Explanatory Note: Araceli Hernandez worked at Casa Latina from 1995 to 2021, this interview was conducted when she was still holding the position of Director of this organization.
Interview with Araceli Hernández, Director of the Casa Latina Worker Center.
by Hilary Stern
HS: Hi Araceli. Thank you for meeting with me over Zoom and for taking the time to tell me about Casa Latina’s experience in adapting its popular education practices during a pandemic and social distancing. First of all, could you tell me how popular education was practiced in Casa Latina before the pandemic?
AH: In the Worker Center we have different meetings with the domestic workers and day laborers. Some of the meetings are for sharing information, for example updates on our legislative campaigns to create stronger labor protections or immigration rights, but most of the meetings are organizing meetings. There are weekly meetings where the day laborers and domestic workers identify problems in the management of the Worker Center, analyze them and propose different solutions. Then they decide which solution they will try out. After trying out a solution on a temporary basis, which is usually a new rule or policy, they evaluate the results and either change it or adopt it on a permanent basis. Sometimes they also analyze problems that they can’t solve by changing the rules of the Center, but rather involve a new local government policy or law. In that case, they work with attorneys and other community organizations to propose new local laws such as the Seattle Wage Theft Ordinance, the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance, the establishment of the Seattle Office of Labor Standards or the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Afterwards, they continue to analyze the implementation of these laws and give advice on how to improve their effectiveness. Now they are doing that through the Domestic Workers’ Council which is focusing on the Seattle and Washington State Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
As far as workers’ rights are concerned, before we had a program called CDT, which stands for the Workers Defense Committee, where people would meet every week to understand the rights that they had as immigrant workers. Workers would come with wage theft cases or cases of partial theft of wages. These groups would then analyze their own cases and the other participants’ cases. The goal of the program was to create a program where they themselves advocated for their themselves and supported others in advocating for their cases. One of their options was to go to the Department of Labor, but they also had other actions that they could take on their own. They could go speak with the employer as a group to ask to get paid. This program also made informational presentations on worker rights in the community. But the CDT was really where they practiced popular education in developing this mutual aid group.
We also have English classes based on popular education. The curriculum of the English classes focuses on the needs that the workers have at work and enables them to negotiate better working conditions. So they are very practical. The education coordinator also has meetings with the day laborers to see how they can continue to improve the classes to better meet their needs.
And we have also developed other employment courses, such as green cleaning and green gardening, all of them based on the experiences of domestic workers and day laborers. The courses on occupational health and safety focus on the most serious dangers that day laborers face according to the statistics, but the curriculum is developed based on the actual experiences of our members who are day laborers.
Before the pandemic we held all of these meetings and classes in our buildings. We had a big meeting room for the Worker Center where between 60 and 100 day laborers would gather every morning, three classrooms where 10 to 15 students would study English in the mornings and the evenings and another room for occupational workshops. There wasn’t any social distancing at all.
HS: How did the pandemic affect your practice of popular education?
AH: Truth be told, we were very proactive, because we were thinking that if there was a positive COVID case in the Center, our program would get shut down and if we aren’t allowed to gather anymore, what would happen with our jobs program? So we analyzed different models of dispatch with the day laborers and that’s when we decided to create a model where there weren’t people gathered in the Worker Center or where we could reduce the number of people. So what we did was to create different groups of workers. The workers selected six of them to be leaders and then they all had to select the leader whose group they wanted to be in. So what we did was to dispatch by groups instead of having everyone be present in the Center. In order to decide on this model we had to analyze several different models, like a rotational list that everyone participated in, or the other one where there were these groups. It took us two days to discuss and analyze all the models in the Assembly (which is the weekly organizing meeting of all of the members who are day laborers).
Then when we did have to close the Center (because of Washington State Governor Inslee’s declaration of a lock down) we just adapted the model of calling people on the phone for them to come by and pick up their work order and head out to work. So little by little we ended up adopting the new model.
After the pandemic started it was really complicated because even the staff didn’t know how to work with Zoom. I had been on Zoom meetings before but I didn’t know how to create break out rooms or anything. We had to learn ourselves as staff, but it has been very difficult to convince the day laborers that they shouldn’t be afraid of technology and enter into Zoom meetings because after the Center was closed it was very hard to communicate with the day laborers. However, we continued to meet over the phone with some of the day laborer leaders to plan the reopening of the Center.
HS: And how about the classes. What happened with the ESL classes or the other classes and the CDT and all of that?
AH: Well, we stopped the CDT because it was too hard to adapt the CDT to Zoom. What we did instead was to create webinars on labor rights and post them on Casa Latina’s Facebook page and those have had a lot of visits. The ESL classes are now taught through Facebook. The teachers record the classes and the workers can see them when they have time. This model has been very successful. According to what I’ve heard, some classes have had 1,200 visits. Students even share the lessons, like one person sees it and sends it to someone else. So it has been very difficult to know the impact of the ESL classes or who has seem them.
And the other meetings of the membership went over to Zoom. So the women’s leadership group, Women Without Borders, has about 90 attendees in their meetings. They are very big.
HS: And before the pandemic, how many attendees were there?
AR: Before, between 20 and 30 women met in person and now there are 90 meeting over Zoom.
In the HH, that’s the Household Helpers, the jobs program for domestic workers, we have meetings of about 60 -70 people. The Domestic Workers’ Council also meets over Zoom. That is where they are organizing the Domestic Bill of Rights on the local and state levels.
But it’s been a challenge with the day laborers because they aren’t comfortable working with technology, no matter how many volunteers have gone to help them individually to teach them how to connect to Zoom meetings. They tell me, “it’s my telephone that’s not working.” Sometimes they don’t have smart phones; they have those phones that open up in the middle, what are they called? I don’t know, one kind is a smart phone and other kind is ... [laughs]...stupid? Fortunately, Zoom also has the option of calling in by phone, so some of the day laborers call in by phone. But of the 150 day laborers that we have, about 50 connect to the meetings.
HS: They are weekly meetings.
AH: Yes, we have two kinds of meetings for the day laborers. Since we still have complaints (about the quality of work of the day laborers) and now it is even worse since we dispatch a day in advance, and sometimes the workers don’t show up because they had a party the night before, or they don’t feel well, or whatever, so they are sanctioned for not showing up to work. Well, there are always complaints, right? So we still have those conflict resolution meetings at the Center. That is where the coordinator and the worker leadership group follow up on all of the Worker Center problems. And also, twice a month we have a type of Assembly. A meeting where we give information about the organization and our campaigns. Like right now, there are a lot of immigration bills being discussed in Congress and a lot of people are confused, right? So that’s where we try to give them an overview of what is going on.
HS: What have you learned from this experience of practicing popular education during a pandemic?
AH: Well, from my perspective, now we have more tools that we know could work. Because with the gentrification that has been happening in the area where Casa Latina is located, there are a lot of people who live far away and weren’t able to participate in Casa Latina’s programming. This had limited how many members we could reach. Now we see that through Zoom we can connect to even people in other countries with our classes and workshops. In one meeting, some people connected from Mexico. Who knows how they found out about the meeting [laughs]. So there is an enormous capacity to be able to reach more people. So we could combine things. A lot of people can’t wait to get back to meeting in person. I think that this was the biggest sense of loss. For the day laborers this was their community. I mean, they were their friends, the ones that they saw every day. They really want to be able to come back. However, as we are started to think about and plan our reopening, we also realized that the staff spends a lot of time interacting with people. For example, someone wants more toilet paper for the bathroom, someone else wants them to open the door, another person wants to lodge a complaint, etc. Now the staff is very focused on customer service to the employers and on dispatching jobs and marketing them, etc. So we are thinking, how are we going to open back up? We don’t want that type of work, but we know that it is a space that they need.
And I think that the staff has also learned a lot about communicating using technology. For example, last Sunday I was putting up pictures and photos for the day laborers and I noticed that they were more interested (in the Zoom meeting) than if I just talked. I know that I could do the same thing in person, but sometimes I don’t have much time to do it since I spend so much time interacting with them. So this has shown us how important it is to have more time to be able to include visuals.
I think that in the future we will need to keep the tools of using social media, and that the day laborers will need to develop that ability. So we will need to follow up that, even though our services may be in person, it’s important that we maintain on-line options. Especially on Sundays, when a lot more people may participate because it is easier to attend an 8 am meeting from home and keep up to date with what is happening. So for me, it is important to recognize that we need to learn new digital techniques for collective communication including a phone tree. This was a fast learning process for the staff and also an opportunity to be able to review our organizational processes. Like right now, we are analyzing how we are going to reopen the Center. Will we open it up for everyone? Will we open it using lists of people? What is going to happen with the vaccinations? Will we wait until everyone is vaccinated until we open it up again? And on and on. So we have a lot of planning to do to open back up again.
We are working on the vaccinations and trying to convince everybody to take a vaccine but YouTube is not helping us with its theories [laughs] and its “information” [laughs]...
HS: Yeah, sometimes social media can be used for good and for bad...
AH: That’s right. For example one positive thing is that the University (of Washington) donated rapid COVID tests to us. So we are giving them to everybody every morning and 15 minutes later we get the result. We are announcing that we are doing this on our social media channels so that employers have more confidence in hiring day laborers. So it’s more work for us but we hope that it will increase the number of jobs for them, right? Yup. There have been a lot of changes.