by Melanie Davis
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By NICK MATTOS, El Hispanic News
Voz Worker’s Rights Education Project has garnered new community supporters and donors after facing a significant budget shortfall due to their stand for marriage equality “Voz is a worker-led organization empowering immigrants and day laborers to gain control over their working conditions through education, professional development, and community organizing,†explains Romero Soza, Executive Director of Voz. “We operate the Martin Luther King Jr. workers center, where we connect workers with employers for jobs as well as offering work skills training, safety trainings, ESL classes, and computer classes. While workers wait to find work through the center, they’re able to learn further skills to help them in their professional lives.†Through their work, Voz aims to unravel the complex web of social and personal challenges that day laborers encounter every day in the course of simply trying to make a living. “One of the biggest problems they face is nonpayment of wages,†Soza explains. “Many of the workers, particularly those who work on the streets, get taken advantage of — they get taken for work for a day, a week, or a month, and at the end don’t get paid. At the worker’s center, we avoid many of these problems though our wage claim program, though which we help people recover their wages if they face problems. Some of the day laborers live on the streets, which brings its own set of problems. Furthermore, many of the day laborers are new arrivals to Oregon and are attempting to find stable jobs — they end up traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest until they find work. Some of them also face significant linguistic barriers — many don’t speak English, and some don’t even speak Spanish as their first language.†Soza notes that one of the biggest challenges comes from the public perception of day laborers in the larger community. “Many people in the community see day laborers as a social problem,†he explains. “They don’t see that these are workers, willing to do anything. Some neighbors don’t like day laborers gathering near their businesses to look for work, and end up calling the police — as a result, some get arrested or deported. Until very recently, Immigration Customs Enforcement even used to conduct raids of day laborers, pretending to be employers and instead taking workers to jail and then deporting them.†On June 6, Voz Worker’s Rights Education took a stand for marriage equality by withdrawing themselves from consideration for a $75,000 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, citing that CCHD demanded Voz to disaffiliate from the pro-marriage equality National Council of La Raza (NCLR) in order to be eligible for the grant. Since its inception in 2000, Voz has operated on a truly grassroots level — and as such, has operated on an extremely tight budget. As such, the loss of $75,000 from their operating budget could have proven disastrous. However, as soon as El Hispanic News broke the story of Voz’s stand with the LGBTQ community, funds from new donors began streaming in — including a major gift of $12,500 through the fundraising efforts of two of Oregon’s largest LGBTQ organizations, Basic Rights Oregon and Freedom to Marry. “I think that Basic Rights Oregon, Freedom to Marry, and the partners we reached out to understood how critically important it is to stand together on behalf of all of our families.,†explains Jeana Frazini, Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon. “When we learned that Voz was being denied the opportunity to apply for the grant because of their connection with organizations that are supportive of marriage, we understood immediately what a challenge that created for the work that they do. Voz is doing critically important work in the community, and that matters to LGBTQ Oregonians who are impacted by it and all of us who believe in a vision of social justice for Oregon. “ “Through these gifts [from Freedom to Marry and Basic Rights Oregon] and from other gifts from new donors nationwide, we’ve collected about $23,000,†explains Soza of the fiscal impacts of Voz’s community outreach. “We’ll soon be sitting with somefoundations including the Oregon Community Fund, the Northwest Health Foundation, and the Arbus Foundation about helping fill this gap as well.†A significant portion of these gifts come from individual donors who are inspired by Voz’s actions — including many who identify as Catholics who disagree with CCHD’s decision. “I received a note just recently saying ‘I’m not going to give to the Catholic church anymore, because I had no idea that this was happening. I’m just going to start donating to you directly. ‘†“I want to be very clear that I’m not against the Catholic church,†Soza notes emphatically. “I’m against a segment of the Catholic church, a very right-wing group, that is dominating the bishopric and using CCHD for their own goals. I’m Catholic myself, and I don’t think Jesus is someone who would discriminate. I don’t think discrimination does anything good for the church.†Soza claims that he “doesn’t know†if Voz currently accepts any grants or donations from any other religiously-affiliated grant bodies or organizations, but the organization is open to receiving donations from them in the future.†While the show of support from new donors has been impressive, there is still far to go for Voz to make up their budget gap — but Soza is optimistic that the community can, and will, come together. “It’s a big challenge,†he says, “but I am confident that there are a lot of people who believe in justice, unity, and equality, and who will support us in our stand with NCLR.â€