In her 2014 children’s book on the life work of Cesar Chavez, Arlene Williams makes the point that one person can change many lives.
You could say Chavez’s legacy changed Williams’ life, too.
Williams, the author of “C is for Change: The Story of Cesar Chavez, One Person Can Change Many Lives,” says Chavez’s story intersected her own life in 2001 in the inner city schools of Inglewood, Calif., sending Williams on a 14-year-journey to teach kids about the late farm workers’ leader.
“It’s been a labor of love. It felt like a calling,” Williams, now a Seattle-based author, illustrator and educator, told NBC News.
The book is the fruit of her journey. This month she’s been visiting local schools, using the book to teach children about Chavez’s contributions to the United Farm Workers movement, something she plans to do again Tuesday as she joins Americans participating in a day of service and remembrance honoring the late civil rights leader's legacy. In 2014, President Obama proclaimed March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day. Chavez died in 1993.
Her bilingual book is an ambitious presentation, blending poetry, biographical facts and quotations. It is designed for tots to teens, allowing more advanced readers to delve deeper into the story.
The book grew out of a poem Williams, then a first-year teacher in the Los Angeles area, wrote for her first-grade class to perform at a Cesar Chavez Day Celebration in March, 2001. Ironically, Chavez and the farmworkers’ struggle for labor and civil rights had not been high in her consciousness as a young girl.
“I grew up a suburban white girl in Seattle and we didn’t know about Mandela, we didn’t know about Chavez,” she says. That began to change in the eighth grade when she helped start a school club against discrimination. “We’d go to different schools and advocate the need for social justice and diversity,” Williams said.
The Chavez poem opened the door to a desire to learn more about the man, says Williams. Over the years, she would visit the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, Calif., and meet with Chavez’s contemporaries, people like Magdaleno Leno Rose-Avila, founding director of the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
In the book’s foreword, Rose-Avila writes that Chavez knew that children of each generation would need to learn about the farmworkers’ struggle for justice and change.
“I titled my book “C Is for Change” because change needs to occur in America,” Williams said. “Civil rights, equality, and access are not a given in America. Every voice needs to be at the table.”
Talks with those who worked alongside Chavez offered a glimpse into who he was, Williams said.
“He was humble, but he commanded attention,” she told NBC. “He was a man of great faith, which called him to greatness. He couldn’t watch injustice happen.”
Writing the book suited Williams’ teaching sensibilities. “My heart is in educating kids about life beyond the classroom and raising them to be socially aware students and hopefully therefore influencing their parents,” she says.
But the book is about more than raising social awareness of the historic farmworkers’ struggle for better working conditions and labor rights.
“It’s about teaching kids the sky is the limit and to dream as big as they can,” Williams said.