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Empowering the Powerless

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Let me tell you about Fred Ross, newly inducted into the California Hall of Fame in the State Museum that honors distinguished Californians.

Ross, who died in 1992, was for more than a half-century one of the most successful community organizers in the country.

Cesar Chavez was a typical Ross trainee, a poor, inexperienced member of an oppressed minority who was inspired to mobilize others like him to stand up to their oppressors.

Chavez was among the Mexican-Americans living in California's barrios in the 1950s who Ross helped form political blocs to demand improvements in the woefully inadequate community services provided them. Within a year, the small organizations formed by the residents of particular barrios joined into a potent statewide group, the Community Services Organization, headed by Chavez.

A few years later, Chavez founded what became the United Farm Workers Union. It was the country's first effective organization of farm workers precisely because it was built in accord with Ross' principles -- from the ground up -- by Chavez and other farm workers relying heavily on such non-violent tactics as the boycott.


Ross had started out as the manager of a federal migratory labor camp near Bakersfield in the 1930s, helping camp occupants organize to win improvements in the deplorable working conditions in the fields where they worked.

Ross left the migrant camp to work with Japanese-Americans who were herded into internment camps during World War II. After the war he helped Mexican and African-Americans win major fights against housing and school segregation in Los Angeles.

His most ambitious and probably most satisfying work came during his 15 years of training hundreds of organizers and negotiators for the United Farm Workers Union.

Fred Ross was a trailblazer, a pioneer. He was -- and he remains -- a vitally important model for those seeking to empower the powerless and to truly reform, if not perfect, our imperfect society.

With a Perspective, this is Dick Meister.

Dick Meister is a veteran labor journalist.

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