Built From the Ground Up
Since being appointed executive director of the Pomona Day Labor Center, Suzanne Foster '00 has seen her Pitzer studies come full circle as she continues to empower immigrant workers.
It's 6 a.m. as Suzanne Foster '00 pulls into the parking lot of HD Supply Repair & Remodel. She opens the black wrought iron gate that surrounds the Pomona Day Labor Center's trailer and makes her way to her office holding a steaming cup of coffee. After greeting workers and staff, Foster begins answering the phone and adding menís names to “the list” for possible employment.
By 8 a.m. she heads out to take one worker's wife and developmentally disabled son to their appointment with a geneticist. The mother is very nervous and doesn't really understand what is going on, so Foster comforts her as she struggles to translate words like “chromosome.”
When they return to the Center, David is waiting there for Foster. Last April when he was riding his bike home around noon, he was struck by a teenager who lost control of a stolen car during a police chase. Now he has steel rods in his legs and uses a walker. David has brought one of his hospital bills so Foster can help him figure out how to pay the bill and apply for financial aid.
Meanwhile, she continues to sign men up for work and answer the phone as employers call. Two new student volunteers arrive and she gives them a tour of the Center. By now it's 2 p.m. and she tries to sneak in a bite of her sandwich for lunch.
“Some believe that job centers should just be a source of employment and shouldn't provide any services or educational opportunities,” Foster said. “And that's true, the main priority of the Center is work. However even with employment as the ultimate goal, you still have to be responsive to people's realities, which include going to the doctor, understanding how to pay bills, securing a roof over your head and learning English. Helping with these things makes employment—better employment, frequent employment—possible.”
While Foster was hired as executive director of the Pomona Day Labor Center in March 2007, her work with the Center began several years before as a Pitzer College student.
She felt the initial spark of interest in this field while serving on the Student Worker Support Committee at Pitzer. Following an alterative spring break trip to the United Farm Workers headquarters in La Paz led by Professor of Sociology and Chicano Studies José Calderón, Foster was further motivated to become involved with workers' rights, unions and organizing and spent the summer participating in the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations' Union Summer internship program in Washington DC. She then studied abroad through the Pitzer in Ecuador program where she implemented a literacy project in a rural community outside of Otavalo.
“I was reading a lot of texts by Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire, who wrote about alternative education models and grassroots struggles,” Foster recalled. “He maintained that everyone is a teacher and that learning can lead to empowerment as well as a personal and societal transformation. When I returned from Ecuador, I found myself in a kind of life crisis like many college students do and questioned what I was doing with my life. I knew I was interested in workers' rights, literacy and education especially as these played out in Latin America, but I had no idea how this would translate into a career.”
That summer, with the help of Calderón, Foster found her answer. After inquiring into summer projects that might be of interest to her, Calderón suggested the Pomona Day Labor Center and as Foster remembers that was when it all “clicked.”
“With my subsequent work at the Center, I found an intersection of all of my interests—low-wage workers from Latin America who are struggling to defend their rights and are organizing themselves to improve their lives,” Foster said. “As a member of the Center's board of directors, Calderón encouraged me to talk to the workers, ask them what they thought of the Center and what if anything they would like to see changed.”
The Center, located in a business center west of downtown Pomona and east of the Corona Freeway, opened its doors in January 1998. A HD Supply Repair & Remodel store is situated on the south side of the business center and after employers purchase materials there they oftentimes proceed to hire workers who congregate in the parking lot. In 1997 the City of Pomona passed an ordinance that prohibited “the solicitation of or for work on any street or highway, public area or non-residential parking area;” however, thanks to a coalition of community organizers including Pitzer students and faculty, the ordinance was amended and the Center designated as the only lawful place to solicit work in the city.
One of the common threads that emerged from Foster's conversations with the workers more than a year later during the summer of 1999 was their frustration with researchers who had come and asked questions, but never returned to share or do anything to help them. The workers noted that English classes had been promised to them, but since the Center's founding they had not been offered. Foster continued to listen to and record their concerns that summer, and eventually the workers suggested that she begin teaching English courses.
Driven to see this promise finally fulfilled, Foster and several other Pitzer students began investigating how to best teach English as a second language in a day labor center setting.
Recognizing that these were adult learners who did not necessarily have many years of formal education and may not be literate in Spanish, Foster and the other students interviewed different organizations such as the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) to learn more about how these groups were working with day laborers in L.A. and implementing successful English programs.
They decided to build a program modeled after these organizations and in the fall of 1999, Foster and the other students began teaching the first English classes at the Center. This work then developed into the topic for Foster's senior thesis in which she concluded that teaching English to the workers, which some just consider a social service, actually empowers them— allowing them to talk with their employer, ask for a higher wage and better understand their rights.
After graduating in 2000, Foster continued her involvement with the Center for another year as an urban fellow for Pitzer's Center for California Cultural and Social Issues (CCCSI) as well as a board member for the Center, and went on to earn a masterr's degree in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles. Foster landed her first job with IDEPSCA, where as a day laborer program manager, she learned how an organization is run, how to supervise and how to create a budget, among many other skills. Next she coordinated the Coalition for Health and Justice for the south-L.A. nonprofit organization Community Health Councils and helped advocacy groups try to prevent the closure of King/Drew Medical Center.
“While I really liked doing this work and believe in it, my heart kept calling me back to the day laborers,” Foster recalled. “I shared these feelings with José, who I had continued to stay in touch with, and he suggested that I start helping out with writing grant proposals part-time at the Center. I began attending the Center's monthly board meetings again and that's when I was invited to apply for the executive director position.”
As one of four candidates, Foster was not only selected for the position by the board of directors, but also by worker leaders who were part of the interview and hiring process. The workers remembered Foster and her years of service at the Center—they trusted her. “Suzanne was chosen for this position because of her past history of working with the Center while a student at Pitzer, her administrative experience with other day labor centers in L.A., her ability to work and communicate with diverse populations, and her qualifications as a grant writer,” Calderón noted.
Foster's foremost goal upon beginning as director has been to encourage workers to assume significant leadership roles in the Center. She continues to strengthen the Center's worker board as well as encourage weekly meetings in which plans of action are discussed for issues like immigration, health and education rights. She has ensured that worker representation also remains reflected in the Center's full-time staff, which is composed of two staff coordinators who were day laborers, as well as an office coordinator who is from a day laborer family. Working with the board of directors, Foster has been instrumental in creating a series of retreats to define the mission of the organization and to develop both short- and long-term goals.
Among the long-term goals, is the securing of funds to make the Center increasingly selfsufficient and less dependent on the City of Pomona. Foster has focused in particular on diversifying the Center's funding with grants from private foundations. Most recently, a grant she wrote resulted in $50,000 in funding for operational purposes. Another change Foster has instituted is the allocation of the workers' weekly dues into a fund that they alone manage. “I encourage them to think big,” Foster said. “They have these funds with which they could create any business or project of their choosing, not what someone else tells them to do.”
Foster has also ensured that English continues to be taught at the Center, with classes being offered six days a week for approximately four hours per day. She continues to strengthen the Center's ties to area colleges such as Pitzer so that both the workers and college students may benefit from the advances service-learning programs make possible. Through their volunteer work at the Center, Pitzer students like Stephanie Hyland '10, who began teaching English there as part of Calderón's Social Stratification course, are able to apply what they learn in the classroom to the realities faced by the workers as well as the Center's staff.
“After my course ended, and my papers were written, I asked the workers if they would like me to continue teaching and they all agreed,” Hyland said. “I have learned a lot about myself, as I build relationships with those who come and go from the Center. More often than not, the men have a number of things to teach me.”
Hyland continued, “We always try to share stories and opinions with one another. Suzanne has taught me a great deal as well. Sometimes she helps out with the classes, giving input or helping to explain a concept. But most importantly, she has taught me how to make do with what I have, whether it be one student or twenty, one pen or fifteen.”
In addition to providing a space for the workers to find employment and take ESL classes, under Foster's direction the Center has continued to evolve into a place where the men can organize and participate in citizenship drives, health clinics, pilgrimage marches and immigrant rights advocacy efforts.
Despite the incredible progress that has been made during the Center's first ten years, one of the greatest challenges that Foster, the workers and the Center currently face is the economic downturn being felt across the U.S. and especially in Southern California's building and real estate markets. Analysts maintain that such a decrease in the construction and housing industries has not been seen in at least twenty-five years. Builders have slowed new construction because they are unable to sell existing properties; local homeowners cannot afford to hire contractors for remodeling and instead many opt to do the work themselves; and real estate agents trying to sell foreclosed homes do not have the resources to make any improvements.
“The economy has just flatlined,” Foster said. “And unfortunately any shifts in the economy are most severely felt by day laborers. Whether it's working my way through the Yellow Pages or using an online resource, I contact numerous construction companies, contractors and real estate agencies each day but they just laugh and say ‘Are you kidding me? I'm not even working, how am I going to hire somebody else.’”
One worker, Conrado, recognized how the Center helps with morale, but after two weeks without work he begins to question how he and his family are going to live if he doesn't find employment soon. Foster and the Center are trying to address this by providing additional services like job training, but even that is complicated. It is difficult to find instructors who have the right skills sets, speak Spanish and are also familiar with the day laborer population. Furthermore, all of the men have different skill levels and many are weary of training because it increases competition among them.
Another worker, Roberto, noted that in addition to the decline in the economy, day laborers are also vulnerable to changes in government as these most often result in immigration reform. With the presidential elections approaching, day laborer Simon observed that employment has slowed.
While Foster will be the first to admit that there is a lot of work to be done and that her “to-do” list is ever increasing, she is inspired by the workers and devoted to making the Center a place were they always feel safe and welcome—a place where they can ask questions and get answers they trust.
“Once I get to know people, I feel a responsibility to stay with them in the struggles they face,” Foster said. “It may get overwhelming for them and me because some obstacles seem insurmountable, but there still remains a tremendous amount of hope and that's what keeps us going. Everyone here feels like things have to change someday. What it really comes down to is, we are fighting for a fundamental civil rights issue: the freedom to look for work. After what these men and their families have risked and left behind, how can we allow them to be persecuted,” she continued.
In watching over the years as Foster volunteered as a student at the Center, researched her senior thesis and then returned to assume a leadership role as a Pitzer alumna, Calderón believes her example truly reflects what community-based research, teaching and learning is all about. “From the very beginning Suzanne's passion for immigration rights advocacy was evident as she naturally implemented a style of work with the day laborers that treated them as equals,” Calderón said. “She is now part of a site that is not only building leadership among immigrant workers, but is also empowering students in working alongside day laborers in implementing projects that mutually influence and benefit their future lives.”