Alice Gates is using her Wall Award to fund "Advancing Leadership for Worker's Rights," an ongoing project in Michigan. Project objectives include training and supporting a core team to lead the Washtenaw County Worker's Center (WCWC) during its second year of operation. The mission of the WCWC is to provide advocacy and "a safe space for low-wage workers to organize to find collective solutions to workplace problems." Gates, one of the founding members of the WCWC, will act as director for the project this summer.
Gates brings nearly a decade of social justice and community organization experience to this project. As a student at Grinnell College, Gates says she was "encouraged to link social thought and social action through service to the community." Since graduating with a degree in sociology and a gender and women's studies concentration, Gates has worked with disenfranchised communities in a number of capacities. Her first job after leaving Grinnell was as a human rights observer in a small community of repatriated Guatemalan refugees. The experience profoundly affected Gates. "Despite being socially, economically, and culturally marginalized ... community leaders negotiated for and won compensation from the Guatemalan government for the destruction of lives and property during the civil war," she says. "This experience taught me the power of organizing and collective action."
Gates is currently a student in the joint doctoral program in social work and sociology at the University of Michigan. In March 2006, a professor invited her to join in a conversation between community members and University of Michigan students and faculty about the need to support low-wage workers' organizing efforts in the area. As a result of these efforts, the WCWC was founded in June 2006.
A board of directors comprised of low-wage workers, representatives from faith and community-based organizations, and students and faculty from the University of Michigan runs the WCWC. In its first year of operation, the group made significant progress toward its goal of establishing a voice for low-wage workers in Washtenaw County. This year, the WCWC plans to further the mission through the "Advancing Leadership for Worker's Rights" project. Gates' Wall Award will allow the WCWC to train community leaders in basic organizing skills through internships and externships with established social justice organizations. The award will also support training for the board of directors to encourage the sustainability of the organization.
"Our efforts up to now have been focused on identifying workplace problems and providing support for workers," Gates says. "Developing a base of trained, confident leaders will help us create a power base prepared to advance workers' rights, improve wages and conditions, and guarantee a meaningful voice in the conditions of work."