Reflection Pool: Striking and Growing as Community Engagement with Brenda Rodriguez
Striking and Growing as Community Engagement
Eight years ago, I started my journey as an organizer within the labor movement. At the time, I was beginning my Ph.D. in Chicana feminist literature at the University of San Antonio, Texas. While I was supposed to be reading for my doctoral program, I found myself drawn to the experiences of hotel housekeepers and food service workers. I was at an Occupy Wall Street campaign meeting when I first met union organizers for Unite Here!, a union of hotel and food service workers. I learned from workers of Aramark and the Hyatt about the ways in which they were often ignored and mistreated. During the day, I drove from house to house learning about each worker’s unique struggle, and at night I read about Emma Tenayuca, the strike committee chair of the Pecan Shellers’ Strike of 1938. The strike began when 12,000 pecan shellers went on strike for the reduction of 5 cents per pound to 3 cents. A majority of the workers of the Southern Pecan Shelling Company were Mexican women, and the strike was created to protest yet another wage reduction. The Pecan Shellers’ Strike resonated with me for many reasons. It mirrored the fight that many women of color continue to face within the global supply chain, but most importantly it highlights the power of collective action.
So, there I was, inspired by the many brave members of Unite Here! and the pecan shellers, when I decided to drop out of my doctorate program to start my journey as a labor organizer.
After Texas, I moved to New Mexico as the member coordinator for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. During one of my “know your rights” workshops, I met dairy workers whose biggest issue was not wage related like the pecan workers, but even more immediate. Employees were suffering from irritation and headache after using a new disinfectant on the job. They had asked the owner of the dairy for gloves or protective gear, and he responded with, “Quieres guantes? Ahí está la puerta! (You want gloves? There’s the door!).” We were able to help them file an OSHA claim and the owner received hefty penalties for this treatment. During this campaign, I learned that we could change workplace practices, but the fight was long, slow, and not exactly the immediate change we desperately need.
In the years that followed I spent my time leading issue campaigns, dropping banners, and facilitating meetings, all with the aim of improving the rights and health of workers. While my focus was always on “workers’ rights,” the communities I engaged with were always deeply impacted by the food system.
Now, I formally work within the food system as the Community Partnerships Manager at the Chicago Food Policy Action Council (CFPAC). One of my favorite community engagement solutions comes from the previous role I had at a worker center on the southeast side of Chicago. At Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, I learned about worker cooperative development and became very passionate about alternative economics and community wealth building. Bringing this lens of labor and alternative economies has provided me with opportunities to engage in some of the most exciting work in my career to date.
In my current role at CFPAC, I help build capacity for an emerging transformative network of Black and Brown urban farmers and entrepreneurs called the Urban Stewards Action Network. We host quarterly community fundraisers modeled after the Sunday Soup model called Food Fun(d)ing Fridays to fundraise for exciting food initiatives that have a strong focus on racial equity and food sovereignty. One of the top prize winners of Food Fun(d)ing Fridays is Catatumbo Cooperative Farm. Catatumbo is an emerging workers’ cooperative farm run by three womxn and gender non-conforming immigrant individuals of color. They are committed to cultivating and harvesting culturally-relevant produce to Latinx, immigrant, people of color, and low-income neighborhoods in Chicago.
When I learned of Catatumbo Cooperative Farm, I felt the same inspiration and excitement as when I first learned about the Pecan Shellers’ Strike of 1938. It’s a feeling of both awe and hope. One day, 70 years from now, someone will read (or see archival videos) about Catatumbo and it will inspire them to take collective action to grow and heal their community.
Sometimes, I’ll hear “where are the young people? we need the young people to engage within the food system” or comments such as “it’s hard to bring people of color to the table.” Every time I hear this, I sit with discomfort. Depending on who you ask, community looks very different. These types of statements are more telling about who is asking the question rather than the community in question. Community engagement is the practice of putting our values into action. We cannot have an equitable food system without creating and funding intentional spaces of dialogue to transform power.
In my opinion, a short sweet answer to those questions is that young people and people of color are leading some of the most pressing fights of our time within the food system, such as the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, and the immigrant rights movement. Our families and lives are deeply impacted by the food system--from production to food service--but we are also key movers and shakers. Whether we’re striking like Emma Tenayuca or the Hyatt workers, growing food as a worker cooperative, or holding small potlucks at community gardens, the pathway towards an equitable food system continues to unfold and it leads us closer to food sovereignty.