Orlando Taylor of Fielding Graduate University presents civil rights activist Dolores Huerta the Marie Fielder Social Transformation Medal.
Orlando Taylor, distinguished senior adviser to the president at Fielding Graduate University, presents civil rights activist Dolores Huerta the Marie Fielder Social Transformation Medal from the university’s Marie Fielder Center for Democracy, Leadership, and Education during a public event Friday night. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta has received the Marie Fielder Social Transformation Medal from Fielding Graduate University’s Marie Fielder Center for Democracy, Leadership, and Education in Santa Barbara.

The medal honors an individual who has made remarkable contributions to society through advocacy, activism, research, education, leadership and public service. The medal is bestowed annually.

Friday’s public event drew hundreds of residents, community leaders and elected officials to the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.

The enthusiastic audience erupted into applause, greeting 89-year-old Huerta with a standing ovation.

“I appreciate it very much,” Huerta said of the recognition. 

Huerta, an American labor rights and social justice activist, is the co-founder, with labor leader Cesar Chavez, of the organization that became the United Farm Workers union.

The legendary activist spent most of her life advocating for women’s, workers’ and immigrants’ rights, including better conditions for them.

Huerta created the popular rallying cry “Si, Se Puede,” used by the nation’s farmworkers, and it has since been used by other activist groups. The famous slogan is Spanish for “Yes, we can.”

Huerta was the first Latina inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

President Barack Obama honored Huerta’s work in 2012, and he presented her with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The influential activist also inspired Obama’s 2008 “Yes, we can” catchphrase during his first presidential campaign. Obama recognized Huerta for her role in the creation of his slogan.

In 2002, Huerta founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation. The community benefit organization “recruits, trains, organizes and empowers grassroots leaders in low-income communities to attain social justice through systemic and structural transformation,” according to the foundation.

At Friday’s event in Santa Barbara, Huerta participated in a question-and-answer session. She answered questions about her career as an activist as well as questions about immigration, climate change, civil and women’s rights, the fight for educational justice and other issues.

Huerta urged attendees to organize to attain social justice in local communities, telling the crowd to “get involved and get engaged.”

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She advocated for lawmakers, legislation and policies that promote the well-being of all people. Huerta supported an increase in the number of women representatives at the local, federal and state levels. 

“You can make a difference, but you have to speak up and you have to be ready to sacrifice,” Huerta said. “When we say sacrifice, it’s not a lot. Just time. Give some of your time to be able to go out there and make a difference.”

Huerta spoke of the 2020 census and some of the hard-to-count populations. She encouraged people to participate in the census, citing political and financial benefits.

“If we don’t get counted, we don’t get representation,” she said. “The census is private and confidential. … Each one of us that doesn’t get counted, we lose $20,000 per person. … That money will not get into our community unless we get counted.”

Orlando Taylor, director of the Marie Fielder center, presented the medal to Huerta.

She is “an icon and lifelong warrior for social justice,” Taylor said. “This is a night I will always remember.”

In opening remarks, Katrina Rogers, president of Fielding Graduate University, described Huerta as “one of the most influential people in California and the nation.”

At the ceremony, local poet Miguel Cruz provided a poetry reading. His poems received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Cruz was born and raised in Santa Barbara, and he is the son of Mexican immigrants. The California State University-Channel Islands alumnus also is a father and first-generation Chicano.

Huerta closed the gathering with a rallying cry, and the crowd followed her lead: “Who has got the power?” Huerta yelled. “We got the power,” the crowd replied.

The Marie Fielder Medal for Social Transformation honors the late Marie Fielder, one of the university’s founders and a prominent black civil rights activist and educator.

The university’s Marie Fielder Center for Democracy, Leadership, and Education aims to encourage research that addresses current social and educational problems, according to the school. The policy and research center encourages Fielder’s principles of transformational change for social justice as exemplified through her life’s work, her contributions and her philosophy to equity, justice and education.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.