SPRINGFIELD – A student-driven interview of Dolores Huerta – longtime social justice advocate, educator, and civil rights activist – was one of the highlights of this year’s Huerta/Chávez Celebration, an event that hopes to inspire students to stay strong and celebrate their different backgrounds.
Huerta, who recently turned 91, is a labor leader whose voice on behalf of migrant farmworkers resulted in the establishment of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Huerta has won major awards for her leadership, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and was the subject of the documentary Dolores, which aired in 2017.
The celebration was organized by Zehra Greenleaf, who has worked for the Springfield School District for 25 years. The theme of this year’s celebration, “Every minute … a chance to change the world,” is a classic Huerta statement.
Students were asked to prepare questions ahead of time, Greenleaf said, and by the end of the meeting Huerta led all participants in a chant: “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power!”
This is Greenleaf’s third year organizing the celebration, which usually takes the form of a festive party with hundreds of people, food, entertainment, and music. Greenleaf filled out an application with the Dolores Huerta Foundation in hopes Huerta would help them celebrate online.
“The students will be in different situations in their life where it’ll come back to them. It’s one of those key opportunities, key moments where you get to meet someone like that,” Greenleaf said.
Along with César Chávez, Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to form UFW. Huerta’s lifelong experience of fighting for human rights and equality is a valuable tool for the students’ own relatability, as some of the students have personal ties to agricultural work within their families.
When asked how to stay strong during criticism, Huerta said when your intention is to help others, don’t let anyone stop you.
“People will say: Why are you doing that? Why are you in the streets marching? We have to take that as a blessing, bendición,” Huerta said. “Because we know what we are doing with our good hearts trying to make life better for other people.”
Huerta’s message and comments seemed to resonate with the students, said Kris Seibel, Communications Specialist for Springfield Public Schools. “There were heavy comments from kids about how the interview inspired them to stay strong and make change, and don’t give up when people are saying bad things about you.”