‘Yes, we can’ — two women activists show how

A lot of dire scenarios have been drawn up about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Monetary Fund recently issued World Economic Outlook 2020 saying that the global economic output has lost about $28 trillion thus far, leaving “deep and enduring scars” in joblessness, weakened investments and children deprived of education.

The report concludes: “The ascent out of the calamity is likely to be long, uneven and very uncertain.”

In the long-term, however, after the pandemic shall have been overcome, the COVID-19 crisis is offering glimpses of the emergence of meaningful economic and social changes. Two veteran women activists, both born in the United States but of foreign parentage, dwelled on such optimism in recent interviews with The New York Times.

They are 90-year-old Dolores Huerta (Mexican) and Helena Norberg-Hodge, 74 (Swedish).

For more than 60 years Dolores has advocated for the rights of farm workers (mostly immigrants) and marginalized communities in the US. Together with labor activist Cesar Chavez (also Mexican-American), she organized in 1960 a year-long boycott of California table grapes and wine that won the support of millions of people in the US and other countries. In 1962, the two co-founded what is now known as the United Farm Workers, which has advanced the economic welfare of farm workers through boycotts, strikes and protest marches.

(Filipino activists, among them Carlos Bulosan, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, were among those who also dedicated their lives to the struggles and welfare of migrant workers toiling in the fields and canneries of America.)

Dolores, the NYT noted, “stood out as the only woman leading a movement dominated by men.” In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Back in November 2008, when he delivered his electoral victory speech, Obama quoted her words in 1972, “Si, se puede” (“Yes, we can”) – which became a slogan for the workers’ movement – as his incoming administration’s reply to those who doubted he could bring change in America.

On the other hand, Helena has been an activist scholar who opposes globalization by promoting, since the 1970s, localism and diversification in food production (each farmer raising multiple crops) in lieu of monocultural (single-product) agriculture for export. She has written a book (translated in 40 languages) and documentaries, organized conferences and lectures through her nonprofit organization Local Futures, which maintains offices in Australia, Britain and the US.

Today, as more and more become aware that the global trading system needs to change, she has become a “lodestar for people all over the world,” says the NYT. Her fans include the Dalai Lama and the Oxford literary scholar Iain McGilchrist who has said: “Whether or not our civilization survives, Helena’s work is of prime importance. And if civilization should break down, it will be our only hope for survival. We need to be acting on her ideas now.”

How do these two seasoned activists view the COVID-19 crisis?

The pandemic has “hit us very, very hard,” Dolores said. At the same time, “it has highlighted so many of the issues that we have had with us for so many decades: racism, income inequality, the way women are treated, our educational system […], our judicial system, our criminal justice system.”

She emphasized that COVID-19 has “really spotlighted a lot of the deficits that we have in our society and the things that need to be addressed.” Regarding the recent spate of killings and other brutality inflicted by US police against people of color, Dolores remarked: “I think the whole policing problem needs to be solved because the police have been militarized. They are being trained like soldiers, trained to kill, and that’s what they’re doing. That’s crazy.”

Then, lighting up, she predicted that the recent almost daily demonstrations and grassroots efforts all over the US would lead to change. She’s optimistic because young people – not just black and brown people – are leading the sustained protests. “I think that is really, really promising for the country,” she gushed.

Convinced that “the history of the world has always been made by mass movements of people,” Dolores said: “And this is the reason I, at the age of 90, continue to work. When people come together and take collective action, whether it’s in a march… in a union election or, most important [alluding to the November US elections], come together to vote, this is how we make change.”

Although marching and protesting are important, she stressed, “until you put something into law that can be implemented, that can be enforced and where people can be held accountable, we have to keep on marching right to the ballot box. We have to elect progressive people to our different public offices.”

And what does Helen see could come out of the COVID-19 pandemic? She thinks it’s a disruptive force that could lead people to more “medium-sized” lifestyles in smaller communities, even within large cities. “I think this moment has meant that a lot of people have developed an appetite for having a little more time, being a bit closer to home, learning the names of their neighbors, becoming interested in where their food is coming from and even developing the appetite for actually growing food.”

Helen raised a significant proposition: the gross domestic product (GDP), the internationally accepted benchmark of national economic output, must be redefined.

“You must know this,” she explained, “GDP is a measure of the breakdown of society and ecosystems. If the water is polluted that we are providing bottled water, it benefits GDP. If you and I plant a garden and say, eat most or half of our vegetables from there, GDP goes down. If you and I stay healthy, GDP goes down. If you need chemotherapy every year, GDP goes up.”

Rather than GDP, she advocates applying what she calls an “economics of happiness,” in which the cost of environmental damage is included for products shipped over long distances and in which “intangible benefits like community are more deeply valued in policy.” Her advocacy resonates with Bhutan’s “gross national happiness index,” a concept of sustainable development which factors in non-economic aspects such as psychological wellbeing, health, education, cultural and ecological diversity and resilience, and community vitality.

Back to 90-year-old Dolores, her deepest wish is to see this century’s youth achieve bigger goals: “We’ve got to figure out a way to do away with this brutal capitalism that we have [in the USA], where you have 10 percent of the wealthy owning 90 percent of the wealth. This is wrong. We have to stop the mass incarceration of people, put more money into our educational system, and develop universal health care.”

She articulated practically a universal wish among peoples across the world.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
Oct. 17, 2020

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