Laspa Center for Leadership We Act Grants: Grace Reckers ’18 Is Advocating for Economic Justice in the U.S. and Abroad

This past summer, Grace Reckers ’18 pursued her interests in public health and workers’ rights beyond her Scripps classes, conducting research, participating in outreach and education programs, and learning about nonprofit work in Cuba and Los Angeles. The public policy analysis and biology major used her Laspa We Act grant to travel to Havana for five weeks to work for the El Centro Martin Luther King (CMLK) on improving public access to healthcare. Upon her return, she spent the remainder of her summer assisting the Los Angeles-based Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) with a community health education project.

Reckers’ desire to learn about nonprofit organizations engaged in public policy work stems from meeting friends involved with the Claremont Student Workers Alliance as well as taking Scripps Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations Thomas Kim’s politics course Towards Economic Dignity in the Real World.

“I’m interested in economic justice issues, and I see a need to support community organizations,” says Reckers. “I know there will need to be more structural changes, but I can’t let that get in the way of taking action on a local level.”

Reckers learned about CMLK through a friend’s dad. She was attracted to the organization’s mission, which is to ensure the public resources provided by the Cuban government—such as healthcare and education—reach everyone in need. To help achieve their goals, CMLK conducts field research and advocates for policy changes on local and national levels. The group also networks with similar movements and organizations throughout Latin America. “The more research I did of the different opportunities for this work, the more I was referred back to CMLK,” Reckers says.

Reckers’ internship provided her with an opportunity to experience many different facets of CMLK’s efforts. She attended meetings with Cuba’s various health departments, provided input on CMLK’s relationship with these entities and its solidarity work, and pitched ideas on relationship-building opportunities with other agencies. Reckers also reached out to organizations beyond Cuba to raise funds for much-needed new equipment for the Caribbean island nation’s hospitals and medical schools.

After spending five weeks in Havana, Reckers returned to Southern California to work with KIWA. Founded in 1992, KIWA’s mission is to empower low-wage immigrant workers in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood by providing resources and information to help them advocate for their own civil and labor rights. Reckers’ participation in Professor Kim’s economics course initially drew her to KIWA; Kim suggested she participate in some of the projects he facilitates with the organization. Reckers took his advice and got involved, taking her classroom knowledge on issues like wage theft, workers’ movements, and public health and augmented it with hands-on work.

For her Laspa We Act grant, Reckers contributed to the nonprofit’s health hazard and wage theft outreach efforts. This entailed knocking on doors in Koreatown and providing residents with information about the harmful effects of lead poisoning, especially for children. She prepared educational materials, informed residents about the toxic metal’s prevalence in older homes, and alerted them to free, government-provided programs that test for lead poisoning. Reckers also educated community members about wage theft, which includes hourly rates lower than minimum wage, unpaid overtime, and unpaid breaks or opportunities for rest time. From her research on the subject, Reckers created a report on how wage theft severely impacts the health of workers and their families, which KIWA used in a grant proposal.

“Los Angeles has some of the largest rates of income inequality and wage theft in the country, which means workers in this city are some of the most exploited in the nation,” says Reckers. Many of these workers are undocumented immigrants who are “in dire need of services and support they are not getting from government programs,” she says.

Reflecting on her Laspa-funded grant work, Reckers says she got more out of her internships than she gave. But she also acknowledges that a student’s willingness to learn and interact with those outside of the classroom is always valuable. “It is easy to hire someone to sit at a computer to do research, but it’s harder to get people to go door-to-door and talk to [strangers about a program they’re unfamiliar with],” she says.

Since the term of her Laspa We Act grant ended, Reckers has continued to work with KIWA. During the fall semester, she assisted the organization with its voter registration initiative by training students from The Claremont Colleges on how to register new voters. This semester, she is traveling to their Koreatown offices once a week to help with an affordable housing initiative that KIWA is sponsoring.