the larger community. According to Dolores Huerta, their cry to the public to help the union make the fields safer would in turn make the food safer for the wider public. This marked a pioneering moment in the organic food movement, especially for Latinos, as pesticides were the greatest threat to the farmworker and the consumer of the poisoned food.
The day’s discussions included Edward James Olmos’ call to the students to meet the challenge of acting as if all life has value and should be protected. He stated that greed is destroying our environment and creating a dire situation for all living things. He charged the students with a sense of urgency; that there is great work to be done in order to create a just world. Olmos voiced the students’ need to work with their community to solve problems by working with their peers and their teachers. According to Olmos, his generation has knowledge accumulated over years to change the world, but the youth is our hope since they are the future. The youth should learn from their elders because without knowledge, they are hopeless. Olmos went on to explain that our elders include the aging, wise members from the community, but also our teachers. The teachers should be honored because they are responsible for the success of the future. Gesturing to the students, he bellowed, “Without hope, knowledge dies!” If never before inspired to be passionately dedicated to a goal, this message flipped a switch in the heart of everyone in the room. Students were ready to take on any challenge.
The task may seem daunting with such an overwhelming burden laid upon our youth. Seemingly representing the students’ collective thoughts, a Leadership junior stood and asked the panel where to begin. Dolores answered by using her own experience as a model. She advised students to identify a problem, organize a group to break a problem into manageable challenges, and inspire others to take leadership roles. By building a community around an issue, people embolden each other and the burden becomes lighter. A younger student then stood and asked how to be courageous enough to act upon our ideals. Dolores said to begin the work as if it’s a workout. “It may be uncomfortable at first- it may cause you to feel ansioso, but the more you try, the stronger you’ll become. Eventually the verguenza of accessing the public and trying to change people’s minds turns to pride as you fight for something you believe in.” Dolores calls this gained quality of the activist “emotional fortitude.” She closed by leading the audience in a chant that expressed the simple message of where the power to change truly lies: Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power! What kind of power? People power! Oh, and years ago she also wrote the now famous slogan, “Si, se puede/ Yes we can!” Here at West Leadership Academy, we truly do believe we can.
Without focusing students on any particular goal, yet stating many important environmental and social issues that damage our living community, the panel led the second half of the presentation toward more concrete steps to guide students toward success in their activism. Among the essential elements of a game-changing activist, the panel advised students to lead by example. “If someone sees you doing something great, they’ll follow you.” They also cited Aristotle’s adage that in order to be a good leader, you need to be a good follower. Again they emphasized the youth’s need to take advice from the sages of the community; to do the best they can for their teachers and, eventually, graduate college. In the most impassioned moment of the presentation Olmos stood and asked everyone to raise their hand if they were going to college. He then scoured the room for anyone who refrained, then reasoned with them until they agreed that college is the best start for a chance at success in life. Olmos’ final advice for students is to follow his example. “I had the discipline to do what I loved, even when I didn’t want to.”