Public Service Voices
Pushing for Change; Pushing for Justice
"If you don't know what to do after law school, come on out to our office and I'll find something for you to do to keep you busy." - César Chávez, 1993
What was César Chávez doing delivering a speech at tiny Western New England College School of Law in Springfield, Massachusetts only a few short weeks before his untimely death? I don't remember all the details of his speech – just that he used a number of pictures to demonstrate the hazards farm workers face working with pesticides. However, he left us with this quote that has always stuck in my head. His talk was very inspiring, and he suggested that there was an alternative career path if you were willing to accept his offer. At the time, I was an eager, third-year law student finishing up my studies and wondering what the future held. I knew I was headed for the West Coast, I just wasn't sure where, and I wasn't sure I had the guts to follow César Chávez's call.
What my alma mater lacks in terms of prestige, it more than makes up for in terms of dedication to public service. Luckily, I was able to spend almost half of my law school career learning the ropes from some of the most dedicated legal services individuals I have ever met. In my second year, I participated in an externship with the local legal services office where I was supervised by two incredible housing attorneys who helped me represent low-income clients in eviction defense cases. In addition, we had a regular evening class at the office to teach us the basics of poverty law. In my final year, I was able to get law school credit while clerking for a Housing Court judge - also a former legal services attorney. Without these opportunities, I never would have survived law school and I may never have been made aware of the possibility of making a career representing the poor.
After graduation, I never quite made it to the headquarters of the United Farm Workers in California, but I was lucky enough to land a job with Columbia Legal Services (formerly Evergreen Legal Services) in Wenatchee – where I have spent the last 15 years advocating on behalf of farm workers. I'll be the first to admit, I'm no César Chávez. But, working together with some great colleagues, I've been able to tackle some of the biggest problems facing farm workers and their families in Central Washington.
The most striking problem facing farm workers when I first arrived was deplorable housing conditions in unlicensed labor camps and other unregulated sites. Performing outreach that summer, I saw first-hand how widespread the problem was in our area. The most acute problem existed in the cherry harvest which occurs between June and August. For most workers, "home" was living under a blue tarp or a cardboard box. Showers consisted of bathing in cold irrigation water or the Columbia River. Meat and eggs were stored in plastic shopping bags or cheap stryrofoam coolers where ice melted fast in the 100 degree heat. Food was routinely cooked over an open fire pit. I'd experienced better living conditions in rural areas of Central and South America, and this was all happening within 20 minutes from downtown Wenatchee.
My first client was a woman who travelled to Wenatchee every year from California. What she wanted was clean cooking facilities so she did not have to choose between throwing away unsafe food and going hungry. That sounded simple enough. I told my client that stoves and refrigerators were required in employer-provided labor camps and if I just took enough pictures and told her story, change would happen. How naïve can one be? Instead of pushing to require growers to meet minimum health and safety standards already on the books, growers and state regulators took the opposite approach. The standards became the target and a massive campaign was launched to lower them. As long as camps had potable water and other basic "essentials," the State was going to give them a license – as if they were refugee camps. In essence, they sought to waive a magic wand over the camps, give them a license, and call it good.
Working for Columbia, we were able to fight back for our clients following a multi-pronged advocacy plan that included filing multiple class actions against the worst unlicensed housing providers, recruiting pro-bono counsel to sue the State for failure to enforce minimum standards, and lobbying the Legislature to fund safe and affordable housing. The fight took many years and multiple partners played a role in bringing about change. We attended scores of stakeholder meetings, wondering if we were wasting our time repeating the same stories and showing the same pictures. We had to fight so hard just to maintain, not raise, minimum health and safety standards. All that work did pay off, and labor camps now meet minimum standards and my client has a real stove and refrigerator to prepare food for herself and her family.
I now understand what César Chávez was doing at my law school. He was out there pushing for change, and taking the message of his crusade wherever it needed to go. There was no guarantee that anyone would listen to him or take him up on his offer, but he was tirelessly plugging away in order to plant the seeds of change. His message is still alive today, the same as it was when I was finishing law school. There are real problems in our world and attorneys have a role in making change happen. I hope you will consider the words of César Chávez and put them into practice – whatever your cause, and wherever you end up putting your degree to work.