Benny Corona, the writer of this article, handing out masks to farmworkers in the summer of 2020 in the Tulare County area. Photo by Andrew Corona

Essential Workers, Love and MLK Jr.’s Lasting Influence

By Benny Corona

Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say that we should always believe that there exists inherent value in all of us. And that our worthiness, and somebodiness, cannot be defined by anyone because it was given to us as a birthright.

Each life has infinite value and ultimate significance because there will never be one like it again. For bad or for worse. This is our only time in this universe as fully aware human beings.

MLK’s philosophy also follows that because of our divinity; we have a moral obligation to strive for excellence in all our endeavors. Even if it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, strive to be the best street sweeper the universe has ever seen.

For most of my life, I have been a farmworker, working full-time, part-time and for some extra income for 17 years starting in elementary school. Today, these workers go by a new name that has been attributed to all workers that are considered “essential” to keeping the basic infrastructure of society going.

Farmworkers, healthcare workers, firefighters, fast-food workers, teachers and construction workers are just some of a long list defined by both the federal and state governments as essential workers.

Governments have called it the duty of these workers to continue working despite considerable exposure to the ongoing pandemic and despite the fact that many might not have access to the healthcare that they would need should they fall victim to Covid-19.

Perhaps the Central Valley, like no other place in the United States, has seen this irony play out with hundreds of thousands of farmworkers without health insurance putting their bodies on the line so that the rest of us can get food and sit at home in comfort at our dinner tables.

Although this is nothing new, and many of us grew up seeing the sacrifices that farmworkers make everyday for the rest of society, the pandemic is highlighting the experiences of these workers and their importance in a way that contradicts the invisibility of the past.

I was fortunate that in my time as a farmworker, I ran into the writings of the late MLK, whose work I began imprinting and tried to apply everyday. To this day, his writings and his work are my favorite soul-nurturing ruminations and inspiration.

MLK also used to say that there is a place for everyone in the struggle for justice and in shaping a better world. To me, that meant even farmworkers. And beyond helping me develop an unwavering sense of self-worth, MLK’s wisdom helped me develop my passion for my community into works.

If I now live a life of privilege, it is my moral responsibility to use my power to uplift other students like me and to help make life easier for future generations of essential workers.

That means recognizing that we can’t be the “Greatest Country on Earth” unless all of our people have their basic necessities met. Not because we are entitled to them, but because to achieve this is to achieve a bare minimum standard of human dignity and respect. Meeting these basic standards and raising them as we go are what will ultimately define the greatness of humanity and its evolution.

Today, millions of the same essential workers are putting their lives on the line for the rest of us even though they might not have food on the table, clean water, access to education/trade schools, consistent shelter or even healthcare.

The same way these essential workers in the fields and in the hospitals work with all the effort in their heart for the rest of society, it is the bare minimum for society to institute basic necessities such as a universal healthcare infrastructure, clean water and citizenship for these workers.

Not only are ideas like these feasible and arguably more cost-effective, they would be a macro reciprocation of the love and sacrifice that has been given by essential workers.

A tendency in humanity is that people won’t deal with something until it becomes an emergency whether that be in “getting my act together eventually,” dealing with a health-related issue or even addressing macro issues such as water infrastructure and Covid-19. Not only have I experienced this first-hand, but I have also seen it with many of the communities I have worked with.

Procrastination is so ingrained that at times it feels as if being proactive is like a nuisance even to those you are supporting. During this pandemic, however, it is essential workers, farmworkers, that are absorbing the costs of the stagnation, infighting and polarization from our federal political leadership. Again, this is nothing new.

While we voted, advocated and worked hard for the rest of society, my community has had to be at the mercy of politicians when it comes to the issues of a pathway to citizenship or cleaning up our air.

This is why for almost all my life, leadership for me has meant taking initiative and taking a proactive approach in dealing with the issues at home and the societal level. And moving away from a frame of thinking where I look at my community and ask why are things like this? Why are things so bad (e.g., air quality, water quality, poverty rates, educational rates)? Because I know the why already.

And instead more often taking an approach of saying why not this? How can things be better (e.g., regional agriculture leading the nation in carbon sequestration, 100% renewable energy powered rural towns, pipeline toward farm ownership for farmworkers)?

Not settling for the world as it is, but fighting for the world as it should be, even if it annoys some, and even if it requires a lot of extra hard work. But that is the price of leadership.

A question I continue to ask myself in observance of MLK’s national holiday: What price am I willing to pay to make the world a better place? Everyday is a chance to answer that call. Because even though we can’t all do great things, we can all certainly do many things with great love—the way essential workers do everyday and have been even before the pandemic.

Maybe the greatness of our people isn’t in the bombastic rare achievement, but rather in the mundane, as we all partake in the collective dance of maintaining the “infrastructure” of our society, a society that we have inherited by generations of champions such as MLK Jr. and other freedom fighters, and a society we will one day leave to the future generations.

Like those champions of the past, the words in this article will only have integrity if after I am finished, I go out and be the change I want to see in the world. Love must always have this consistency between what you say and what you do. Actions should always reflect the words spoken.

To the essential workers in our community. I love you. I see you. And I, too, will fight for you, the way you are fighting for us.

*****

Benny Corona is a graduate student at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. He is a​ Maddy Institute​ Wonderful Public Service Fellow working to improve Central Valley communities. He is also a ​UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Public Service award recipient​ for his contributions to the Central Valley. He was born and raised in Lindsay and has worked most of his life as a farmworker throughout the region. Contact him at ​bcorona417@berkeley.edu.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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