Friday, May 31, 2019
Good afternoon! I’m delighted to kick-off the afternoon portion of Radcliffe Day 2019.
Many special guests are gathered here in Radcliffe Yard on this beautiful day. I’m pleased to extend a warm welcome to Harvard President Larry Bacow, Provost Alan Garber, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, and Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation Bill Lee, along with other members of the Harvard Corporation, and members of the Board of Overseers.
On a celebratory day like this one, it’s also important to acknowledge the years of hard work and leadership that brought the Radcliffe Institute to this point. It’s especially meaningful to have here my predecessor as dean, Liz Cohen, her predecessor, Barbara Grosz, and founding dean of the Institute—as well as Harvard President Emerita—Drew Gilpin Faust. We’re also joined by five former trustees of Radcliffe College.
Of course, the work of the Institute wouldn’t be possible without the generosity and dedication of our advisory council members and donors. I’m very glad to recognize current and former members of the Radcliffe Institute Dean’s Advisory Council and Schlesinger Library Council, as well as members of the Radcliffe Institute Leadership Society, the Ann Radcliffe Society, and all our Radcliffe Associates. Thank you for joining us and for your generous support of the Institute.
Last but certainly not least, I want to recognize all our Radcliffe and Harvard alums. I’m so glad you’re here.
Radcliffe College Class of 1941 alumna Evelyn Richmond represents the earliest class year among you. Will you please join me in a round of applause for her?
I’m also happy to celebrate with the reunion classes of 1944, '49, '54, '59, '64, '69, '74, '79, '84, '89, '94, '99, 2004, 2009, 2014, and our newest graduates from the class of 2019!
Gathered together for this special occasion, we do also think of friends and classmates who are no longer with us. Let’s observe a moment of silence for all those we miss today.
Now, on behalf of the Radcliffe Institute, it’s my honor to recognize Dolores Huerta as the 2019 Radcliffe Medalist.
Dolores Huerta has been fighting for civil rights for more than 60 years.
And, as a scholar of 20th-century struggles for equality, I’m struck by the sheer range of critical issues where Dolores has been in the vanguard. She has fought for the rights of laborers and Latinos. She has been a powerful voice for environmental protection, for women’s rights, for voting rights, for LGBTQ equality, and for so much more. She is truly a visionary leader and a tireless advocate for equality.
Beginning with her work as a community organizer in the 1950s, Dolores has made progress on pivotal causes through organizing, lobbying, and negotiating—an array of tactics distinct from the practice of civil disobedience and litigation—the strategies most often associated with 20th-century social reform movements.
This difference reflects both the specific circumstances of agricultural labor in the 1950s and ’60s, and the traditions of labor and community organizing in the United States. It also reveals something about our medalist: Dolores has an unshakeable belief in the power of marginalized people to achieve justice for themselves.
And she’s still fighting the good fight!
In a 2017 interview, Dolores recalled a famous line by the poet Pablo Neruda: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Dolores said, quote, “I do believe that we are the spring. We’re going to sow those seeds of justice, and they’re going to sprout.”
In individual people and in entire communities, Dolores has sown the seeds of justice. She sees and cultivates the power to advance social change and achieve justice and equality. That commitment animates her famous rallying cry “Sí, se puede”—Yes, we can.
In Dolores’s story, we see how one person, moved to action, has in turn inspired and empowered many others to know their own strength and do the same.
She was born Dolores Clara Fernández in the coal mining town of Dawson, New Mexico in 1930, during the Great Depression. Her parents divorced and when she was 5, Dolores moved to Stockton, California, with her mother and two brothers. Dolores has often said that her mother instilled in her a deep sense of egalitarianism and modeled how to be an assertive and independent woman.
In her mid-20s, as a working mother, Dolores found her calling as a leader at the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization. The CSO was a statewide self-help organization focused on mobilizing Mexican-American working-class communities in urban areas. CSO co-founder Fred Ross recruited Dolores to this work, and she credits Fred with showing her that she had a voice and that she could use it.
A skilled organizer, Dolores became the CSO’s political director. In this leadership position traditionally held by men, and with her young children in tow, Dolores lobbied successfully for landmark legislation securing disability and unemployment insurance, public assistance, and retirement benefits for farmworkers; as well as the right to register voters door-to-door and the right to take driver’s license exams in Spanish.
And it was through the CSO that Dolores first met Cesar Chavez, who had also been recruited to the organization by Fred Ross.
Eventually, seeking to focus on farm labor issues, Dolores and Cesar teamed up with other like-minded organizers and in 1962 they founded the National Farm Workers Association in Delano, California. It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of what this pioneering group was attempting to do. Organizing a union of farmworkers—many of whom frequently moved from farm to farm—had never been done. And it meant standing up to the goliath of agri-business, then the largest industry in California and worth $3 billion dollars a year.
The farmworkers faced dire circumstances; it’s especially striking to note that while many harvested crops, they struggled with food insecurity. Dolores once recalled, quote:
Farmworkers were earning 50 cents an hour when we started [the union]. When people ran out of work they had nothing to eat, people literally had to go into garbage cans to get food. So, one of our first fights we had was to get surplus food for farmworkers.
Dolores and other movement leaders initially focused on recruiting members in the San Joaquin Valley through the hard work of community organizing, work that included house meetings, one-on-one engagement, and storytelling. Then, in September of 1965, their nascent Mexican-American National Farm Workers Association heeded the call of Filipino workers organized under the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, joining them in what became known as the Delano Grape Strike. In a brilliant move, the Association announced its decision to join the strike on Mexican Independence Day—September 16th.
The following spring, in 1966, farmworkers and organizers marched the 340 miles from Delano to the capital, Sacramento, to bring greater attention to their cause. Outside the state capitol building, Dolores proclaimed, quote:
The developments of the past seven months are only a slight indication of what is to come. The workers are on the rise. There will be strikes all over the state and throughout the country because Delano has shown what can be done, and the workers know that they are no longer alone.
Later that same year, the National Farm Workers Association and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee formally joined forces to become the United Farm Workers.
To increase pressure on agri-business owners, the new UFW launched the first in a series of national and international boycotts of table grapes and other produce. New York was the center of grape distribution in the country, and Dolores directed the boycott there and along the East Coast, organizing neighborhood coalitions to successfully picket grocery chains. By 1968, her influence was such that she stood beside Senator Robert F. Kennedy when he declared victory in the California Democratic Presidential Primary, the tragic evening of his assassination.
It was in New York where Dolores connected with a leader in the women’s movement, Gloria Steinem—also a Radcliffe Medalist, I should add. Their collaboration broadened both women’s perspectives, each embracing a deeper understanding of how gender, race, and class discrimination overlap and intersect.
Finally, by 1970, many of the California growers came to the negotiating table. As UFW vice president and lead negotiator, Dolores proved formidable. She secured historic contracts between farmworkers and agricultural corporations, contracts that among other things increased wages, established employer medical plan contributions, put strict controls on pesticide use, and provided for clean drinking water, toilets, and work breaks in the fields.
Dolores, who is mother to 11 children, spoke openly in this period about balancing a life of leadership with motherhood and weathered criticism for being a working mother.
Notwithstanding such criticisms, Dolores continued to advocate for legislative reform, and she was instrumental in securing passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which protected the farmworkers’ right to collective bargaining.
The first law of its kind in the United States, the act was modeled after the New Deal era National Labor Relations Act, which had excluded agricultural laborers in deference to legislators from the Jim Crow South. It was a remarkable victory, even though the hard and contentious work of implementation lay ahead.
Over the course of the 1970s and ’80s, Dolores was at the forefront of efforts to expose the dangers of pesticides, which caused increased rates of cancer and birth defects among migrant farmworkers and polluted the environment.
In the following years, as the UFW’s focus and tactics evolved, Dolores held fast to her belief that the key to positive change is empowering people to advocate for themselves.
In 1988, she survived a brutal assault by a San Francisco police officer during a rally outside a fund-raiser for Vice President George H.W. Bush. After a long recovery, she took a leave of absence from the union and traveled the country for two years on behalf of the Feminist Majority Foundation, encouraging Latina women to run for public office.
A self-described “born-again feminist,” Dolores was—and is—a powerful voice for women’s equality. In a “Woman of the Year” interview with Ms. Magazine in 1998, she recalled, quote:
For a long time I was the only woman on the [UFW] executive board. And the men would come out and say their stupid little jokes about women. So I started keeping a record. At the end of the meeting, I’d say, ‘During the course of this meeting you men have made 58 sexist remarks.’ Pretty soon I got them down to 25, then 10, then five.
Dolores remained a key leader of the UFW through the 1990s.
It’s fitting that her career would culminate in the founding of the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2002—a community-benefit organization that promotes, at the grass-roots level, the values that have guided Dolores through decades of tireless advocacy.
Dolores asked me to be sure that Radcliffe Day would be forward looking, not just a retrospective. That request speaks volumes. She’s wholly focused on the future, and on the work at hand in the here and now.
When Dolores received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, she remarked:
The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action. It is this right [of association] that sustains and nurtures our democracy.
The Dolores Huerta Foundation pushes people to exercise that right. It works toward the goal of building a new generation of community leaders. It also promotes equity in our country’s schools, including by using activism and litigation to combat the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately harms black and brown students. And, in all it does, the foundation encourages people—including youth—to recognize and harness their own power to achieve change.
We at the Radcliffe Institute are delighted to honor Dolores Huerta for a lifetime of fearless work animated by the ethos “Sí, se puede.”
We celebrate her countless accomplishments, but we do so with a focus on the future, and on the work that she—and many others—continue to do each and every day.
Please join me in congratulating the singular Dolores Huerta!
Now, let’s warmly welcome Dolores Huerta and her conversation partner—Soledad O’Brien—to the stage.