Christine Neumann-Ortiz: connected in our struggles and our resistance
By Fabian Sanditer
Christine Neumann-Ortiz is a nationally-recognized organizer and activist for immigrant/labor rights in Milwaukee and across the state of Wisconsin. She was born to a family of immigrants and dedicates her life to working to protect the rights of those who come to this country, state and city in hopes of creating a better life for their families. Christine is the founder and executive director of Voces de la Frontera, an organization that provides services to and organizes people to fight for the rights of immigrants and low-wage workers in Wisconsin. Christine and Voces organize marches, protests, and other demonstrations to create changes in different policies and to stand up to injustices affecting the immigrant community. Her organization also has a youth component called Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) where young people become leaders in creating change too.
Fabian: What is your fight?
Christine: The fight that I have dedicated so much of my life to has been about the immigration rights fight, but I will say that it’s never been in isolation or seen in isolation. The struggle for immigration rights goes hand in hand with the struggle for racial justice because so much of immigration politics is about legalizing racial profiling, rolling back the gains of the civil rights movement and the laws that were won through great sacrifice. It’s also about workers rights. Immigrants are fundamentally denied full equality because there are a lot of people making good money off of [them], and [inequality] is a way to pit people against each other, to have working people blame each other, as opposed to coming together and fighting to improve the conditions under which we live, the quality of life that we have. [Unity] is a powerful tool, so we’ve always been very, very connected as Voces de la Frontera, and my leadership is about making those connections. We don’t treat people as one dimensional. We have people who are immigrants and transgender… for me it’s very important to always very intentionally make those connections and build a stronger, broader movement.
F: How do you use your platform?
C: So much of that what we’re fighting now is called sanctuary policies. We’re affirming good values about a diverse community that we live in, and valuing everyone in the community, not giving into that hate, and also, protections, that people can feel safe, that they don’t feel persecuted, whether that be in school, or in a city in local government. That local fight is important, but also organizing at a state and national level is necessary. One of the things that Voces is famous for is the Day Without Latinos, Immigrants, and Refugees, which are general strikes that have been used. It’s a no day of work, no day of school, no purchases, kind of mass protest strike actions. This year in February was the 5th time we organized it, and now we’re working to nationalize it, holding convenings. It’s really using our collective economic power, working with other organizations to really deepen [our influence]. What are the skills we need to do that, and how do we make that more powerful? How do we use our economic power nationally to beat back a lot of these really aggressive attacks on our collective gains?
F: Do you see yourself as an activist? Why or why not?
C: I definitely do see myself as an activist, and I’m really proud of that because there was a period when I wasn’t. I learned to be an activist when I was exposed to it kind of late in my life. I was older than you are. I was in college at UW-Madison the first time I saw people come together to address problems. At the time there was racism on campus. There were some incidents that had occurred and the Ku Klux Klan was increasing its presence in the 1980s. It was the first opportunity I’d had to challenge injustice I had seen, with others, and have discussions with others about why there are inequalities in the world and how our struggles are tied together. I became an activist as a student, and in my 20s, and I never turned my back on that. It is a skill, and it’s something that we need to preserve and hand down always.
F: How do you think young people today can do their part in fighting for justice?
C: I feel like it’s very, very critical that youth have the opportunity to organize, especially in the schools, because that’s where folks are. Then once graduating, that shouldn’t stop. That should continue in people’s work life and it should continue in other aspects of their life, and whether that’s community organizing or on the job, it’s basically about coming together and coming up with collective solutions and then learning as we go about what’s working, what’s not. How do we adjust? I think there’s tremendous hope in the youth for the future because you are the inheritors of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, so it is more multi-racial, it is more multi-ethnic. There are expectations around that, around women’s rights, and you’re also going through deep challenges… Especially the youth can really help lead the way around a vision and demands for a society where you have both economic justice and social justice.