In Profile: Roberta Avila
Social justice activism just makes sense to Roberta Avila. In a way, it’s always been a part of her life. Her parents emigrated to the US as farm workers during a time when the borders were quite porous; they lived and worked in a small community in Colorado. Though they themselves weren’t migrants, they were always connected with temporary workers, and Roberta recalls the compassion her parents extended to those who were struggling to survive, even as they faced their own difficulties.
While she was still young, her brother Magdaleno returned from college in California as part of the United Farm Workers’ Union. He brought stories and courage home with him, and began organizing laborers in Colorado. Roberta’s first experiences with activism came as she followed her brother around, watching him organize and create demonstrations in the San Luis Valley.
Education led her to Florida, where she found that there were a plethora of social justice issues she could take up. After relocating to Mississippi, Roberta directed her energies toward women’s rights issues. She made her home on the coast, and has worked in the non-profit sector there for over twenty years.
It was the large-scale disaster Hurricane Katrina and its dire aftermath that resulted in the launch of the STEPS Coalition (http://www.stepscoalition.org/), the organization which Roberta now serves as Executive Director. STEPS focuses on five pillars of social justice: economic justice, environmental justice, affordable housing, preservation of historical communities, and human rights. During the weeks following Katrina, there was an influx of workers helping with recovery efforts. Many of these workers were immigrants and some were undocumented; unscrupulous contractors began taking advantage of the situation and shortchanged or withheld wages.
It was at this point that STEPS and MIRA first began to interact. MIRA organizers descended on the coast and began talking with the immigrants and encouraging them to demonstrate. Through advocacy and negotiations, MIRA was successful in recovering a great deal of lost or denied wages. Roberta says that MIRA’s work specifically intersects with the STEPS Coalition commitment to Human Rights.
Roberta Avila now serves on the MIRA Board of Directors, as does Bill Chandler with the STEPS Coalition. Roberta says that she’s always maintained awareness of the plight of the immigrant due to her family background. She’s impressed by the way that MIRA combines effective lobbying and relationship building to reach the key legislators in Mississippi politics, describing the coalition efforts that defeated HB-488 as “phenomenal.” Ultimately, her hope is that equitable immigration reform will be addressed at a national level, so that immigration will no longer be such a hot-button issue in state politics.