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What the founder of United Farm Workers can teach us about making an impact…

Last Updated:

July 12, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #59 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? Making an impact is a relay race!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Dolores Huerta quit her job as a teacher to become a labor activist after coming to her own definition of “making an impact.”

Dolores Huerta, an elementary school teacher in California in the 1950s, noticed her students—many of whom were the children of farmers—came to class hungry. Moved by the poverty she witnessed, Huerta reflected upon the impact she wanted to make—and felt that "she could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their children.”

So, Huerta turned to political activism. In the span of 10 years (between 1955 and 1965), Huerta…

  • Co-founded a chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO), where she helped lead voter registration drives and fight for economic improvements for Hispanics,
  • Founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which was the precursor to UFW, and
  • Founded the United Farm Workers' Union (UFW), where she helped organize a strike of 5,000 grape workers and negotiated their workers' contracts. 

Huerta's efforts led to more equitable labor contracts and long-term legal protections like the Aid for Dependents Families (AFDC), disability insurance for farm workers, and the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which gave farm workers the right to organize and negotiate for fairer wages and better conditions in California.

Today, at 94 years old, Huerta—who was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts in 2012—continues to fight for workers' rights through the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which serves over a thousand individuals and families.

What does this mean for you? The next time you find yourself wondering, How can I make an impact?, remember Huerta, who asked herself (1) “Who do I want to serve?” and (2) “How can I best serve them?”

Dolores Huerta in 1969. Image via DoloresHuerta.org.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Making a positive impact is a relay race.

Ever seen a relay race at a track and field event? One person starts running with a baton… then passes it to the next person… who then passes it on to the next person.

What Huerta taught me is that making a positive impact is like running a relay race: You can’t do it alone. Instead, you need a lot of people running their own leg of the race and gracefully handing the baton to the next person.

In the case of poverty alleviation, it’s not like being a political activist is a nobler cause than a teacher. We need both—and we need policymakers, healthcare professionals, caring business leaders, economists (like Esther Duflo), and more all running their leg of the relay race. Each role is necessary but not sufficient.

Looking to make an impact in your career?

Try filling in the following blanks:

1. “I want to help _______ (do) _______.”

  • E.g., “I want to help the world transition to more renewable sources of energy.”

2. “To achieve this impact, we need _______ (doing) _______, _______ (doing) _______, _______ (doing) _______…”

  • E.g., “To achieve this impact, we need scientists to discover better energy storage solutions, policymakers to develop incentives and systems that transition the world to renewable energy, the media to better inform the public, etc.”

3. “Given that I’m interested in, good at, and have a background/network in _______, I am best equipped to run the leg of the relay race of _______.”

  • E.g., “Given that I’m interested in, good at, and have a background/network in chemical engineering, I am best equipped to run the leg of the relay race of doing basic science research that can help us find more reliable and low-cost fuel sources.”

Try this exercise and you’ll soon find yourself transforming a problem that seems too big for any one person to tackle (because it is) into a series of smaller problems that we can all contribute to. And though Huerta jumped into a different leg of a relay race full-time, you don’t have to! After all, if Nike could be founded as a side hustle, you can probably side hustle your way to something impactful, too.

Oh, and one more thing: There is no “right” answer to this exercise. Your “theory of change” depends on your worldview. You may not believe in labor unions or renewable energy. You may believe in something else! The most important thing is that you come to your own point of view, as we learned from Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: As a grateful first-gen, low-income college grad turned first-gen professional, I spent years trying to figure out how to lift up those coming after me. Should I join a non-profit? Become a teacher? Run for office?

It wasn’t until I started filling in the above blanks that I realized the leg that I was best equipped to run: the leg of turning the unspoken into the spoken so that others can take what’s now spoken and turn it into classroom lessons, training programs, and more. That’s why I became an author and a frameworker.

Run the relay!


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