The annual Wally Marks Changemaker Award usually honors a person outside the organization who has had a significant impact on the social justice movement in Los Angeles. This year, Margarita Ramirez's 30th year of service to Liberty Hill, we chose – for the first time ever – to honor one of our own staff. Beginning in 1981 as Program Associate and since then as Deputy Director of Grantmaking, Margarita has been an institution builder and a change agent. At tonight's gala Upton Sinclair Dinner, the crowd roared its approval when Margarita was introduced by three of the many colleagues on hand to honor her: Sylvia Castillo, District Director for Congresswoman Karen Bass; Larry Gross, Director of Coalition for Economic Survivial; and Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, Vice President of Organizational Growth at The Community Coalition. Here's the text of Margarita's remarks on accepting the Changemaker Award from Liberty Hill.
"I have thought long and hard about what I would like to say tonight — how I would wrap my brain around a 30-year history, just five years short of Liberty Hill’s history. I don’t think I can add much more to what has already been said, except to answer the question that most people ask of me: "What has sustained my interest and commitment to working at Liberty Hill for so long?"
Well, it’s a fairly easy response, and one that would be shared by many in this room tonight — for I am not the only one seeding gray hair. And there are plenty of people in this room who have traveled the road toward justice for much longer than 30 years.
There are two reasons, actually. One is that I am a “lifer.” Now, people become quite astounded when I say that I am a “lifer.” But I grew up in the 1950s and I remember that the notion of working in a long-term stable job was quite common. Getting a decent salary, settling in a home with children, sending them off to college and retiring with great satisfaction was what many people looked forward to in their senior years. My husband and soul mate, Clemente, who is with me here tonight, has been an employee with the State of California even longer than I have been at Liberty Hill.
For us baby-boomers, learning about stability and long-term investment in a “good life” were not that uncommon. But that time is long gone. Jobs are not as steady and a contingent labor force that struggles with dual incomes, unpredictable shelter, and an increasingly poor standards of living and education in this country are the norms of today.
My three wonderful children, who are also with me tonight, often lament that my generation probably had the best of it and that life for them will be a much more difficult journey. I can’t say I disagree with them, except that I think there are enormous opportunities, incredible innovations, and seemingly multiple ways of turning things around.
And therein lies the second reason why I have stayed with Liberty Hill for so long — I am also a “believer” and a strong person of faith. Now, I am not a religious person, to be quite honest. But I have tremendous faith in the power of people, of ordinary people.
People know their condition, they have the solutions, and they have a precious, powerful, and proven tool for turning things around. It's called organizing.
For Liberty Hill, stability and long-term investment has to be placed in ordinary people who organize and build power to win systemic change.
- Organizing is what stopped discrimination against children in housing in California back in 1978.
- Organizing is what sparked a national movement to regulate asbestos and win compensation for millions of exposed workers in 1980.
- Because of organizing, Californians breathe a little more easily and enjoy regulations that protect the health of those most exposed to pollution.
- Because of organizing, 400,000 L.A. bus riders ride the largest clean-fuel bus fleet in the country
- Because of organizing, 700,000 L.A. Unified high school students have a right to college-prerequisite courses.
- Organizing is what protects California’s 25,000 lesbian, gay, and transgender high school students from harassment and violence.
- Organizing put the living wage on the map in Los Angeles, raising wages for hotel workers, grocery and garment workers, taxi drivers, and hundreds of other hard-working men and women.
And Liberty Hill's early investments is what made all of that organizing, and so much more, possible.
Why are we all here tonight if not for good organizing work? I believe we come here to honor people that symbolize our deepest values about justice. I think we all come here tonight because we are all lifers and true believers in one form or another, and because we all share a strong sense of place and purpose.
Robert McAfree Brown, a great theologist and activist, once said, “How does one keep from growing old inside? Surely only in community. The only way to make friends with Time is to stay friends with people…. Taking community seriously not only gives us the companionship we need, it also relieves us of the notion that we are indispensable.”
Esteemed honorees, my dearest colleagues in philanthropy, my staunch comrades out in the trenches, and my hard-working fellow staff at Liberty Hill — past, present and future — thank you all so much for your friendship and for sustaining more than half of my life in community.