My name is Andy Schwiebert and I'm on the Advance Team for the two San Francisco Bay Area buses traveling across the country to Washington DC and New York on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. I feel so lucky to play such an exciting and fulfilling role in what I believe to be an historic event with long-lasting effects such as putting immigration reform back on the political map and recreating a movement for justice for all people, especially immigrants.
Being on the Advance Team means that I travel a city ahead of the two buses filled with immigrant workers and their community allies, working with local organizers to polish the details of each city's events. I have been making phone calls to media contacts highlighting the city's events, preparing immigrants for interviews, shopping for last minute materials, making signs for rallies, and finalizing hotel arrangements.
Although in general I travel one city ahead of the buses and leave before the group actually arrives, occasionally, as in Reno, NV, I get the incredible opportunity to see the fruits of the tireless work of months of organizing materialize.
But why fly, drive and bus my way across the country, helping to pave a smooth way for buses filled with low wage immigrant workers? Why am I taking a week off of seminary school to spend my days and nights preparing mostly for events that I will never directly see or experience?
The reason is that I feel a deep passion for social justice driven by the fundamental, yet simple belief that we humans are all equal and should treat each other justly and with dignity. This comes out of my faith in a God of love, justice, compassion and mercy.
I have been involved with social justice work for the past four years since I graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Anthropology and Latin American Studies. That summer after leaving Berkeley, I worked for a human rights and social justice organization in Mexico and Colombia for three years doing advocacy and grassroots organizing to improve U.S. foreign policy towards those two conflict-plagued countries.
In Mexico and Colombia I was exposed to incredibly courageous people who, under terribly difficult circumstances, were working to uncover the truth about violent human rights abusers, strive for non-violent conflict resolution, and speak out as union organizers in the face of violence. I met farmers in Mexico who were forced to leave their families and towns to travel north in search of work because they were no longer able to compete with heavily subsidized U.S. corn and other farm products after the entrance of NAFTA. Most all of these people had two very important things in common: their belief that things could change for the better and a deep faith in God.
Since returning from Latin America last year, I decided to attend the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Before beginning, I wanted to put my faith into action again by working for the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice as a Seminary Summer Intern. In that internship this summer, I was placed with the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 2850 in Oakland, California. Throughout the summer, I got to meet and work with horribly underpaid hotel housekeepers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, China and elsewhere and hear their stories about their struggles to make ends meet and to organize in the workplace for justice--a decent wage and basic benefits like health care and vacation.
This summer I was moved by stories from people like Maria Perla, a housekeeper at the Embassy Suites Hotel in San Rafael. Maria came from El Salvador 14 years ago, desperately in search of a way to support her three young children back in her home country. She works two jobs for a total of 70 hours a week. Maria sends money home to her kids and talks on the phone with them each week. Because she has a work permit and no permanent resident status, she cannot go visit them without losing her visa nor can they come visit her. She hasn't seen her three children in 14 years! And that's not all.
When she and her co-workers began to demand respect, fair wages, and health benefits in her workplace through union representation, the employers sent 60% of all the workers at her hotel letters threatening that they would be fired because of problems with their social security numbers. This veiled questioning of the workers' citizenship status was a direct attack on workers' right to freely choose whether or not to seek union representation and to stand up for justice in the work place.
My job during the summer was to work with local clergy and church lay leaders on supporting worker justice campaigns, one of which involved planning and carrying out events leading up to the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. Last Wednesday, on September 17th I helped organize an Immigrant Rights March in San Rafael, California. At that event 300 immigrants and community allies marched through downtown San Rafael for immigration reform as a part of the national mobilization.
After meeting people like Maria, I feel even more passionate about supporting this national mobilization for equal treatment, workplace protections, legalization, a path to citizenship and the protection of civil liberties. It is important to me to participate in building this amazing, historic movement.
Andy Schwiebert is a student at the Pacific School of Religion.