Today’s Social Justice Heroes

Today’s Social Justice Heroes

Let’s celebrate a new generation of activists who challenge the powerful and mobilize the masses.


There’s nothing all that remarkable about Rustin High School in West Chester, Pennsylvania—except that it is named for a gay black man who was a pacifist and a socialist. Even more amazing is that it was a Republican-dominated school board, in a conservative district that’s 89 percent white, that voted in 2002 to name the new school after Bayard Rustin, who grew up in West Chester.

Rustin helped catalyze the civil rights movement with courageous acts of resistance. In 1947 he led the first Freedom Rides and wound up serving thirty days on a chain gang, one of many times he was arrested for civil disobedience. He was the chief behind-the-scenes organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. During his activist heyday, when Rustin was much better known to the FBI than to the general public, it would have been impossible to imagine his name adorning a public high school. At Rustin High, where a huge photo of him adorns one wall, teachers incorporate aspects of his life into their classes. Phyllis Simmons, the principal, insists, “Our students know who Bayard Rustin is.”

Liberals and progressives need to celebrate leaders who challenge the powerful and mobilize the masses. Thanks to these movements, America is a more humane, inclusive and democratic society than it was at the start of the twentieth century. But it is not a tale of steady progress. At best it is a chronicle of two steps forward, one step back. The struggle for women’s suffrage, for example, started at Seneca Falls in 1848, but women didn’t win the vote until 1920. Victor Berger, Milwaukee’s Socialist Congressman, introduced the first bill for old-age insurance in 1911, but it took another twenty-four years for Congress to pass the Social Security Act. Which of today’s young activists will help change the country so profoundly that future generations will honor them? Here are some candidates:

§ Two years ago, when leaders of the immigrant rights movement met with President Obama in the White House, Angelica Salas challenged the president’s claim that his administration was focusing on deporting criminals and other security threats. “No, Mr. President, that’s not what’s happening,” Salas countered. “You’re deporting heads of households, mothers and fathers. Young people are sitting in detention centers when they should be sitting in the best universities in the country.”

Salas, the 41-year-old executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), views her job as “telling stories”—giving voice to the immigrants whose lives are often ignored or misreported. She sees her own story in those lives; she was smuggled into the country at age 5 by her 14-year-old aunt. They were caught and sent back to Mexico, but they made it across the border on a second try. The family was torn apart again when federal officials raided the sweatshop where her mother worked and deported her. They were eventually reunited in Los Angeles, where Salas grew up. She joined CHIRLA after college and became director in 1999. Salas and CHIRLA have established day-laborer job centers, registered more than 75,000 new immigrant voters and led the fight for in-state tuition for undocumented students. Much of CHIRLA’s work involves what Salas calls “handing the baton”—recruiting and training the next generation of activists.

§Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins remembers when her mother, a single mom who was occasionally on welfare and fed her two daughters with food stamps, got a union job that lifted her family out of poverty. “When you leave that reality of poverty, it is one of the most joyous feelings in the world,” she recalled. That experience led Ellis-Lamkins to join the labor movement, which she argues “has been the most effective anti-poverty program in American history.”

After graduating from college in 1998, Ellis-Lamkins interned at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), organizing homecare and other low-wage employees. She soon joined the staff of the San Jose–based South Bay Labor Council, which boasts ninety unions and more than 100,000 members, and by 2003, at 26, had become its head. Through the council and Working Partnerships (a nonprofit labor–community coalition Ellis-Lamkins also directed), she worked to make sure the area’s dot-com prosperity was widely shared, earning the nickname “the Robin Hood of Silicon Valley.” She led a successful campaign for a local living-wage law, helped elect local progressives and pushed officials to include “community benefit agreements” as part of development projects.

In 2009 Ellis-Lamkins became head of Green for All, a group that brings unions and environmentalists together to push for anti-poverty measures and a clean-energy economy. Drawing on her close working relationships with the Obama White House and the heads of the EPA and the Labor Department, Ellis-Lamkins, now 36, helped lead the fight to include $500 million for green-job training as part of Obama’s 2009 stimulus package. Under her leadership, Green for All has helped several states and cities implement green jobs and energy-efficiency programs. Ellis-Lamkins, an African-American, acknowledges the difficulties of building bridges between unions, community groups, civil rights activists and environmentalists. “Getting people to care about what happens to the planet when they are worried about dinner tonight is one of the greatest challenges we face,” she explained.

§ Born in Mexico, Lucas Benitez at 17 moved to Immokalee, Florida, to work in the tomato fields, where he seethed over the mistreatment, lousy pay and backbreaking working conditions. As founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Benitez has become a leader in the struggle to end exploitation in America’s agricultural fields. CIW began in 1992; a few years later, Benitez, now 37, helped organize a strike of more than 3,000 Mexican, Central American and Haitian workers. CIW, which has built strong alliances with religious, environmental, union and student groups, scored its first major victory in 2005, when Taco Bell agreed to improve wages and working conditions in response to a national consumer boycott. So far ten giant retail food corporations—including McDonald’s, Sodexo and Whole Foods—have signed binding agreements with CIW that require growers to pass along an extra penny a pound to workers, raising average annual wages from $10,000 to $17,000.

§ Like farmworkers, most of America’s 2.5 million domestic workers—nannies, housekeepers and caregivers—are not covered by federal wage, overtime, organizing and other labor laws. Many toil twelve to fifteen hours a day and are paid less than $200 a week. So it was a major milestone when New York State passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. At least 200,000 domestic employees, mostly immigrants, are now entitled to a forty-hour workweek with overtime pay, one day of rest per week and three days of paid time off after a year of employment. The law protects them against sexual harassment and entitles them to temporary disability benefits and unemployment insurance.

This unprecedented victory came after a five-year organizing campaign led by Domestic Workers United and one of its founders, Ai-jen Poo. The daughter of immigrants, Poo points out that domestic workers “do the work that makes all other work possible.” After graduating from Columbia and working as a community organizer, Poo helped start DWU in 2000, assisting thousands in getting back pay and challenging other abuses. In 2007 she helped found the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has grown into a network of groups in nineteen cities and eleven states. California and several other states are considering versions of the New York law. In April, Time named Poo, 37, to its annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

§ Since his election to the New York City Council in 2009, Brad Lander has become a master at inside/outside organizing, using his office to encourage grassroots mobilization. Lander served for a decade as executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a Brooklyn nonprofit, which garnered national recognition for its combination of community organizing and community development. Lander then spent six years as director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, helping groups organize for neighborhood improvement. He led a successful campaign to create New York City’s inclusionary zoning program, which requires developers to set aside 20 percent of their units for low- and moderate-income families and to pay building service workers a living wage.

On the council Lander has led the fight for a living-wage law, community involvement in budgeting, affordable housing and an inspector general’s office to monitor the NYPD. A co-founder of the council’s progressive caucus, Lander, 43, helped catalyze a group of activists and academics to formulate One City/ One Future, a progressive manifesto for economic development.

§ In Los Angeles Paty Castellanos has been leading an unlikely coalition of the Teamsters, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and local public health and community groups to clean up the country’s largest and filthiest port area. Ships and trucks spew toxic pollutants that result in high cancer and asthma rates, particularly in nearby communities and among the port’s more than 10,000 truck drivers. Every year port-related pollution in Greater LA causes 1,200 deaths.

“We realized that issues affecting workers and communities are inextricably linked,” explained Castellanos, 42, the daughter of Mexican immigrant factory workers. A community organizer since 1995, she works for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which helped bring the coalition together. After a two-year campaign, the coalition persuaded the mayor-appointed Harbor Commission to adopt the Clean Trucks program, which has reduced toxic emissions by 80 percent. The campaign, which has improved conditions for drivers, has sparked similar efforts in other ports across the country.

§Teresa Cheng was bitten by the organizing bug as a student at the University of Southern California, where she joined the campus anti-sweatshop movement. One of Cheng’s first campaigns focused on Russell Athletic, which fired 1,200 Honduran workers and closed its factory after they tried collective bargaining. Cheng worked with the national umbrella group United Students Against Sweatshops to persuade universities to sever licensing agreements with Russell. USAS also picketed the National Basketball Association finals to protest the NBA’s licensing agreement with Russell. After sixty-five members of Congress signed a letter voicing “grave concerns over reports of severe violations” of workers’ rights at Russell, the company agreed to open a new plant in Honduras as a unionized factory and rehire the workers, and pledged not to fight unionization efforts at its seven other factories there. A year after graduating, in 2009, Cheng, now 25, joined USAS full time, orchestrating student-led campaigns against Nike, Adidas and other companies to improve conditions in overseas factories.

§ In 2010, as the foreclosure epidemic continued, George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action (NPA), and SEIU organizer Stephen Lerner brought unions, community organizations and faith groups together to pressure banks and the Obama administration to do more for families losing their homes. As the New Bottom Line coalition, they mounted protests at bank headquarters around the country, generating media attention and helping Attorneys General Eric Schneiderman of New York and Kamala Harris of California push for a stronger national settlement with banks over foreclosure relief.

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street strengthened the coalition’s hand, so Goehl worked with the New Bottom Line and others to sustain the momentum. Earlier this year a coalition of unions, community organizations, faith groups and some Occupiers—now dubbed 99% Power—began planning a series of protests focusing on specific targets (banks, corporations and government at all levels) with explicit demands for foreclosure relief, fair taxes, student debt relief and campaign finance reform. The coalition trained about 100,000 recruits in civil disobedience and organized protests at the headquarters and stockholder meetings of Cigna, General Electric, Bank of America and other corporations. In May Goehl, 43, led more than 1,000 people in a protest at Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s suburban home to demand that he and the Obama administration support a financial speculation tax on banks and require banks to help families with underwater mortgages refinance their loans.

Goehl has been an organizer for two decades, working with an Indiana housing rights group, a Chicago neighborhood organization and a national immigrant rights coalition. In 2007 he took over the reins at NPA, which had led the movement to pass the landmark anti-redlining Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. Goehl has knit NPA’s loose network into a more coherent organization that can juggle local and national issues simultaneously, shepherding NPA into alliances with unions and other activist groups—a remarkable accomplishment in the turf-conscious world of community organizing.


Fifty or 100 years from now, will children read books and watch films about these activists? Will schools and other public buildings be named after them? It may be hard to imagine that now. But in 1947—when Bayard Rustin was serving a prison term for trying to desegregate interstate buses—who would have imagined that he would be the subject of several biographies and a documentary film, or that Republicans in his hometown would name their new high school after him?

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