Determined advocacy

At 7:30 most every morning, Carlotta Woolcock goes swimming. For her, it is the calm before the storm, a bit of peace. When she is done, she dries off, heads across the lot to 203 N. Oakdale, and tries to save the world.

9 a.m. she's in the modest, two-story, wood-plank building with sparse rosebushes and a 10-year-old bullet hole through a front window mostly held together by tape. At first glance, the headquarters of the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association doesn't look like much.

But the building itself serves as a metaphor for what NSWA hopes to accomplish. The structure was built in 1908, and was in such disrepair that the NSWA purchased it in the 1980s for the price of the property. Since then, the group has worked at improving the building. One such effort &

a porch remodel &

resulted in the revocation of the once crumbling house's historical status. But NSWA is more interested in the future than the past.

"We take what's falling down and build it back up," says Woolcock, NSWA operations manager, making stacks of the many projects on her oft-shared desk. "We do the same things with communities."

Soon volunteers will be showing up, phones will be ringing and the day will bloom into a complex dance of discipline and hustle. But for now there is coffee to be made.

In 30 years the NSWA signed up 30,000 members in the Rogue Valley and spurred organizers to build offshoot organizations such as the Jackson County Fuel Committee and the Western Farm Workers Association.

"We're not a charity," says Woolcock. "This is an organization that wants to provide a voice for the poor and working people that is independent from the government and addresses the problems that go along with being poor."

The NSWA was created in 1975 by Lon and Charlotte Christensen. Their goal for NSWA was to form a labor organization, but not one considered a "union." Unions must appeal to government sanctions and the Christensens wanted their organization free of government intervention. Charlotte Christiensen cites the Hurricane Katrina tragedy as, "a tragically poignant example" of why. From mental health care practices to feeding droves of stranded migrant workers to ensuring jobs for stationary seasonal ones, the needs of local workers have shifted over the years with each shift in the nations' political climate.

"Nowadays the system seems diabolical in its punitive nature," she says. "It's getting harder and harder to protect our people."

The Christensens' desire to start the organization stemmed from the community-based organization techniques of the 1950s and '60s. After being raised in the Rogue Valley, the Christensens moved to Northern California, developed job skills and returned with a passion for organizing.

The 1970s Medford was "too reactionary" to welcome such an organization, so the Christensens began to canvas in Ashland to help find resources to meet the needs of the workers. They started with five volunteers.

"In those days, none of us spoke Spanish," says Christensen. "The Hispanics really started coming to the door in force in the '80s. Workers would tell us stories about how they used to have to stay in their camps like prisons. We've built our organization based on others' needs."

The Western Farm Workers Association was a result of the 1986 Immigration Control Reform Act. Up until then, migrant workers had followed the harvests around the country to find work. But the immigration act forced them to remain in one place so that they would qualify to remain stateside. This created a vacuum in the crop harvests around the country that counted on migrant workers to get the food to market.

The NSWA helped these workers with jobs and legalization issues, but Christensen says many crops and farming communities suffered across the Northwest due to lack of manpower. The northern Oregon strawberry crop alone suffered to the tune of $300 million in unharvested crops.

In Washington, frightened apple farmers sent thousands of brochures down as far as South America, pulling 50,000 migrant workers up to Washington to fill 10,000 jobs. Many arrived to find no job, no money and no way home. When the government, declaring state emergency, allotted each family one tank of gas, many of them made it as far as Oregon. The NSWA stepped in, trying to help the workers find jobs, food them and shelter, leading to the creation of the Western Farm Workers Association.

The Jackson County Fuel Committee, located in Ashland, on the other hand, came of much simpler means, though a product of the same philosophy.

"We were canvassing one day," says Christensen, "and a blind woman living in the railroad district of Ashland told us she was cold and had no firewood. Lon was a carpenter, so we gathered scraps, and branches from the orchard by our house. That's how simply the Jackson County Fuel Committee got started."

In order to devote more attention to these new projects, the Christensens hired Woolcock, who could fill the position of NSWA operations manager.

"Her coming here allowed us to build a northwest region," she says. "Carlotta is a good organizer. She has her finger on the pulse of the community and it didn't take her long to build a deep understanding of the people here through systemic organization. She talks to everyone who comes through that door to understand their needs, from farm workers to doctors."

Christensen says Woolcock won't let doctors and attorneys volunteer their skills if they haven't been on a canvass and actually seen the community needs and people first-hand.

Woolcock is an expert multi-tasker, Christensen said. She has to be. One minute she's on the phone, finding doctors to volunteer to treat non-English speaking workers. Next she's coordinating "Know the Law" classes with local attorneys and businessmen. Then she's philosophizing about corporate greed with volunteers, sorting and distributing food donations, making sure her volunteers' lives are going well and sending off thank you baskets to donors.

She is constantly surrounded by a dedicated group of volunteers who work zealously doing whatever she needs done.

"Just don't get her mad," says Roger Thompson, a NSWA volunteer of two years. Thompson has struggled with spina bifida for over 40 years and was laid off by Goodwill after its funding to employ disabled people fell through. He found himself bored.

"I moped a lot. (The Goodwill job) was my one reason to get out of the house."

Now Thompson spends his days going through years of NSWA membership records, alphabetizing. But like many NSWA volunteers, he isn't just a volunteer. He is also a member and has benefited from services the organization helps provide.

"They have helped me with a nasty problem I had," Thompson says, moving his hands about with excitement. "I needed to replace tubes in my mask and in four weeks they didn't come. I must've gotten lost in the system."

The NSWA advocated for Thompson and made sure he got replacement tubes as soon as possible.

Silvia Sop has volunteered with NSWA for 16 years &

ever since the organization helped her with her own immigration difficulties. She speaks only Spanish and her words are translated by Sara Lee, a Southern Oregon University Spanish language student who teaches English classes for NSWA.

"It does a lot," says Sop. "It helps the people to look for work, with medical assistance, food distribution. Many times they bring lawyers to people. We go from house to house specifically to help people. Carlotta is a fighter who fights alongside those who need help. Elbow to elbow."

Woolcock offers another explanation for her approach.

"Are you familiar with cognitive dissidence?" asks Woolcock, referring to the theory that people overlook strife to harmonize their standing. "I'm not disillusioned. I never had any illusions about what the government was doing. I'm just shocked that they are still getting away with it."

When Woolcock leads her weekly door-to-door canvass, she gets through doorways many wouldn't. With immigration laws in limbo and tensions high among the different political camps, many immigrant workers, particularly Hispanic, whether documented or not, are suspicious of new faces. But as she knocks on doors in downtown Medford, Woolcock quickly gains the confidences of workers, speaking Spanish quickly and domineeringly, with the same disarming dry humor and matter-of-factness she attacks in her native tongue.

With each house, she signs up new members. Her crusades spread word-of-mouth through the nooks and crannies of small, inclusive Hispanic neighborhoods were Caucasians are seldom seen. As one elderly worker speaks softly of his experiences tree-planting, Woolcock nods knowingly, the sun catching her sympathetic but hard grey eyes. He signs an NSWA membership card and promises to pick up a load of NSWA clothing and toys to bring with him on his next trip to visit family in Mexico.

Back at the office, late in the day, Yakita, a spry Egyptian Moa cat prowls the office, lunging at invisible mice as volunteers answer the phone. Woolcock who went home to make dinner, has returned to the back office to check on the NSWA newsletter.

"They helped me, and I'll never forget that," said Jose Hernandez, a volunteer since 1989 who stopped in to grab some supplies. Hernandez had trouble getting a job in the Valley until NSWA gave him viable leads.

Now successful, Hernandez explains the great loyalty he maintains to the organization: "It's helping the farm and seasonal workers, but also workers in general. I would encourage people to look past their prejudices and support organizations like this that help so many people. I wish they knew the struggles so many of these workers make to feed their families. I've seen a lot of heartbreaking stories at the borders."

Some days never seem to end for Woolcock, whose bleary eyes now peer through her spectacles at the final edits of the quarterly newsletter she edits late into the night, right clicking an old, donated mouse. Woolcock occasionally sleeps in the office hide-a-bed.

"Our goal is to form a worker's plebiscite, giving the workers a real vote," says Woolcock. "What most people vote for is the lesser of two evils offered them. A real say is stating real needs and having the resources to meet them. There needs to be more of a voice for the working people."

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