SOCIAL ACTIVIST & UNION REPRESENTATIVE
THE FAST FIVE
The Short Story: Belle is a Dental Assistant turned Social Activist, with a couple of stints as a Sales Associate in between. She’s completing her AA degree at Antelope Valley College in California, and applying to transfer to the California State University system to complete her Bachelor’s degree in Communications.
Biggest College Fear: “There have definitely been times where I’ve asked, ‘is this college thing worth it?’ But as a first-generation college student, I want my little sister to see me finish. I want her to know that you can overcome all the obstacles, financially and emotionally.”
Virgin Business Lesson: “I’m very nervous when I speak. So when I would have to do phone banking, which basically hours of cold calling and conversations with union members, I’d be like, please, just let me do anything else but this! Speaking is one of those things you just have to keep practicing. My Supervisor constantly reminded me of the bigger picture. In order to accomplish tasks that would really help those I serve, I needed to grow my communication skills and get comfortable talking.”
Industry Uniqueness: “Campaigning takes a lot of heart, emotion, and empathy. But at the same time, it also takes logic and analysis to determine what reasonable steps you can take to solve an issue or to make something better. It also takes emotional strength, because the journey to resolution can be draining.”
Right Now YOU Should Be: “Learning how to network. Seek advice from other’s who are doing what you think you might want to do. Learn about their journey to help create milestones for your own. Do your own research, watch interviews online, read articles, search professional organizations. Build a solid base so that you can keep moving forward with a roadmap, even if your direction changes.”
MORE FROM BELLE
My family was ripped apart when we moved from Los Angeles to the desert.
I was born in Los Angeles and moved to Lancaster when I was thirteen years old. The desert was the most affordable option, given our financial challenges. I went from six people living in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, to living with my Mom and little sister, in a place where I knew no one. My older siblings were adults and stayed in LA. My father was working in a different part of the state. Moving had a big emotional effect on me; so the first couple of years of high school were about getting my act together.
I trained as a Dental Assistant in a high school occupational program.
Luckily my high school had this regional occupation program where they trained you in trade skills to start a career. I was thrown into a dental office class and was on my way to becoming a dental assistant. It’s so random to think about it now, cuz I’m just like, ‘I was really thinking that that was going to happen!’ It was freshman year, and I thought the subject matter was kind of interesting. And, it gave me some direction, so I thought, ‘why not continue to purse it?’ In retrospect, the program was very helpful because it taught me skills like building a resume, how to interview– things they don’t teach you in normal high school curricula that gave me a big advantage. So even though I didn’t follow through with the dental career, it has shaped a lot of what I know now.
In high school, they really push the “four year plan” – emphasizing the idea that if you don’t go to a four year college right after high school, you won’t go to college. But they never ask, “what are your interests?” or “what can you see yourself doing for the rest of your life?” The four-year plan isn’t for everyone. When I think about what I want for my little sister, now a sophomore in high school, I want her to have the chance to really think about a career now. And to have access to structured programs like I did that will allow her to learn basic professional skills.
Financially and emotionally, I wasn’t stable enough to go to a four-year college. After graduating from high school, my initial plan was to ride the dental career train for as long as I could. Pasadena City College offered a dental hygienist program, but the universe works in mysterious ways. I missed too many application deadlines and wound up having to take a semester off. I’d also been applying for dental assistant jobs to help pay for college, but kept getting rejected due to lack of experience. The job hunting process was frustrating because I felt like I’d completed four years of training with internships, which meant I had some experience, but kept hearing, “we can’t just trust a trade program from high school,” or “you just don’t have enough experience”. How was I supposed to get the two years of experience needed if no one would hire me? I became discouraged with the dental world, and wound up enrolling at Lancaster Community College as a full time college student.
At first, volunteering was just an excuse to go back and hang out in Los Angeles, but then I realized I was intrigued with union organizing.
As a Home Healthcare Worker, my mother had been active in the union since I was eight years old. I’d seen aspects of the operations like phone banking and recruiting members. So during college I volunteered for my mom’s labor union, observing the behind the scenes action.
Today, I’m the co-founder of Children Over Politics, an organization inside the SEIU Local 521, where I help organize the sons and daughters of labor workers to become more involved in their communities and social justice issues. We give young people space to talk about what’s going on in their communities and to figure out what they’d like to do to help the situation. The organization is led by youth for youth. Members of the organization are 14 – 25 years of age and include the children of SEIU members and the children of partner organizations. COP Chapters are located in Los Angeles, Fresno, San Jose and Oakland. Our goal is to encourage the youth to speak out on the issues that affect them. Now more than ever, my job is to give them the resources that they may need to navigate the political times; whether that’s legislative options or simply hosting the next talking circle. In short, my job is to engage and empower youth.
This job gives me a unique opportunity, because the union is open to hearing our ideas. We are rarely told this isn’t something you should be doing. We have free reign about the issues we pursue. I like the entrepreneurial aspects of the job and knowing that what we do isn’t just about hitting sales numbers and making money. It’s about how we can make a real difference in a life. The work I do here is more big picture and for the common good of everybody, not just one company or one group of people.
Right now on the job, I’m learning how to capture stories to convey meaningful messages.
Communication is so important. I’ve changed my major to communications and learned more about theory, how to convey a message, how to persuade or engage an audience. When I was volunteering in member services, anytime a member had questions about their time sheets, or their clients, I’d help mediate. So I learned how to communicate with the members, and mange relationships with outside sources that affect their job.
Now, I’m focused on telling stories powerful enough to drive change. For example, there was a documentary called “Rape on the Nightshift” that illuminated the sexual harassment and physical danger female janitors face on the job. That film played an important part in a campaign we joined with USWW to fight for a bill that would force companies to conduct background checks on janitorial company supervisors. You’d have thought many of these companies were already conducting these kinds of checks, but they weren’t. It’s a great example of how storytelling can translate into positive action.
People skills are so important. Whether it’s the empathy required to hear numerous stories of such horrific personal violation, or the ability to listen and find the real question a union member is asking you, I’m learning the power of connection and how to convey the right message at the right time. And, I’m really improving my Spanish speaking skills!
I keep finding new aspects of the communication field. When I think about my future, I know I’d like to continue in communications. I do enjoy forming stories, building relationships and having the skills to launch a social media campaign. But the exact next career step, I don’t know because there are various aspects to communications. I know I’ll find more to explore in my next academic experience too. Someday, I would like to challenge myself working more on the political side of things. My Communication Professors have also been cool to engage with, so I’ve been thinking about teaching also.