Victor Narro is project director for the UCLA Labor Center and has been at the forefront of the movement to found and grow worker centers that enforce rights for workers in low-wage industries. He also has been referred to as the grandfather of the Los Angeles CLEAN Carwash Campaign. Below he explains the foundation of his new book, “Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality With Your Work for Justice,” in which he explores labor activism and spirituality. As we gather on this Thanksgiving, let’s take a minute and give thanks for Victor and activists like him who spend their lives dedicated to bringing justice and equality to all.
Within the labor movement and other movements for social justice today we are suffering from a major crisis: the enormous deficit of spirituality and self-care from which we are able to frame the narrative of our work. We either keep our spirituality and faith to ourselves, or there is no process to integrate it and use it as a source of interconnectedness to build strong solidarity. Similarly, there is a lack of self-care and community care within the movement. We are facing major challenges that far exceed our human capacity to take them on. We often find ourselves suffering fatigue and burnout, which lead to a breakdown of our bodies and spirit. Our unhealthy lives as activists–whether you are an organizer, policy advocate, lawyer or researcher–is impacting the overall health of our movement for worker justice. The transformation of the labor movement will depend on our ability to transform how we approach our work for worker justice and how we transform each other.
In my new book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality With Your Work for Justice, I argue that the work of labor activism is a form of spirituality in and of itself. As labor advocates, we have the foundation of spirituality within us from which we can approach the work together and rebuild the labor movement from within. Each of us is an instrumental creative part of the universal being of labor activism and worker justice, and there is no one role that rises above the others. The spiritual framework that we need to strengthen the labor movement as we move forward will rely on 1) our interconnectedness with each other, and 2) our embrace of a labor activism through compassion and humility.
The interconnectedness between all of us in the labor movement should become an indispensable part of our work. This is so especially where we find ourselves dispersed in so many different strategies and campaigns, and often disconnected from each other. St. Francis of Assisi, the peace activist of the Middle Ages from whom I derive my spirituality, would spend long hours with each of his brothers who formed the first band of followers of his teachings. He lived and practiced daily the heart-to-heart connections with them. Similarly, in the labor movement, we are all interwoven–ourselves, our lives, the workers we represent and what we are striving to accomplish. Francis had the capacity to go deep into someone’s heart and share the joy and sadness of that person. As labor activists, we too have the potential to connect through our hearts and let that connection be the driving force that enables us to struggle together, to strategize together and to win together. In reaching such a potential of human relationship, we will create the spiritual binding force from which we can move forward with a collective strategy. This is true solidarity in action within the labor movement–our interconnectedness with one other.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist, Zen master, poet, scholar and human rights activist, in his Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, states that we must be “determined not to spread news that [we] do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord.” He goes on to state that we must “make daily efforts, in [our] speaking and listening, to nourish [our] capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in [our] consciousness.”
We must learn to engage in active listening with our heart, which will enable us to speak through compassion or loving speech, and not anger, frustration or fear. Active listening without passing judgment is a gift we can give to each other to enhance our work in the labor movement. When we are really heard and the other understands our meaning and emotions, we feel valued and respected, a condition necessary for strengthening our movement. There is no more precious gift, to give or receive, than to listen to the words of another. This process of active listening and loving speech will enable us to be mindful of and respect the dignity within each one of us. There is really no meaning in an activity unless there is a deep interconnection with our spirituality and with one another in our work for worker justice.
The second principle we must embrace is a model of compassion and humility. To be humbled, it is said, strengthens a generous spirit. Like the principles of nonviolence, humility in social justice work is not submission or a state of passiveness; rather, it is a powerful force for change. Francis understood that the biggest threat to humility was the power of human pride and ego. For him, humility in its highest form (holy or spiritual humility) always puts pride and ego to shame. Francis saw humility as the only way to prevent our ego from poisoning our pride. In this way, humility is a form of “self-activism” where we, as labor activists, take proactive steps to ensure that we act for the act itself, and not to feed our selfish desires or be puffed up by the praise of others. Just as Francis preached a way of life through the principle of humility, we must approach our work in the same way. What does this mean? It means that we must exercise humility through acts of compassion and selflessness as we carry out tasks in our everyday work–in a campaign, in a picket line, at a protest, giving a presentation or workshop, making house visits, attending worker assemblies, visiting policymakers, etc. Whatever activity we engage in as part of our work as labor activists, we must always do it through the principle of humility that Francis teaches us. After all, true leadership is about knowing when to step back so that others can step forward.
As we struggle to transform the labor movement, let us embrace a new approach to moving forward together. Let us create a spiritual framework of humility, compassion and respect that will provide for a more cohesive collective strategy and a stronger movement as we continue the fight for workers’ rights.
For more information on "Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality With Your Work for Justice," go to https://www.facebook.com/ConnectingSpirituality. Narro can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/victor.narro and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NarroVictor.