Photograph by Samuel Heller
On Tuesday, October 9, a fundraiser for the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF) took place to support the effort to engage disenfranchised groups of people in their local politics. During the event there was a discussion panel and a screening of the new documentary, “Dolores,” made about the life of Dolores Huerta.
The purpose of the event was to fundraise for the DHF, an organization that does grassroots community organizing. Dolores Huerta, a famous activist and organizer for farm workers’ rights, established the DHF in 2002. Huerta’s daughter, Camila Chavez, became the executive director and has since continued in that role. Huerta, now age 88, is the president of the foundation, and remains a full-time unpaid volunteer for the DHF.
The DHF is based out of Bakersfield, California. The main goal of the organization is to get citizens more active in their communities so that they can advocate for themselves. The DHF goes into rural and low income communities, and starts neighborhood organizations. These organizations are called “Vecinos Unidos” (United Neighbors). These groups have meetings where the neighborhood residents are trained on how to navigate their local political structures and hold their elected officials accountable.
“The work that we do is to teach people that they have power to be the change that they want to see in their own communities,” said Chavez. “Many times the communities we work with, they know that there are problems in the community, but they don’t know how to address them.”
Chavez described how in one Vecinos Unidos chapter, a member of the group brought up the fact that their community didn’t have a park for their children to play in, but that this community was paying a park tax. The organizer suggested they go to the city council, and a trip was later planned. This group of neighbors attended a city council meeting, brought up their issue, and by the next year, they had a new park. “That’s the power of community organizing,” said Chavez.
Much of the work done by the DHF is to educate disenfranchised groups of people about the political structures which govern them. In Chavez’s opinion, many people don’t vote because they don’t understand the ballots, or how the voting process works, so they are afraid of making mistakes.
“We have a serious crisis in our country. We are supposed to live in a democracy but it’s not democracy unless everyone participates,” said Chavez. She feels it is important that the voter population reflects the make up of communities. She talked about how in Kern County, where 50 percent of the population is Latinx, and a large percentage of the population is young, the people who are voting tend to be older white people.
During election cycles, the DHF trains and hires around 40 canvassers to go into communities and educate people about important issues on the ballot. They register people to vote, and try to get people to commit to voting. They are mainly trying to teach these people about how voting for certain issues can impact their lives, and their children’s lives. Chavez said they are often effective because they talk to people on their level about what they think would interest them.
The DHF teaches people to start by talking to those in power about changes before planning petitions, protests, etc. Chavez explained that people need to view their representatives and other politicians like equals, rather than putting them up on a pedestal.
In Vecinos Unidos, the citizens are taught that when they encounter a politician they should invite that person to sit down and talk with them about the needs of their community. “It’s about having a conversation and holding people accountable. Once people realize how to navigate a political system, they can make change,” said Chavez.
Not only does the DHF want to teach people about their local politics, they want to push them to get involved. Currently, two candidates running for different local positions in the Bakersfield area were involved in DHF Youth Groups as teenagers.
In the future, they plan to continue organizing chapters so they can continue to expand their impact to even more communities.