2020 Leadership Award Winner Rosalinda Guillen
Executive director, Community to CommunityRachel Tepper Paley
November 10, 2020
The James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Awards spotlight the important and complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health. They raise awareness of these timely issues by celebrating the visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, and more equitable and sustainable food system. Below, Rachel Tepper Paley unpacks the story of 2020 Leadership honoree Rosalinda Guillen in Washington State.
In 1987, when Rosalinda Guillen was 37, the future farmers’ rights activist had never heard of famed labor leader Cesar Chavez. But the land had long provided the drumbeat to her life. Born in Texas to migrant farmworkers, Guillen was raised in Mexico before moving with her family to a Washington State agricultural labor community at age 10. She lived and breathed farm work for about a decade, eventually settling on a chicken ranch with her three sons while working at a local bank. Then, a recruiter for Reverend Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign came knocking.
At the time, Guillen wasn’t even registered to vote. But the idea of Black president—someone who, as a person of color, faced many of the same social and economic issues she did—stirred something in her. She recalled the nearly all-white rural community just beyond her childhood farming bubble.
“We had a strong self-confidence that was nurtured by my parents, but then when we got to school, people tried to tell us basically that brown people were not the same as white people,” she said. “There were altercations—our response to white kids attempting to bully us. We didn't tolerate it. That kind of shocked them.”
When the Jesse Jackson recruiter showed up, that same fire was still burning in Guillen. In short order, she registered to vote, successfully ran to be a precinct committee officer for the Democratic Party, and—perhaps most importantly—was turned onto the work of Cesar Chavez and the farmworker movement.
Throughout the 1990s, Guillen became a strong leader in her own right. She founded a local chapter of the National Rainbow Coalition, today known as the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. With the coalition, Guillen won a high-profile victory: the first-ever collective bargaining agreement for the farmworkers at Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, the largest winery in Washington State. More influential jobs followed, from organizing strawberry workers in California’s Salinas Valley for Chavez’s United Farm Workers to serving as the organization’s national vice president. Later, she became executive director of another Chavez-founded nonprofit, the civic engagement group La Unión del Pueblo Entero.
In 2004, Guillen turned her focus to Washington State’s agriculture. She founded Community to Community to help stem the tide of industrial agriculture and preach the gospel of collective action to local farmworkers.
“The whole point of Community to Community is to plant seeds, to grow little plants of leadership and let them flourish,” Guillen told Civil Eats last year. The group’s impact has been immense and wide-ranging, from leading voter registration drives to promoting fair trade through the creation of a “Food Justice Certified” label for commercial food goods. It’s also helping local farmworkers set up worker-owned co-ops: the first, a 65-acre venture called Tierra y Libertad, was founded in 2017 and produced its first commercial harvest in 2019.
“My goal is to have a team that is led by farmworkers and hand them the structure that we built, and let them run with it,” Guillen said.
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.