Patricia Gomez sat amid a sea of Samuel Merritt University (SMU) healthcare students Thursday night, clutching her program and grinning from ear to ear. She exchanged words of excitement with her friend and twirled a lock of long wavy hair as she waited for labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta to speak. “Huerta is a role model for students of color like myself and for students who are seeking to continue empowering our underrepresented community,” Gomez said.
Huerta is best known for cofounding the National Farm Worker’s Association with civil rights activist Caesar Chavez, as well as aiding in the Delano grape strike of 1965, protesting the low wages of Pilipino-American and Mexican-American farmworkers. In her lifetime, Huerta has also been an advocate for affordable healthcare and the rights of blue-collar workers, immigrants and women.
Huerta, now 85 years old and barely tall enough to reach the podium microphone, spoke with her head held high. She often raised her palms to the sky and chuckled under her breath as she offered anecdotes from her past. During her speech, Huerta talked about her grassroots community organization, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, and welcomed the students to join her cause. The foundation’s mission is to improve underprivileged communities through environmental health activism, combatting racism and passing legislation that supports equity in education, among many things. She also encouraged students to pay attention to politics and vote for their elected officials. Passing legislation, Huerta said, is the key to change. “We don’t have to feel helpless,” Huerta said. “We do have the power to make a difference and I like to remind people of that.”
The civil rights activist hardly paused to breathe as she expressed her support for The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, organic produce, boycotting Dole and Chiquita for paying low wages to their workers, ending the use of pesticides in U.S. agriculture, and urging Donald Trump to “get over” himself.
Around Gomez, students snapped photos of Huerta and cheered in support of the speaker’s hopeful words. Gomez listened intently to Huerta’s speech, saying she was determined to follow Huerta’s example. “I am very passionate about doing a service in [underrepresented] communities. I know there’s a lot of room for improvement,” she said.
Like many students enrolled in SMU’s four-year healthcare program, Gomez is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, and she plans on working in underserved communities, specifically communities of color. Gomez is part of the small population of healthcare workers of color in the U.S. According to Justin Berton, associate director of media relations at SMU, 87 percent of healthcare workers are white—and that’s a problem for patients of color. “One of our goals is to raise our percentages of Latina/Latino American and African American students because it has been proven that if our healthcare providers reflect our patients, the care will be better,” said Berton. “If an African American nurse, rather than a white nurse, works with an African American patient, that patient will receive better care; it’s about cultural competency.”
SMU aims to train healthcare workers to use their skills in underprivileged communities in the Bay Area. Berton said the staff and faculty at the university are striving to make healthcare equitable by motivating students to push for more accessible healthcare for underserved populations. The university staff specifically invited Huerta to talk about the importance of providing high quality healthcare for farmworkers, many of who are migrants from Latin America, especially Mexico.
Shirley Strong, chief diversity officer at SMU, decided that a good way to prepare students and faculty for Huerta’s speech would be to have them read Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States, a book written by Seth Holmes, an assistant professor of health and social behavior at UC Berkeley. In the book, Holmes reports on his two-year observation of a group of Mexican migrant farmworkers to the U.S. His reports illustrate the extensive health issues faced by the laborers due to poor working conditions, absence of adequate health insurance and even lack of work breaks. At one point in his work, Holmes wrote about workers who had to pick a minimum of 50 pounds of raspberries an hour or else they would be fired.
“We don’t think about the toll this labor takes on workers’ bodies; we’re told to eat healthy—fruits and vegetables—and it’s at someone else’s expense,” Strong said. “It is important to be reminded of the suffering and oppression farm workers endure so that we, as healthcare providers, are better able to support that population.” Strong said she felt Huerta had helped improve their working conditions over many decades, making her an easy choice as a speaker.
Huerta ended her speech by urging students to pay attention to the world around them, asking them to be proactive about challenging injustices. "We are all related," Huerta said as she gripped the podium, closing out her speech. "We have a lot of different nationalities, cultures and ethnic groups, but we are one human race. We are all advocates of different shades and colors. We have to fight for each other and protect each other."