Had he been a teacher, that might have been how her father, Hursel Alexander, would have defined the need for helping working class youth develop a working class way of seeing the world.
Roberta Alexander grew up in a family where radical politics and trade union activism were part of life, in an era when many families paid a high price for that commitment. “We were always politically engaged, and socially conscious,” she recalls. “Although as a union organizer my father was often away from home, we were always exposed to leftwing people.”
Hursel was half African-American, and half Scotch-Irish, son of a white woman who married a Black man, who worked in packing houses all her life, and organized strikes among immigrant workers from Russia, Mexico, Syria and elsewhere. The family lived on an Indian reservation near Sioux City, Iowa, in the early 1900s. Later in his life, Hursel told Roberta stories of being terrorized by vigilante gangs when he was just a boy. Hursel himself became a meatpacking worker, and led wildcat strikes. He worked the harvests in Minnesota, was recruited by the Industrial Workers of the World, and won equal pay for Black workers. He organized unions for the United Food, Cannery and Agricultural Workers of America (the CIO’s union for farm workers) and for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Hursel Alexander’s activism got him blacklisted in the 1950s, and he started a small shoe repair business. Then the House Committee on Un-American Activities came to Los Angeles, where they were living at the time. “The Los Angeles Times printed the address of my father’s store in an article on the HUAC hearings, and someone fired shots into it,” Roberta remembers.
With that kind of childhood behind her, it was natural for Roberta Alexander to protest the social injustices of her own era. As a young woman, she was kicked out of Spain (at the time, still under the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco) for protesting the Vietnam War. Returning to Oakland, the Oakland Tribune, then owned by the arch-Republican family of William F. Knowland, covered her expulsion, using the occasion as a pretext for a tirade against her father.
“I came to the conclusion early on that poor and working people didn’t get their rights unless they fought for them,” she explains. “We have to get together, join unions, and then make them serve our needs. We especially need unity among people of different ethnic backgrounds. I feel like I embody a lot of those different ethnicities in my own person.”
Alexander took her activism into teaching. For the last 17years, she’s taught English and Chicano studies at San Diego City College, and before that, spent 16 years as an English-as-a-Second-Language instructor in the continuing education program. She eventually became the coordinator of SDCC’s labor studies program.
That program offers a full Associate degree in labor studies, and transfer credits to four-year institutions with similar programs. Courses in the program range from shop steward training through occupational safety and health to the history and politics of the American labor movement.
co-coordinator Jim Miller calls Alexander “a passionate advocate
for the program,” and notes that she has “brought on new instructors,
reached out to the Spanish-speaking workforce with special course in Occupational
“We need faculty who can relate to the students,” she says, “who understand what their life is like. Our faculty is very diverse as a result of our determined efforts –including three Chicano instructors, four Black instructors, and two Asian American instructors. Actually, we don’t have enough men – they’ve become a minority.”
Miller also credits Alexander with broadening faculty diversity. “Roberta is an extraordinary teacher,” he says, “who (while chair of the English department) was primarily responsible for building an intellectually diverse, progressive department that gets along well and is devoted to the mission of serving our students.”
The labor studies program itself has been in existence for 30 years. It serves the needs of local labor organizations, but also seeks to make unions more responsive both to their own members, and to the communities of which they’re part. But at one time, it seemed as though labor studies might not survive. According to Miller, Alexander “came on board with me to save the labor students department as a stand alone program devoted to the union movement and union members, when there were ideas about either cutting or coopting the program.”
have a vision of what the progressive tradition in labor is all about,”
Alexander says. “Unions should be democratic. They should reach
out to people who aren’t represented. That’s especially important
for those workers who were pushed onto the sidelines by the National Labor
Relations Act, like agricultural and service workers.”
In labor studies courses at San Diego City College, instructors like Miller talk about the militant history of trade unionism – like the fight for the 8-hour day. “The things we take for granted were all fought for,” Alexander emphasizes.
Alexander is also an author of two texts about teaching reading, “A Community of Readers,” and “Joining a Community of Readers.” She says she want students to practice the skill of reading, which will serve them well later in jobs and academic pursuits. “It will give them the basis for thinking critically, and defending their positions with reason,” she explains. As a result of her teaching philosophy, she finds her students often become “people able to choose between living a nice middle-class life and serving the community. And some get interested in becoming teachers themselves.”
And of course, Alexander is a union activist herself. She is a delegate to the San Diego Central Labor Council, and has convinced the council’s executive board to oversee the labor studies program.
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