By Jim Miller
Sarah Saez is best known locally for her work on the heroic United Taxi Drivers of San Diego campaign. As labor leader Richard Barrera noted after their big win in 2014:
The victory by UTWSD comes five years after drivers, improperly classified as independent contractors and without NLRB recognition, came together and organized a strike to protest their wages, benefits and working conditions. Despite constant harassment, retaliation and intimidation by permit holders and dispatch companies over the last five years, and despite obstruction by public agencies, these workers stuck together, fought back against injustice, and prevailed. It reminds and teaches all of us that a union is not formed by formal government recognition, it is formed by workers standing together to fight for justice and a brighter future for their families.
And the Taxi Drivers’ victory was about more than just their own struggle in that, as I observed at the time, it “provided a good example of precisely how [a] new kind of workers’ movement can succeed.”
Saez, the Program Director for UTWSD, put it this way:
It’s about reaching out with the intention of listening and learning from workers and our community and giving them the support they need to inspire and lead movements . . . Trusting their vision, creating genuine partnerships with the community and nontraditional workers and fighting for issues that are going to fundamentally change people’s lives is how we build power, deepen solidarity, and win.
After the Taxi Workers’ big victory, the struggle has persisted with their ongoing efforts to form a taxi drivers’ collective, build power, and give a voice to their community.
Saez continues her work with the UTWSD and is deeply involved in the community in a host of other ways. Most recently, she has decided to run for City Council in District 9 where she lives and works in City Heights.
What follows is the first installment of my interview with Saez that will run for the next few weeks.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. What is your background? Why are you running for City Council?
Like many District 9 residents, I am not a native San Diegan. I grew up on the East Coast and made my way here in pursuit of a better life. My father is originally from East Harlem, New York, and my mother immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York’s Washington Heights as a teenager. It’s because of their sacrifices that I’m the person I am today. I understand what it means to pursue the American Dream while struggling to make ends meet like my parents before me. For over decade I worked in the restaurant industry. My first job as a teenager was as a fast food worker and then as a waitress throughout my education.
My calling for social justice began while working at a state-run hospice in the Dominican Republic where I lived with my grandmother. This eventually led me to Florida, where I started focusing my education and advocacy around poverty alleviation. While there I organized alongside workers for the first time through the Coalition of Immokalee Farm Workers, a community-based organization made up of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian migrants working to stop human rights abuses and poverty wages in the tomato fields.
At the same time, I received my Bachelor’s of Science degree in Critical Criminology, a Sociological study that examines the functions and dynamics of our criminal justice system, a major indicator of poverty. While I was in college, I also started organizing with housing advocates at Umoja Village, a shantytown built in response to gentrification and the Miami housing crisis together with an organization called Take Back the Land. Once in San Diego, I went on to receive my Master’s degree from the University of San Diego in Nonprofit Management and Leadership in order to continue working towards effective social change.
I’m committed to supporting workers – including the working poor – fixed-income seniors, people of color and others who are ignored by our current political system.
I now live and work in City Heights, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country where I’m the Program Director for United Taxi Workers of San Diego, a multi-ethnic workers’ organization formed after the 2009 taxi driver strike. After years of advocacy, we recently won a historic policy victory to lift the cap on taxi permits, which transformed an entire industry and drivers’ lives by allowing them to become small business owner-operators. I also volunteer in the district as a community elected board member at the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, and I’m on the board for Foundation for Change. I am also a proud delegate of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, which has endorsed our campaign.
I’m running for City Council after being asked to do so by my community. I’m committed to supporting workers – including the working poor – fixed-income seniors, people of color and others who are ignored by our current political system. As a nonprofit professional and organizer, I also want to be the best constituent services councilmember ever in order to advance the quality of life for residents in the district and throughout San Diego. I believe I have the personal, professional, and academic experience to ensure that everyone in our community has an equal opportunity to succeed by continuing to draw from the wisdom of residents and strongly promoting the political voice of disenfranchised community members.
How do you see the community you would represent? What is important to know about your District?
District 9 is a fairly new district. It was redrawn in 2012 and this is only the second time residents have been able to choose a City Councilmember, which is one of the reasons why this election is so exciting. It presents an opportunity for real change.
One of the most important things to know about District 9 electorally is that the last time the district headed to the polls for a council representative, only around 14,000 of the 47,000 registered voters came out to vote in a district that has a population of over 150,000 people.
The 2012 power gap was highlighted by KPBS, A Voting Power Gap in District 9. More recently, Megan Burks’ and Clare Tragasers’s article, “San Diego Neighborhoods Close In Distance, Miles Apart In Voter Turnout” compares Kensington with a voter turnout of 70% to Teralta Park on the other side of El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights with a voter turnout of 27% which has dipped down to 14% during some elections.
Why is this? One resident and new voter, Mohamud Osman, says that concerns about income are what keep most people from the polls in his community. This is something we need to address.
Clearly there are many neighborhoods in D9 that need the boost the minimum wage would bring to the working poor and more and better economic opportunities.
Burks and Tragaser continue to highlight the difference between neighboring communities by comparing the average income and demographics of both Kensington and Teralta: “Kensington’s median income is $90,565, while Teralta’s is $21,698, according to U.S. Census data. In Kensington, 66 percent of the residents are white; in Teralta, 6 percent are white. Zoom a little deeper and 47 percent of Teralta’s diverse residents are foreign born compared to 12 percent in Kensington.” Clearly there are many neighborhoods in D9 that need the boost the minimum wage would bring to the working poor and more and better economic opportunities. Doing so would help the entire District and the city as a whole.
At present, I’ve been out for months talking to voters and walking precincts and it’s become clear that there is a difference between, for example, the condition of infrastructure in certain neighborhoods and the priorities of residents throughout the district. Although Kensington and City Heights offer some of the starkest contrasts, there are other needs in the District that are also not being met.
In Rolando, a majority of neighbors I talk to are very upset with a mega-dorm that transformed their mostly residential family neighborhood into what neighbors call a “frat house” along with the accompanying noise complaints, lack of parking and increased congestion in the neighborhood. Neighbors here feel that they were railroaded by this development and blame the city and a bad campaign promise that the dorms would not be built.
The mega-dorm issue in Rolando is emblematic of the overall sense people in the district have that community members’ voices are not being heard. Although some of the folks that I’ve spoken to in more affluent neighborhoods have fewer issues, many have still noted that it’s taken six years for their streets to get paved or over a decade for their sidewalks to get fixed.
District 9 is diverse and unique. It includes rich cultural traditions and neighbors who work hard to create a sense of community. It also includes neighborhoods that, although only separated by a few city blocks, can often seem worlds apart. It has thriving business districts and areas whose blight is causing an increase in crime. At the end of the day, I believe that a new perspective, one that is rooted in ensuring that government doesn’t just do things “for” the community but rather “with” the community, is needed to create real change in District 9.
Recently, you and I were both at a talk given by Steve Phillips on his book The New American Majority and you commented that his work spoke to your campaign in important ways. How does it?
The opportunity we have in District 9 to activate a progressive base is a perfect illustration of what Phillips’ book emphasizes is possible when we offer voters bold public policy reform that is rooted in justice and equality. Conventional political advice usually tells us not to mention issues that have the potential to “alienate white swing voters” like a $15 minimum wage or proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter” or talking about other issues that impact low-income communities of color.
Phillips asserts that this continuing lack of relevance to communities of colors’ immediate needs and everyday struggles is the reason they pass on engaging in policy discussions and/or even voting. This translates to, as Phillips points out, a cycle of campaigns not engaging this demographic of voters. Campaigns continue to seek out high propensity voters who might or might not support progressive reform but are an easier target because of their voting history rather than organizing and engaging disenfranchised and disillusioned voters. Through our campaign we hope to change that.
The strategy for our campaign is different. We hope to build a volunteer base strong enough to reach out to voters who deserve to be heard.
I’ve been told time and time again, to make sure that I focus my campaign in voter dense areas in Kensington and Talmadge. In fact, one of my opponents moved to Kensington just to run for the seat. I care very much about the needs and perspectives of these neighborhoods but what happens when we only focus on these areas is that the rest of the district, many of them from communities of color, are never meaningfully engaged beyond some photo-ops to show a candidate “cares.” Thus, the cycle of voter disenfranchisement continues.
Often resources are to blame for not being able to reach out to all the voters we want to which, as a grassroots campaign, I completely understand. Despite these obstacles we have to at least try.
Phillips challenges donors who can afford to fund this work to ask themselves how their contributions to political campaigns are really being used to move the needle. What is their social return on investment? Or are they continuing to give to candidates who only really care about advancing their own political careers over social change?
The strategy for our campaign is different. We hope to build a volunteer base strong enough to reach out to voters who deserve to be heard. Their issues and solutions, concerns and dreams matter and need to be represented. This includes being able to count on progressive white voters in neighborhoods like Kensington and Talmadge, Rolando and College to help us do that.
Phillips believes that when you have communities of color and white progressive voters who are not at odds with the needs of people of color it creates a new majority of voters who are able to meaningfully reshape politics and policy priorities. My goal is that this collaborative power can be used to aid in my life’s work of alleviating poverty.
Phillips’ and my call to action is that we act on this enormous opportunity to activate and build the multicultural and progressive majority that exists nationwide and locally in District 9 to move our agenda forward.
Part 2 of my interview with Sarah Saez will run next Monday.
Postscript: Jim Miller works with organized labor in San Diego. The local labor council has endorsed Sarah Saez for the primary election.