Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 90: Diana Tellefson Torres
Diana Tellefson Torres is the United Farm Workers Foundation’s Executive Director
Diana Tellefson Torres is the United Farm Workers Foundation’s Executive Director. She recently made a trip to West Michigan, visiting farm workers in Van Buren County. One of her goals is to extend workplace rights to farm workers, like better working conditions and overtime pay. She says no one should be “voice less,” so she is helping give voice to the concerns of farm workers.
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Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone. It is time for Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Jennifer Moss and I am excited to bring you today's powerful woman United Farm Workers Foundation, Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres. She is on a multi-day tour of Michigan meeting with state officials and nonprofit leaders and farm workers to help focus UFW Foundation efforts to improve workplace rights in the state and we are so happy that this powerful woman has taken the time to stop by our WGVU studios today. Diana, thank you so much for joining us.
Diana Tellefson Torres: Thank you.
Jennifer Moss: Yeah, happy to have you here. So, a bit more about Diana before we launch into our discussion. She's the founding Executive Director of the UFW Foundation. This Foundation mobilizes farm workers across the U.S. to advocate for equitable policies. These range from immigration reform to worker protections. Now the foundation is the nonprofit arm of the United Farm Workers of America. The nation's largest labor union for farmworkers. So, Diana Tellefson Torres again, welcome and we're so happy that you're here today.
Diana Tellefson Torres: It's wonderful to be here with you, Jennifer.
Jennifer Moss: Well, so let's start our conversation with your work with the UFW United Farm Workers Foundation and what you're doing here in Michigan. What have you been up to?
Diana Tellefson Torres: Well, it's been a wild ride in the last few days and during the week visiting farmworkers in different parts of the state and mainly in southwest Michigan. I had the opportunity to meet with farm workers in a park where we were able to just talk about the issues that are concerning them at this point. I spoke with workers like Gloria who've been working in farm work for over 17 years in all kinds of different crops, be it Christmas trees, and blueberries and you name it, they've done it and so I really wanted to learn about what farm workers were experiencing here in Michigan and during the pandemic we hired two organizers who are able to work with farmworkers in southwest Michigan to let them know about their rights to provide them with pandemic relief resources and then in addition to lift up their voices so that policymakers could hear directly from them here in Michigan and nationwide as well. So it's my first time here in Michigan and it’s been very exciting, its place where we've been wanting to do work for quite a long time and so it just so happened that the United Farm Workers, president Arturo Rodríguez came to Michigan for his Master’s degree and he was doing a lot of organizing work with the union back in the day when he was here and always mentioned like Michigan Stefano a place for the UFW Foundation should go. So it just so happened that the pandemic really allowed us the opportunity to reach out to farm workers outside of the West Coast and really begin those conversations about what types of changes they want to see and also had the opportunity to meet with a number of state officials about farmworker housing and different issues that impact them and nonprofits that are working with Latino communities here throughout Michigan to really hear about what the gaps that they saw were and how they felt we could be added value in rural areas.
Jennifer Moss: Because you've been leading a movement for Immigrant and farm workers, right? How long have you been involved in this sort of work?
Diana Tellefson Torres: Oh Jennifer, it's been 18 years now. So a whole adult life very much so 16 years ago is when he started the UFW Foundation. So, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to farm workers from different parts of the nation throughout my tenure in the farm worker movement. In fact, last week and I was speaking with farm workers in Georgia and 3 women who were speaking to me outside of their trailer where they were living and quite poor living conditions, I must say and they were telling me that they didn’t even have restrooms that were made available to them when they were working.
So we're talking about different issues from the very basics with their farm workers who don't have the type of necessities like where to go to the restroom and then also housing conditions that are sometimes quite poor and just different issues like not having shade or enough water and when they are working in sweltering hot conditions and so it runs the gamut throughout the country. What are the different needs and often abuses that we see in different in different states and So, we are really emphasizing that farmworkers need to speak up and that we are reaching out to them in different modes, be it in person on the ground where we can, but also really developing the type of technology for farm workers to be able to communicate with us in different forms and so that's been exciting during the pandemic.
Jennifer Moss: And to create a more equitable base. I mean, just basic rights and employment is what you're looking at.
Diana Tellefson Torres: Exactly. And Jennifer, most people don't know that farm workers were excluded in the 1930's from the fair labor standards act from the New Deal that was getting negotiated because back then in the 1930's most of the farm workers and domestic workers were excluded as well were African American in the South and so that’s how it got negotiated where farmworkers just didn't have the right to overtime. That’s still the case today.
Jennifer Moss: There was a bill, though, that granting overtime for workers that was at least introduced in the senate recently right?
Diana Tellefson Torres: It was just introduced recently. In the past. We also have had an introduction and we have not been able to get it passed just yet. However, we want to highlight the fact that you know farm workers are working to feed this nation. They are not just essential workers, they are workers who provide us the food that sustains every single one of us in this country and often other parts of the world and so the fact is that I mean, speaking to workers who are in the H2A, a guest worker program which is agricultural guest worker program that allows farm workers to come from other countries to provide services in agriculture for a temporary time span and those workers are letting us know that they were working very long hours. So, in my last 2 weeks speaking with farm workers in different parts of the country it was the range of between 10 hours and 16 hour days And so we are talking about 105 degrees in Georgia or you're talking about, you know, summer weather wherever it is that they are and you're working 6 days a week. Sometimes even 7 days a week. Those are very, very strenuous conditions where workers are exposing themselves to potential heat stress and heat death. And so overtime it's just such a basic labor right that we believe farm worker should have like any other worker to be able to have an 8-hour day given the conditions that they work and how strenuous that work is in California. We were able to win in overtime pay after 8 hours. It's the only state in the United States has overtime after 8 hours for farm workers and that took us up to 2016 to be able to win.
Jennifer Moss: I was going to ask. My next question was so how close are you do you think to getting some of these basic rights for farm workers? Are you feeling like you’re narrowing the gap and perhaps I mean, obviously in California. You have done that but you've got various bills and other things that you're seeing across the states across the U.S. How close do you think you're getting to resolving some of these issues?
Diana Tellefson Torres: Well, this is a movement that has been around for 6 decades now and so we know that we're in it for the long haul that we need to continue to push and ensure that lawmakers understand that it's their responsibility to protect every single worker in this nation and we really, you know, have come not just with overtime pay would like some basic needs to farm workers always express as a priority, for example, is immigration reform and so we've been making a lot of strides and it's been 20 years since we started to sit down and negotiate with grower associations around the country to come up with a bill that would allow foreign workers to earn the right to be able to get immigration status here in this country because the fact is that at least half the majority of farm workers are undocumented. Those are the people who are picking our fruit and vegetables in this country. That's just the stark reality and so we recently, in fact, last year were able to get for the second time a vote in the House where we had 30 Republicans join the most progressive of congressional members in passing this bill and so now we're really trying to move that through the Senate and so we're making progress there. That's an important bill as well and like I said during the pandemic we really wanted to highlight to consumers, to policymakers the fact that farm workers have always been vulnerable and this pandemic only exacerbated that vulnerability and so we really feel that it's important for media communication folks like yourself to really, you know, lift up the stories because many consumers don't realize that when they're in the grocery stores these foods and vegetables and food that they're picking up is really handled by individuals who go through so much just to be able to make it through the day and so we want to make sure that we continue to put that pressure on congressional members in the Senate. We're so close to getting our farm workforce modernization act, which is our bill that provides immigration reform for farmworkers and so we're hoping that that's this year. And so our senators here in Michigan, hopefully they're listening. This is incredibly important and over time, you know, we really need to continue to push both senators and house members to right the wrongs that were that are now way overdue.
Jennifer moss: As you speak of that, what is it as we look at powerful women and, you know, sharing stories and the conversations that have what inspired you to get involved in immigrant and farm worker rights?
Diana Tellefson Torres: Well, my mom and my stepfather pulse Mexican Immigrants and grew up right by the border in San Diego County and just saw the types of struggles that my parents had. As I was growing up and I often was a an intermediary to support with different conversations they needed to have at the school level and other things that they needed and, you know, right after college and after teaching for a stent, I just was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I knew I wanted to do something social justice oriented and I did this fellowship called Clara in San Francisco and one of the focus week's was specifically around agriculture and one of those days we were able to go out on to a farm a huge farm where they were farm workers working on this huge machine and it was mainly women who were sitting and hunched over as they were working and that's when I learned that farm workers didn't have overtime pay at that time in California. Not until after 10 hours and that farm workers have been excluded at the national level and I just got to really understand that these workers were working for minimum wage 10 hour days, 6 days a week and I have not had opportunity to speak to a single farm worker during the entire time we were on the focus week excursion and just something in my gut you get this weird feeling like this is something any to learn more about and I think I was meant to see this.
Jennifer Moss: There's a connection of sorts.
Diana Tellefson Torres: I knew there was a connection and it wasn't until, you know, that really is what started it and I went and started to speak with the Farm Worker Union and ended up getting a position but, it wasn't until after started working with the union when I realized that my grandfather had been a trabajadero. So he, too, had been a guest worker coming into the United States while my mom was a child and I hurt for a long time for my mother about her feeling lonely when she was a child because her father was often gone and her mom had to work as well and she's often at different folks homes being taken care of and didn't make the connection until so many years later and then it finally all kind of came to a circle and I really do believe that I was meant to do this work. It's my lifetime work and I'm here for the long haul hopefully.
Jennifer Moss: So as we speak about that, then an accomplished career, you’re doing a lot. Are you enjoying the journey? It's a tough fight but, are you enjoying part of that journey here?
Diana Tellefson Torres: It's a tough fight. That is no doubt. Every day I’m very grateful for the fact that I get to do what I do. I get to help others and have wonderful colleagues and volunteers, who help others realize that they can have a voice and that no one should be voiceless and so the fact is that I get to hear directly from so many people about the work that we do and how it's changing their lives and how they're able to engage in systemic change both in their local areas, but also at the national level and so I just on hard days have to think I could be getting up at three in the morning and being outside in 105 degree weather which as an organizer I had the experience to watch workers picking grapes or doing whatever type of work that farm workers do and what I do in comparison is so easy so I can't you know, I can't fathom working 16 hour days like the Georgia workers I spoke with last weekend. So I really I really believe that doing social justice work is a blessing and that there certainly should be more people doing this work. Our job is never done but, I am grateful that in this movement in the farm worker movement there really is this belief that and ordinary person can do extraordinary things and we live and breathe that. It’s the sí, se puede attitude that you just have to put your heart and soul into something.
Jennifer Moss: Is that your core?
Diana Tellefson Torres: It's our core and, you know, we really emphasize that with our volunteers, with workers who are members, for workers who are not members and for workers have never heard about Dolores Huerta or don’t know Cesar Chavez because, you know, they haven't been exposed to that but who know that something's wrong and they want to do something about it.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. So as we talk about, you mentioned the voice. How did you find your inner voice like how did you become comfortable in your own skin to be able to pretty much do the work that you do because to carry the other voices you kind of have to have resolved that voice within yourself, right? So how did you get to, you know, get strong enough to say, okay, I have a voice and I'm going to speak for my truth or my goals in this fight?
Diana Tellefson Torres: You know, I have a strong mom.
Jennifer Moss: That always helps.
Diana Tellefson Torres: My mom, you know, she's a small business owner has had her business for over 40 years and has talked about confronting racism in the past and she always emphasized to me and to my siblings that, you know, we are able to accomplish whatever we want to accomplish to not let anybody take us down that we just need to push through things and she wanted us to you know, she would let us know in Spanish that she wanted us to have wings to fly and so I was kind of shy when I was younger but, I definitely as I was teaching after college in in a minority neighborhood and, you know, I had parents who were recently immigrated from Mexico who really didn't know how to navigate the school system and just everything in general here in this country and I just you know, I saw myself as a teacher but, at the time I was also like the parents advocate and so just working with parents and letting them know what they can do, how to go and talk to the principal like gather more parents and let's go to the principal's office and let's talk about this issue you’re all confronting. I think that's where I started to feel like this is really cool to get others to get past that initial fear to talk about something that they could help fix that really impacted their lives. I think it started right there with teaching and really learning about how I could help be an intermediary, not be the voice for someone to help someone else be able to lift their voice.
Jennifer Moss: But you also have to get comfortable with yourself. So an easy breezy question for you, I always love to ask this to all our powerful women. What makes you laugh? What do you do because you have tough work? It is, as you said, a tough fight but, you know, we have to go through our day and you know, I always say laughter is good for the soul. So what makes you laugh?
Diana Tellefson Torres: Everything makes me laugh. Haha, my mom used to tell me that I smile way too much and nobody is ever going to take me seriously you so, you know, I take joy in the little things in life but in particular, you know, I have young nieces and nephews who are always saying the darndest things and just crack me up. I also have a husband who is very funny haha. So, he definitely brings me a lot of joy but, in my conversations with farm workers, they’re constantly telling me things that crack me up because when you have such hard work and we're talking about tough things you also have to bring humor into it and so I really enjoy being able to have those conversations, which can also be very light, not just heavy.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. So, so much is happening in our world that we live in today. You have any encouraging words or quote or something that, you know, you kind of live by? Words to live by kind of thing that you share with people or can share with others to stay strong and do what you do.
Diana Tellefson Torres: Well, as I mentioned, sí, se puede is huge in my life. That is that the motto for the for the farm worker movement.
Jennifer Moss: And what does that mean?
Diana Tellefson Torres: And so it means yes, you can. Yes, we can and so making sure that sometimes you don't know how to do something but, to know that you're going to be able to get there, that you're gonna figure it out and so something can seem so tough initially but, there are ways to just power through it and figure out what to do and just with the type of work that that we do. My mom also always tells me one day at a time. You know, I just all I can do is put one foot forward. That's you know, what you can do is just focus on today. Get through what you need to get through today and then there's going to be another tomorrow to keep working towards that goal and that kind of keeps me grounded.
Jennifer Moss: Very good. A very good word. Diana Tellefson Torres, thank you so much for joining us. I really enjoyed this conversation and want to thank you for taking time to stop by the WGVU studios today. We so appreciate you and thank you for joining us as well. For another edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss. Enjoy the day.
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