Thursday, November 11, 2010

5 Questions with Randy Shaw, author of Beyond the Fields

How'd the book come to be?

I knew many people who had gone from working for the United Farmworkers (UFW) in their twenties to devoting the rest of their lives to enhancing social justice. I felt that the UFW’s role as the great activist and organizing incubator of its time had not been written about, and that people would be interested in learning how this one social movement has had such lasting and ongoing influence.

What was the most interesting chapter to write?

My favorite chapter describes how the UFW grape boycott created leadership opportunities for women, Latinos, and young people that were not otherwise available in labor struggles, and how a sense of community was created among the thousands of volunteers working long days for $5 a week plus room and board. The notion of getting supermarkets across North America to stop selling grapes seemed like an impossible quest, and it was fun writing about how this strategy succeeded.

What's the main message you'd like to get out there through it?

People should evaluate the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the UFW not by current union membership roles, but by the people the farmworkers’ movement inspired to lifelong commitments to activism, and by the ideas and strategies it generated that still set the course for many of today’s social movements. Barack Obama’s 2008 grassroots presidential campaign has its roots in the UFW electoral outreach of the 1960’s and 70’s (“Yes We Can” is the UFW’s rallying cry, “Si Se Puede”), the immigrant rights movement was greatly influenced by UFW alumni and ideas, and no organization has provided as many opportunities for idealistic young people to engage in fulltime organizing work as did the UFW in its heyday.

What kind of man was Cesar Chavez?

A far more religious and deeply spiritual man than people realize, and whose own sense of sacrifice for the good of farmworkers inspired others. Chavez’s family owned a house before losing it and becoming farmworkers. I think knowing a better life, combined with his own negative experiences in the fields, compelled Chavez to take on the seemingly impossible task of organizing California farmworkers.

What's next for you?

I am very involved in improving and promoting San Francisco’s Uptown Tenderloin Historic District, and expect my next book to focus on this unique community where I have worked since 1980.

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