At times, the best way to truly honor those who have selflessly and tirelessly served is with a simple “thank you.” This past Monday (Feb. 9), the Harvard Foundation thanked civil rights legend Dolores Huerta for her years of service as a labor organizer and activist by presenting her with the 2008 Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian of the Year Award in front of a captivated audience at Quincy House. A co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), Huerta is regarded as one of the most powerful and influential labor movement leaders of our time.
The annual ceremony, in which the students and faculty of the Harvard Foundation honor a widely recognized philanthropist and/or humanitarian with the award, this year featured a tribute performance by Mariachi Véritas de Harvard, remarks by leaders of cultural groups on campus, and words by Harvard Foundation Director S. Allen Counter.
Huerta, a native of California and the daughter of a farmworker and union organizer, has fought for years to protect the labor rights of farmworkers, co-founding UFW in 1962 with late civil rights activist César Chávez. Huerta has not only been imprisoned for fighting for workers’ rights, but at the age of 58 she was also severely beaten for leading a peaceful and lawful protest against the policies of then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, who had derided the UFW and its grape boycott.
Upon receiving the award, the humble Huerta was gracious; however, she did not hesitate to redirect the event’s focus by forcefully reminding the audience of mostly students of their civil obligation as U.S. citizens.
“The idea of America is not a place,” Huerta said. “It’s an idea of freedom; it’s an idea of liberty. It means that each of us [has] to be patrons in our society. … We’ve got to be prepared to fight, which means we’ve got to be prepared to march, demonstrate — and yes, go to jail once in a while. Like Dr. King did. Like César did. Like I did. Like Gandhi did. Like Mandela did. We’ve got to be able to take that other step.
“The end of your education has got to be in service to others. … The end of our education should never be just to make money,” she said. “The most important thing is to serve and give back to our communities.”