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Updated 2:00 PM January 13, 2004



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Activist to discuss importance of mobilizing communities

Arturo Rodriguez practices what he preaches—the notion that one person can make a difference.

U-M alumnus Arturo Rodriguez participates in a 2001 United Farm Workers' protest of frozen vegetable supplier Pictsweet Company in Ventura, Calif. (Photo courtesy MLK Symposium Planning Committee)

The son-in-law of the late activist Cesar Chavez, Rodriguez —a U-M alumnus whose interest in activism grew from his experiences at the University—inspires farmers and other low-wage workers to seek fair wages and benefits. Sometimes, they learn that making a difference involves participating in a boycott.

"You work with honest and hardworking people who want to provide for their families. When you see them abused and mistreated [by employers], you want to help them. That really energizes us," says Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America, AFL-CIO.

Rodriguez will speak about mobilizing communities for social action at noon Jan. 21 in the Educational Conference Center at the School of Social Work (SSW).

In 1973, he earned his master's in social work at U-M, where he learned about empowering people to bring about social and economic change in their communities.

He has continued Chavez's work at UFW, an organization Chavez founded in 1962, which represents more than 27,000 farmers and low-wage workers nationwide.

"We need to be just as concerned with issues with workers away from their jobs," including affordable housing, education, job training and leadership development, he says.

Rodriguez initially learned about Chavez in 1966 from his parish priest, who returned from a march Chavez led in south Texas's Rio Grande Valley. As a college student, Rodriguez became active with the UFW's grape boycott in 1969.

Two years later at U-M, Rodriguez organized support for farm worker boycotts, resulting in the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act that allowed California farmers to use secret ballots to elect union representation.

Rodriguez's desire to help less fortunate people strengthened after meeting Chavez in 1973. Although he didn't have a high school education, Chavez read many books on topics such as philosophy, economics and unions, as well as biographies of Gandhi and the Kennedys.

"He was adamant about not letting his own lack of formal education become a deterrent," Rodriguez says.

Chavez motivated low-wage workers to seek better wages through non-violent boycotts—a practice still used by Rodriguez, who became UFW president in 1993 after Chavez's death.

During the lecture, participants will discuss the social action agenda for SSW, as well as Detroit and southwest Michigan.

Larry Gant, an associate SSW professor, says more communities have implemented programs to assist low-income and working poor populations. Some programs teach finances, such as improving one's credit standing, opening and maintaining a savings account, and investing in stocks and bonds.

"Increasingly, it's not simply about creating opportunities, but working with people to create and sustain opportunities for others as well," Gant says.

SSW, the MLK Symposium Planning Committee, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning, the Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations, and Latino Studies are the sponsors of the lecture.

Rodriguez will give another lecture, "Labor and Social Change: Moving from the Past to Visions of the Future," at 6 p.m. Jan. 21 in the Michigan Union's Anderson Room.

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