Hector Cerda

Grassroots: Profiles of Local Activist Leaders

Pam Whalen, of all the people I’ve interviewed, has perhaps the clearest vision of what her work as an activist is directed toward: “A workers’ paradise.” For her entire life, she has been propelled into a variety of causes and projects by the motivation of achieving justice, democracy, respect and decent living conditions for the laborers and line workers who keep the society and economy going. And if this be called class warfare—so be it.

Pam comes by her allegiance naturally. He maternal grandparents were immigrants with a radical past who considered FDR as their hero. She grew up on a family farm where canners dictated—harshly—the terms of exchange as members of a cartel, heedless of the needs of the producers. And even by age 10, Pam recalls, she became involved in a political contest: the attempt to save the local school from incorporation into a larger school district. “I remember going around the area in a pickup filled with sheep yelling out our slogan, ‘Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes.’”

By high school, Pam was going to United Farm Worker (UFW) actions, and by college, she became involved in protests against the war in Vietnam. “My brother was facing the draft, and with my grandfather as a card-carrying party member, reflexive anti-communism made no sense. It was always evident that the powerful decision makers were not my allies.”

After college, Pam entered her lifetime vocation of activism and labor organizing. She has been employed by the UFW, Radio Bilingue (as development director) and SEIU Locals 535 and 250, with the latter morphing into becoming a major organizer for the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). She was also (along with husband Mike Rhodes, who is not coincidentally the editor of this paper) a founder of the Latin American Support Committee (LASC), which organized on behalf of the democracy movements in such countries as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico. It is greatly satisfying for Pam to see the recent success of anti-corporatist movements in South and Central America.

Pam is passionate in her call to people to reject powerlessness, the passivity and acceptance of the existing power structure as taught by most schools and churches and mass media. “They inculcate the myth of the legitimacy of our existing power brokers and the conception that we are alone in our ideas that there should be change. People have become intimidated by even the thought of confrontation over values.”

She views her task as convincing people to understand and assert their rights and (especially in the case of already-convinced activists) to go the next step and become organizers. “I’m not preaching revolution, just involvement in simple projects like voter registration or canvassing an issue, work that calls for knocking on doors, connecting to individuals. Right now, a small minority is making the key decisions. But we have the numbers if only people would vote their interests.”

Her suggestion to our readers is to look inward, find what you want the world to live in to look like and determine what part you will play to make that happen.

Looking back, Pam feels satisfaction in her role in organizing Fresno County workers to resist cutbacks (circa 1997), in getting major concessions for the 10,000 county homecare workers and helping Shirley Kirsten organize the substitute teachers of Fresno Unified. She has happily seen huge changes in the possibilities open for women, especially in unions.

She takes pride in being a founding board member of this unique paper and in raising two daughters who have taken up the activist mantle. Although she has also been involved in painfully lost labor campaigns and seen the breakdown of democracy within unions she was working with, she is philosophical. “You don’t go through life without heartbreak…but I do believe that things turn out better when you fight for what you believe in.”

Colleagues Pam wants to recognize include members of the Community Alliance Editorial Board, Howard Watkins, the Unitarian Universalist Church Social Justice Committee, Leonel Flores and Leoncio Vasquez, Kevin Hall and Sabina Gonzalez, Aggie Rose and (of course) Mike Rhodes. Pam can be reached at pamwhalen@comcast.net.

IDENTITY BOX

Name: Pam Whalen
Birthplace: San Jose, California
Ethnic Identity: Californian
Religious Identity: Catholic atheist
Political Affiliation: Socialist
Most Frequented Areas: Home, Fig Garden, the Tower District
Heroes: Aggie Rose (UFW organizer), Shirley Kirsten, Sal Roselli (NUHW leader)
Motto: “We can beat these guys!”
Nonpolitical Activities: Backpacking, running, gardening

Unexpected Pleasure: Astrophysics

  • 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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