Day Laborers´ Day of Service in East Portland

By Absa Echeverria

Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

To answer this question, every year on the third Monday of January, thousands of people come together throughout the United States to serve their communities and honor the memory of this great social leader.

Promptly and with enthusiasm, workers from the MLK Worker Center responded to this call and along with VOZ activists, participated in a day of service by cleaning up the streets on January 20th.

Clean-up activities consisted of sweeping and picking up trash on several East Portland Center streets, approximately nine blocks. Workers and volunteers started at the Convention Center, worked their way down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, home to the Workers Center, and spread out to clean Morrison Street and surrounding areas including the corners in which day laborers find work.

Francisco Aguirre, an employee of VOZ and coordinator of the Worker Center, is responsible for organizing the MLK Day activity and describes the importance of Martin Luther King to the center. “Our day laborer center bears his name and for this reason on the third Monday of January, doing activities like this, commemorate the memory of this great man who fought for human rights.”

On the importance of VOZ and the Day Laborers Center doing these activities, Aguirre said, “It is important that the residents of Portland know that day laborers are a part of this community and are interested in helping to maintain the cleanliness of this city. We want our neighbors and employers in this community to realize that day laborers are an important part of the changes that contribute to the development of this city.”

Paul Riek, another VOZ representative, who collaborated with day laborers for this event explained how through the use of Facebook and emails, it all came together.  Riek said that by utilizing these resources the activity recruited 18 day laborers and volunteers.

Days earlier, Riek met with a group of local businesses to discuss the purpose of this activity, where it would take place, and how it would benefit these businesses, as many of them are located in the neighborhood.  Riek commented, “By the end of the meeting, businesses were motivated by the idea and willing to work with us. They offered to help us by donating bags and other cleaning tools. One of them donated a dumpster for the all the trash we collected.”

Referring to the clean-up done by the day laborers, Riek emphasized the importance of this date for VOZ and the workers. “We usually clean the neighborhood several times a year. However, this day is very special for us as we choose this date to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King.” Riek added, “We deeply believe in the vision of Dr. King and his example of the struggle for social justice and equal rights.  VOZ and the day laborers are currently in their own struggle of having a permanent, safe place to meet and that their rights are respected and they are treated fairly.” Riek concluded that this activity has demonstrated to the Portland community that day laborers, apart from seeking employment, also know how to give back as they did during this activity.

In this sense, Aguirre discussed the importance of these activities over the years. “It’s very interesting because with each passing year our support grows, from day laborers, entrepreneurs, and traders.”

As to whether there has been a change in the perception of entrepreneurs about day laborers after this activity, Aguirre tells us, “I think this activity has helped us. This was an opportunity for them to see us in a favorable light and that there are benefits of having day laborers in the neighborhood.”

This joint community service project brought together day laborers, volunteers, and VOZ activists to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., not only to honor his memory, but also to do their part and clean the streets of the community to which they belong.