“I’m not planning on voting; I have a lot going on right now.” Those were the words of Sheila, a young African-American woman I met recently, when I asked her if she intended to vote in November. I understand why Sheila wasn’t going to vote. With all the struggles people are experiencing, it can be easy for them to give up.
For the past month, I’ve been knocking on doors in Reno, Nevada, to get out the vote for Barack Obama. When I was offered the chance to work for President Obama’s re-election, I knew I had to do it. In September I took a leave of absence from my job at the Hyatt to spend two months on the campaign trail talking to voters like Sheila.
I started working as a housekeeper at the Hyatt Andaz West Hollywood in 2010. I had just completed two bachelor’s degrees with honors from Cal State the previous year. When I graduated, the bottom had fallen out of the economy, so I was unable to find a job in my field. Being an older woman with grey in my hair didn’t help either. I was working part-time at Kohl’s, but they were only giving me four hours a week, so I was also collecting partial unemployment. Eventually my unemployment began to run out. If it hadn’t been for President Obama signing the extensions to unemployment, I would have been homeless.
While I continued to look for other jobs, a friend told me about a diversity council that had been formed to welcome African-Americans back into the hotel industry. I was chosen to be a member, and I went through a hospitality industry “boot camp.” By this time, I was out of federal unemployment, so when I was offered a job as a hotel housekeeper, I took it.
Knocking on doors and talking to voters is hard emotionally and physically, but it is easier than housekeeping. I had no idea how badly hotel housekeepers were treated until I became one. The working conditions for housekeepers have not changed since the 1950s. It took me about a week to decide I had to be active and speak out for better treatment at work.
I’ve been a social justice activist in one way or another all my life. I started out in the Civil Rights movement. Now with my union, I am fighting to improve working conditions not just at Hyatt, but for all hotel housekeepers.
I see knocking on doors here in Reno as an extension of that fight. The people we elect have a huge impact on our rights as workers. I want people to get out and vote and use their voice. It doesn’t matter if you are white, African-American, Asian or Latino. We can all work together to improve our working conditions and fight injustice. My advice to everyone is, if you see a good fight, get in it.
I also want to give back to President Obama. He gave me a much needed lifeline when he signed extended unemployment benefits. The extended unemployment allowed me to stay in my home and keep the lights on until I was able to find a job.
When Sheila told me she wasn’t planning on voting, I shared with her my experience as an activist in the Civil Rights movement. I told her about the fight we are having at the Hyatt for fair treatment and good jobs. People often forget how hard folks before them have worked to secure their rights. Many people gave their lives so that we could have the right to vote. By the end of our conversation, she decided she will in fact be headed to the polls on Election Day. When I can be some part of people like Sheila deciding to use their voice, that’s when I know I am in the right fight.