Cesar E. Chavez, whose birthday is Thursday, was a union and civil rights leader, a community organizer, and a crusader for non-violent social change.
As Chavez said:
“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducated the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. And you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
Chavez took risks, made sacrifices, and he got things done. Our country is stronger and better as a result of his work. It is a legacy of advocacy, courage, inspiration, hope and celebration. He forever broadened the aspirations and horizons for farmworkers, and Latinos in general. And the Chavez legacy fuels our enthusiasm and resolve for positive change and social justice.
But, the struggle continues: Latino students still trail others in educational performance; Latinos are underrepresented in our colleges and universities; Latino youth are over-represented in the criminal justice system; and, the majority of Latinos remain at the lower end of the economic ladder, by any measure. And as much as we hear and talk about needing and committing to diversity, Latinos are absent or woefully underrepresented at the decision-making levels of business, government, politics, education, and even the church.
These social, economic and political facts should be a sharp and urgent reminder that there is still much work to be done. And there are many examples of positive action in Michigan. The Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University stands out as an institution that embraces, emulates and advances the Chavez legacy. The institute reflects and promotes these qualities through its extensive research and scholarship on Latino issues, as well as by acting as a facilitator and teacher of progressive thinking, and an advocate and promoter of positive action for the Latino community.
In 2009 the institute promoted and hosted a summit of Latino leaders from throughout the state as the “first phase of an effort to galvanize Latino-informed leaders and provide an opportunity for them to identify, prioritize and begin to work toward solutions to the challenges facing Latinos in Michigan.”
This summit advanced the following priorities: “education, immigrant rights, health and healthcare, civic engagement and media portrayal of Latinos, economic development and employment, gender relations, and civil rights and discrimination.”
It hosted a follow-up meeting in 2011 to set an agenda for action on these issues, attended by over 60 Latino leaders from throughout the state. The participants of this important summit concluded, and launched a plan that:
“Latinos in Michigan must first establish an effective statewide organization that will serve as the mechanism to garner resources and coordinate efforts to address the challenges facing Latino communities at the levels of service delivery, policy development, and implementation. The primary goal of this organization is to facilitate the incorporation of Latinos into the core institutions of Michigan … .”
I believe the summits’ participants have advanced an important strategy: We must develop an agenda through study, dialogue and collaboration. And, we must work together in an organized and uniformed manner to define our issues, in order to influence positive change through a vested and unified voice for our community.
As Chavez correctly stated: “When you have people together who believe in something very strongly — things happen.” Clearly, in light of the Chavez legacy, this is a tried and proven model of success.
The words of Cesar E. Chavez can inspire us and keep us honest. Their image can instill a sense of pride and courage because great results seldom come easy or without sacrifice. And history has recorded a magnificent textbook of life lessons from this extraordinary man that keep teaching, and from which we must keep learning.
The summits hosted by the Julian Samora Research Institute are one example of strategic positive action that, I believe, properly reflect the teachings and the spirit of the Chavez legacy. These types of efforts need and deserve our sincere attention, recognition and support because they can provide another powerful voice, as Chavez did, to promote the positive change that is so desperately needed.
Let us truly honor the legacy of Cesar E. Chavez by continuing on the path he chartered, and followed. And, by understanding that positive change can come by supporting, and joining with, those who believe in, and are guided by, the integrity, principles and standards that are so evident in the work and accomplishments of this great American Hero.
As Chavez said, Si Se Puede!
(Santiago Rios is as a Lansing attorney.)