Sunday, March 27, 2011

2011-03-27 "A life committed to grass-roots organizing" By CHRIS SMITH from "THE PRESS DEMOCRAT" daily newspaper
He's 30 years old, Latino, bilingual, well-read and college educated. He lives in Santa Rosa, he's single and good looking and has forged himself into one of Sonoma County's new generation of community leaders. And he is not Efren Carrillo.
People sometimes ask Davin Cardenas if he aspires to follow the example of Carrillo, who was 27 when he won election as a Sonoma County supervisor, and seek public office.
“Not right now,” said Cardenas, who, unlike the Mexican-born and once-impoverished Carrillo, started out as a middle-class kid in suburban Orange County.
For the present, he's feeling challenged and fulfilled by his work organizing immigrants, students, workers, conservationists and others into a force competing for local power against better-financed interests.
Explaining why he feels no urgency to seek political office, Cardenas said, “Democracy is kept alive by the politicized as much as by the politicians.”
His name first hit the newspaper in 2004, when he'd left Sonoma State University with a liberal studies degree and was organizing the undocumented workers who'd long massed on street corners in Graton into a labor collective.
Cardenas left his position as paid organizer with the Graton Day Labor Center, housed since fall of 2007 in a former portable classroom, and he's just gone to work for the North Bay Organizing Project. It's an effort by nearly a dozen local, liberal advocacy groups to build a grassroots power base “for social justice and public policy reform.”
Member organizations include the Committee for Immigrant Rights of Sonoma County, Living Wage Coalition, MoveOn Sonoma County, Graton Day Labor Center, MEChAcq, LandPaths/Bayer Farm, Roseland English for Adult Learners and Sonoma County Conservation Action. The Quakers' Redwood Forest Friends Meeting is in the process of joining.
Cardenas was there when about hundreds of people met weeks ago at Santa Rosa City Hall to set the project's inaugural objectives. The assembly agreed to seek to impact two local issues: police agencies' impounding of cars from unlicensed drivers, and what kind of residences, workplaces and modes of transportation will surround stations of the planned SMART commuter-rail system.
Cardenas will work with two task forces of about 50 people each that will advocate for undocumented immigrants who currently cannot receive a driver's license, and for people who seek to live and work near SMART stations and to have convenient, non-vehicular access to them.
Cardenas traces his interest in organizing and making leaders of traditional underdogs to the books he read while growing up in Mission Viejo with his Mexico-born mother and Texas-born dad.
Forced by his parents to speak and read Spanish, a requirement for which he became grateful, he discovered the works of Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano and other writers critical of American and European abuses in Latin America, including the support of dictators.
“I began to find my best friends in those authors and historical figures,” Cardenas said. His reading taught him “how the development of the north came at the under-development of the south.”
After graduating from Aliso Niguel High School in 1999, he left Orange County to enroll in SSU's Hutchins School of Liberal Studies. He took to the “small class size, lots of literature, reading, writing and lots of opinionating.”
Cardenas joined the campus MEChA group, part of a nationwide Latino network with a formal goal of using education to strive for “a society free of imperialism, racism, sexism and homophobia,” and later pitched in to donate clothing, food and English lessons to the immigrants who clustered in Graton and hoped to find work.
“We were trying to test ourselves, to challenge ourselves to get off campus,” he said. “We wanted to get involved in a larger struggle.”
That volunteer work led to him becoming the first paid organizer of the fledging Graton Day Labor Center. He said his seven years in the post taught him to forge relationships and foster grassroots leaders, and taught him about himself.
How does Cardenas respond to encouragement that he run for public office? “I don't pay too much attention,” he said.
“I want to be a great professional organizer,” he said. “I love the theory and I love the practice. It's a job that asks us who we are and forces us to confront our personal challenges, which is pretty cool.”

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