Teaching hungry children set her on her life's work

It was what she saw as a fresh-out-of-college grammar school teacher in Stockton that set Dolores Huerta on her path as a crusader.

"I couldn't tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes," she is quoted as saying. "I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children."

She quickly earned her spurs as a community organizer, co-founding the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization.

That led to formation of the Agricultural Workers Association to register voters and lobby local government for improvements in Latino neighborhoods, and two years later – in 1962 – Huerta joined forces with Cesar Chavez to form what would become the United Farm Workers union.

Three years later she directed the nationwide boycott of California table grapes – a movement that thrust the UFW into the national conscience.

Huerta championed legislation that improved conditions for farm workers, efforts that sometimes put her in the crosshairs of law enforcement responding to strikes and protests she and other UFW leaders organized.

She was arrested 22 times and, at a peaceful and lawful demonstration in San Francisco, suffered life-threatening injuries while being beaten by baton-swinging cops.

Huerta had a narrow escape when a gunman fatally shot Sen. Robert F. Kennedy moments after finishing his victory speech for winning the California presidential primary in 1968. She stood next to RFK as he delivered the speech.

Huerta has been showered with prestigious honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian award in the U.S.

In March, she received the Spirit of California medal in recognition, of her public service and contributions to the civil rights movement, and – just days before addressing graduates of Taft College's TIL program was in Washington D.C. to receive the Thomas Jefferson award.

After receiving the Spirit award in Sacramento, Huerta said: "The civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women's movement, the equality movement for our LGBT brothers and sisters are all manifestations of these rights.

"The great social justice changes in our country happened when people came together, organized and took direct action. It is this right that sustains and nurtures our democracy today."

She is a tireless advocate for citizen involvement.

"My hope is for people to understand the importance of getting involved," she says.

At 83, Huerta shows no signs of slowing down.

She founded and directs the Dolores Huerta Foundation headquartered in Bakersfield that recently formed the Unity Coalition to address community concerns over alleged use of excessive force by law enforcement.

Unity Coalition, which has been joined by other organizations, is a result of the outcry that followed the death of a Bakersfield who was being restrained by sheriff's deputies and highway patrolmen.

Huerta's coalition said its goal is to "encourage the highest ethical standards within law enforcement" and "improve police and community relations . . ."