Dolores Huerta can be described in many ways: labor organizer, feminist, civil rights pioneer, social justice icon, impassioned speaker and lifelong advocate for the oppressed.
On Friday, Huerta delivered a stirring keynote address to open the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo that proved the 88 year-old has lost none of her spark and drive to make change for the better.
“Everything that is wrong in the United States of America ends up on your desk,” Huerta said. “Counselors, you need to be multiplied by 1,000 times because you are so needed.”
Helping professionals have a role to play in the work to dismantle oppression and create a fair and just society, Huerta said. “It’s a long road. It’s not a quick fix but if we work together we can make it happen.”
Huerta’s morning keynote kicked off the American Counseling Association’s 66th annual conference in Atlanta. Thousands of professional counselors have gathered for four days of education sessions, trainings, meetings and social events at the Georgia World Congress Center.
Huerta, who originated the “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, we can”) rallying cry,
worked as a schoolteacher in the 1950s but soon felt the pull to organize farm workers — the children of whom she had seen arrive in her classroom hungry. In 1962, Huerta and César Chávez founded a labor union that would become the United Farm Workers’ Union; She served as union vice president until 1999. A native of New Mexico and California, Huerta received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
She continues to travel throughout the U.S. for speaking engagements to advocate for social justice as president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a California-based nonprofit organization focused on advocacy, grassroots organizing and leadership development.
On Friday, Huerta thanked counselors for the important work they do — work that has a part to play in combating discrimination and inequality in the U.S.
There’s a saying in the labor movement: Every minute is an organizing moment, Huerta said. For counselors, “We can also say every moment is a healing moment that you can carry with you.”
She encouraged counselors, and in turn, their clients, to get involved in local civic life. Personal problems can diminish when you focus on the bigger picture and helping others, she noted.
“Looking around and seeing all the power in this room, we know it is enough to make a difference,” Huerta said. “You have worked so hard in our communities and schools. Now we’re asking you to do even more. We’re asking you to help us heal our country.”
If there’s a protest or picket line in your local area, join in, Huerta urged. Advocate for free college tuition, early child healthcare, equality in education, prison reform and other issues. Thinking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, Huerta called on counselors to help elect representatives to Congress who are “partners in justice” and willing to change policy.
“We’re going to be counting on you to help us with this work, and we have so much work to do. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, our democracy won’t work unless you get involved,” Huerta said. “[Change] is not going to happen unless we fight for the resources we need.”
She also called for a greater focus on diversity. America is a nation of immigrants, enriched by our differences, Huerta said.
“If you [counselors] are in an agency or school with little diversity, let’s figure out how to make that happen. The more diversity we can fill our lives with, the richer our lives will be,” she said.
This begins with our education system, and changing the content of what we teach to include the contributions of people of color and other repressed groups, Huerta said. Otherwise, “our children of color will never feel respected, and always feel like they never belong.”
There is only one human race: Homo sapiens, which originated in Africa. “It’s important that we always affirm the fact that we are Africans of different shades and colors,” Huerta said with a smile.
Drawing from her experience in labor organizing, Huerta closed with a sentiment that often rings true in professional counseling, as well: The power for change lies within.
“Teach people that they have the power,” Huerta urged. “You already have the power, you have everything you need. We just need to come together and work to make change. If we do not make the change, volunteer and do the work to make change, nothing will happen. We cannot expect that someone will come and do it for us. We have to do the work.”
The ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta began with an ACA Governing Council meeting mid-week; festivities stretch through the weekend. Saturday’s keynote will feature anthropologist, educator, author and humanitarian Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director emerita of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.
See more photos from conference on the ACA Flickr: bit.ly/1MOAysM
Find out more about the Dolores Huerta Foundation at doloreshuerta.org
Huerta is profiled in the documentary “Dolores,” which aired recently on PBS stations. Find out more at pbs.org/independentlens/films/dolores-huerta/
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