Dolores Huerta's Painful, Liberating truth

Pain is a mentor that not only teaches us empathy but more importantly dictates how a system is failing its people if we listen closely. Before contemplating healing, we must contemplate pain, wading in its depths to familiarize ourselves with its ebb and flow. We can only begin truly healing through compassionate and informed action that addresses the root causes of malignant and preventable suffering.  

My interfaith journey started the first time I was hurt by religion. When I was 11, Prop 8 was on the California ballot and I remember my classmates using the Bible to justify their homophobia. My family is Buddhist so I had no idea what they were referring to. I only knew I had always been queer before I even had language for it. What hurt wasn’t that I was different. It was that I wouldn’t be accepted. To me, being queer means reliving the kind of distinct vulnerability that I felt as a child every time that I have to come out to new people in my life. 

In college, I chose to study art and art history. I started reading the Bible and attending my friend’s church to help me understand the paintings I was being shown in class. I also started studying the disconnect between the ministers who would recite anti-LGBT clobber verses and the young congregation, many of whom were allies and LGBT themselves. I joined an interfaith group because I wanted to find a path for people to live fully in both their sexuality and religious identity and to fight the increasing amount of suffering in our country. Under the direction of Rev. Dr. Zandra Wagoner, our Interfaith Fellows curriculum centered around an intersectional framework that reinforced our respect for a person’s entire identity, helped us create inclusive programming, and encouraged us to use our power and privilege to support people who face discrimination. Together, we created an open community where we could be our most authentic selves.  

Around this time, I converted to Christianity. There is a beautiful, humbling quality that Jesus and the Buddha shared. They both had the immense opportunity and authority to act however they desired and yet they decided that they weren’t interested in hoarding wealth, pursuing power, or boosting their own reputation. Instead, they chose to dedicate their lives to service to others and alleviate suffering in the world. 

I recently had the privilege to work with a leader who likewise embodied the values of compassion and uncompromising determination named Dolores Huerta. Her name means “pain in the orchards” and there is no name more symbolically fitting for a person who co-founded the United Farm Workers union after witnessing the suffering of farmworkers and their children in Central California. People readily recognize Dolores’ achievement for organizing millions of people to improve the working conditions and wages of farmworkers in the 1960s. What they usually miss is that that was just the beginning of her long career. Dolores has fervently worked for over 60 years advocating for feminism, climate and racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights. One of her deeply held beliefs is people's power. With some training, anyone can become an organizer and when communities organize, they can accomplish anything. In 2002, the Puffin Foundation awarded Dolores their $100,000 Creative Citizenship Prize which she used to found the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2003. DHF’s mission is to inspire and organize communities to build volunteer organizations empowered to pursue social justice.  

Through my time at DHF in the Communications department, through coordinating countless collaborations and events and interviews, through observing and documenting Dolores and our staff members’ work, I came to a realization. The liberating truth is there is no such thing as an extraordinary person and that alone is extraordinary. The truth is that there are millions of people who are carrying the banner of justice forward every day and yet we’ll only ever hear about those who stood up first and strode the farthest. When we honor Dolores, we also honor the values of courage, dedication, and compassion, qualities that already exist within us if we harness their power. All social justice movements rely on the belief that anyone can be a potential activist because for a movement to succeed, we need people organizing for equality in every sector of society. The movement needs artists, educators, healthcare workers, parents, elected officials, scientists, clergy, CEOs, as many people as possible to speak out against injustice wherever they see it. Whatever you decide to do in life, use your position to advocate for equity. Every person, no matter the color of their skin, the color of their collar, their gender identity, their worldviews, or who they love deserves the right to equal opportunity and equal treatment. We can create a prosperous and inclusive society that embraces the humanity of every person. We aren’t there yet but we can be if we work together. Si se puede. 

Watch: A Talk With Dolores Huerta

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.