When Isabel Juarez PO ’13 first heard about Workers for Justice in the spring of her first year, she didn’t pay attention to it.
“At the beginning I didn’t like or understand the rallies,” Juarez said. “You start hearing about labor rights and stuff like that, and I just dozed off. They’re not clear words, they’re not applicable because we’ve never held jobs either so you can’t relate as easily, but it became very real last semester.”
The Workers for Justice cause became “real” to Juarez last September, when she was tutoring dining hall worker Christian Torres for his GED. One day, Torres told her he couldn’t come to GED lessons anymore.
“I asked him why, and he was completely in tears,” Juarez said.
Torres, one of the leaders of Workers for Justice, was fired in December along with 16 other Pomona College employees.
“That’s what got me involved,” Juarez said. “I was like, this is very real to Christian, this is personal to him, so I need to figure out what it is. I was incredulous, so I went to my first meeting.”
Juarez’s involvement in Workers for Justice blossomed quickly. During busy weeks, she now spends one to two hours a day working for the cause. Currently she is focused on maintaining momentum with students, spreading awareness and following up with workers who were affected by last semester’s document check. At the end of March, Workers for Justice will be hosting a “Feast in the Street” event for César Chávez Day, which Juarez has been helping to organize.
“I used to have free time, now I’m just putting out as much work as I can without going crazy,” Juarez said.
In addition to participating in rallies, making phone calls and generally trying to spread information, Juarez has also provided translation services for the fired workers.
“Sometimes they want to say things, and they can’t necessarily be elaborate in English,” Juarez said. “They know some English, but when you want to put in your humor, your details, it’s better to say it in Spanish.”
Juarez’s involvement in Workers for Justice has forced her to make sacrifices beyond simply struggling to balance her academic commitments with her activism. Juarez participated in last semester’s civil disobedience rally Dec. 2, voluntarily being arrested against her family’s wishes.
“It’s an unpopular thing to say, fight for the workers,” Juarez said. “It’s unpopular to be activist if your social group does not really want to talk about it. They’re uncomfortable topics.”
Whenever Juarez feels overwhelmed by all her responsibilities and the frustrations of activism, she said, she makes a conscious effort to revisit her purpose.
“I just think back on the fact that this is really unfair,” Juarez said. “We preach fairness everywhere, all over the place, and it’s so empty and so vague when you relate it to something so real.”
Juarez emigrated with her family from Guatemala six years ago, and has faced similar employment challenges with her own family, which she believes increased her investment in Workers for Justice.
“I talk to people here and try to communicate that passion, that it’s really important for the families of the people involved and that it’s not just about the law and it’s not just about words and rhetoric,” Juarez said. “It’s about people.”
“We have very hectic lives here at the college,” Juarez said. “The meal is just something you take for granted every day. It’s so easy to overlook the people who are actually working to make it happen.”
Nonetheless, Juarez said she believes that students have immense potential to make an impact on campus. She said that while people tend to focus on labeling things as bad, “what the good can look like really needs creativity and input from a lot of people.”
“That’s where student involvement really counts,” she said.
Juarez said she wants to use her involvement to meet her personal goal of making sure “that the workers know they are not alone, that we as students are grateful for their invaluable service, care about their well-being and are willing to stand with them as they demand justice from our institution.”
Despite her immense personal involvement, Juarez still finds it difficult to view herself as an activist.
“I don’t think I’m an activist,” Juarez said, laughing. “It matters, I put in the time to do something.”
Juarez paused and shrugged before continuing, “But I guess that’s what activism is.”