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Magaly Licolli - Worker rights are her passion

by Lara Hightower | July 15, 2018 at 1:00 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK "She is with the worker. She is the worker's friend. She never gives up, she is very strong, very persistent and very committed. Her leadership is very strong, and her vision is a key component. She really knows where she's going, what she wants and how she's going to get it." -- Martha Ojeda

For Magaly Licolli, advocating for others' rights started with advocating for her own.

Licolli, the executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center, was born in León, the largest city in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Roughly 91 percent of its approximately 2.9 million residents are Catholic and, says Licolli, conservative when it comes to traditional gender roles -- something she says she became aware of while still a small child.

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"In a very early stage of my life, I started to notice how [my parents] would treat my brothers and women differently," she says. "So I think, for me, the gender roles were very stuck in my mind. [I questioned] why I was not allowed to do certain things, whereas my brothers were. I was very curious and always asking why. If [something] didn't make sense to me, I always tried to make logic out of what I was being taught. So I always challenged the rules, and my parents definitely didn't like that."

Licolli was the third of five children. Her older brother and sister were quiet and rule abiding, she says, which made her challenges to the status quo even more unnerving for her parents.

"When I was born, I was the hyperactive one," she says with a laugh. "I think it determined so much of who I am right now. My parents didn't really know how to deal with me. Later on, it got worse, to the point where my dad was really strict with me. I became even more rebellious against that because I didn't like that he would mistreat me -- or hit me -- for any reason, but especially just because I was a woman. León is a very conservative city and very religious, and we carried that so much with our families and the roles of women -- how they have to behave, how to make this woman the best woman for when she gets married. They determined who you were going to be as an adult from the time you were a child. I always fought against that, because I didn't like boxes."

Her parents opened a print shop when Licolli was a toddler. As they grew the business, Licolli and her siblings were left alone at home, which fostered Licolli's independence even more. Her parents' intention was for all of their children to work in the family business once they finished high school, but, true to her individualistic nature, Licolli had other plans. She had discovered art and theater as a way to express her individuality.

"Those moments when I was doing art and theater, those moments, for me, were like sacred moments," she says. "It was a way to really express and just be myself. And I think art really determined who I am, too.

"My parents didn't want us to suffer in life, so they wanted us to work in their print shop. Then we wouldn't have to worry about anything, because the business would provide everything else. For me, I didn't want that, and it was really hard, because, in my family, they were not educated and they didn't believe in women being educated. But I wanted to be educated in order to become independent. When I was a teenager, I decided that education was going to give me that freedom."

Licolli moved away from her parents when she graduated from high school and moved to Guanajuato City, the capital city of her state.

"I wanted to be far away from rules and restrictions," says Licolli of the move, which took her parents by surprise. She would be the first woman in her family to seek a college education. "My parents never opposed it completely, but they were not very supportive of it -- so I was encouraging myself to keep going. I told my parents I was going to study graphic design, for the print shop, but I actually did more theater than anything else."

Theater had become her primary focus by this time -- but she didn't ignore the side of her personality that was eager to speak out against injustice. She eventually moved to Mexico City, where she studied at a private college and used theater as a way to advocate for social change.

"When I was in Mexico doing theater, it was focused on social justice," she says. "We didn't want [our performances] to only be emotional, we also wanted people to think about the reality we are in. So we did a lot of theater around the reality of Mexico and the community of Mexico so that they would laugh, but, at the same time, think about what was happening.

"Because I had been fighting to change my own reality, I think any reality can be changed. We are not stuck in these rules, these ways of thinking."

Finding a place

In 2004, Licolli moved to Arkansas from Mexico City when the person she was in a relationship with started attending the University of Arkansas. It was a lonely time for her: She didn't speak English, and she was far away from her friends and family. Learning English at the Spring International Language Center at the university helped, as did enrolling in some classes at Northwest Arkansas Community College. Eventually, Licolli earned a theater degree from the UA. But theater in Arkansas lacked the social justice aspect she had found so rewarding in Mexico, and when she took a job working with Spanish-speaking patients at the Community Clinic, she soon found her new cause.

"I was seeing a lot of immigrants and undocumented immigrants suffering, without medical care, without money, working at poultry plants being treated as garbage -- disposable human beings that, once they have an injury, they don't have any value," Licolli says bluntly. "For me, as an actress, I have a lot of empathy for people, and whenever I see suffering ... I don't like injustice. I was like, 'This has to be changed. Nobody is helping these people to achieve justice and to fight. This cannot be happening in 2014 -- you want to work to feed your family, but you don't expect to die or to give your health to your job.'"

Since her job at Community Clinic gave her access to poultry plant employees seeking help and relief from health issues they claimed were a result of being "on the line," Licolli was in a unique position to hear first-hand accounts of their working environments. Much of what she heard, she says, shocked her.

"We have a lot of disabled people in the immigrant community, people who can no longer work because they have fractures or amputations and because of that, they can't work in poultry plants," she says. "Those who can have to process up to 120 birds per minute, so they process around 21,000 chickens a day, and their repetition of movement leads to life-long injuries. And because of [the pace], their bathroom breaks are very restricted, because they function like machines."

Licolli says that some plants use a demerit system, with workers receiving demerits for absences -- even if it they are medical or child related -- or for arriving back to their posts outside of the time allowed for bathroom breaks. When workers receive a designated number of demerits, they're fired.

"So they are always in fear of losing their jobs," she explains. "If 300 workers were given the same seven minutes [for a bathroom break] with only nine bathrooms available -- obviously, mathematically speaking, that can't happen. So the workers are forced to wear diapers, because they don't want to get a disciplinary point."

Standards written by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) require that bathroom facilities must be available to employees "upon need." But a 2016 study conducted by Oxfam America, a nonprofit organization committed to fighting poverty and injustice, claimed that particular OSHA regulation was routinely disregarded throughout the poultry industry and that the use of diapers on the plant line was common. Some employees, Oxfam claimed, abstained from drinking liquids so that their bathroom breaks would be limited, courting a litany of health problems that are associated with dehydration.

Licolli says she asked some of the employees she met what they would say if they had a chance to speak with the bosses of the corporations they work for.

"They often say, 'I want to be treated better than the chickens I process,'" Licolli says quietly.

Coming together

It's not in Licolli's DNA to hear such troubling claims and do nothing. Though she had no experience in labor organizing, she found herself talking to friends about tactics she could take to organize the immigrant workers in the Northwest Arkansas area to change their working conditions.

"My friend Fernando [Garcia] began talking to me about the Industrial Workers of the World [union] and how they organize workers at their jobs," she says. "I started reading more and more about it, and I thought, 'Yes! Let's bring that chapter here to Northwest Arkansas, and let's see if we can reach out to workers and organize workers.'"

Garcia and Licolli became co-founders of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the organization and were quickly effective despite their lack of experience. Senior national field organizer for Interfaith Worker Justice Martha Ojeda met Licolli at a national training for labor organizers.

"It was really a shock, because they were really advanced and really clear in their analyses," says Ojeda. "They understood the big picture and the challenges that they would face, and they were strategizing at a higher level than the other groups."

The duo was struggling to devote time to the cause as both had full-time jobs. Meeting with workers, translating union materials into Spanish and setting up meetings with representatives from area corporations took up much of Licolli's spare time. So when an opening for an executive director at the Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center opened up, it seemed like kismet -- even though, once again, it meant Licolli would be applying for a position for which she had no experience.

"I always say that when I became the director, I didn't have a lot of skills to be a director," she admits. "And I was really afraid -- 'Am I going to be able to do this?' But I think my passion and the ambition that I have to change things, that is what has given me the strength to do it."

Licolli's efforts have been novel and surprising -- and effective. She's used her background in theater and visual arts to both educate the workers and communicate their experiences to the public, including forging a unique partnership with Artist's Laboratory Theatre to tell the very personal stories of workers within the poultry industry.

"We did a staged reading of verbatim interviews from the Oxfam report," says Erika Wilhite, executive director of The Artist's Laboratory. "And we've embarked on another project where we write a script with the Center -- Magaly and the workers -- about the experiences of poultry factory workers. She is a visionary on this, and we as a theater community are really here to support her and the Workers Justice Center and, of course, the workers. The play will tour four communities where the industry is -- it's meant to be an advocacy piece and an opener for The Workers Justice Center, who will be there to organize around it."

Wilhite says telling the stories of the workers' experiences this way is particularly effective. "When you've got a human being in front of you, and you're in that space with them, it's hard to look away, and it's hard not to lean in with compassion. I feel that our community of Northwest Arkansas tends to forget that there are human rights injustices here. I don't think we realize the abuse and that we're sharing a community with, largely, immigrants that are being abused. And we're still eating their chicken."

"It's not easy to find a mixture of the activism with the academic analyses, with the art," says Ojeda. "[Licolli] has all of those components that give her an opportunity to have a broader analysis [and] to find novel ways to develop strategies to respond to any challenges that [the Center] might face."

Most crucial in Licolli's efforts to educate and organize the poultry workers is making a personal connection with them. Her straightforward nature and blunt-but-honest manner of communicating is effective in making those connections, though she says some have criticized her for it.

"Many people want to police me, tell me I shouldn't be so straightforward," says Licolli. "But for me, this isn't a job. It isn't about being polite or caring for others' feelings. Our people are dying, they're suffering, and we need to be outspoken and push really hard in the community so that they can understand what is happening. We need to be as straightforward and honest as we can."

"She's an executive director of a nonprofit that has huge conflict of interests when it comes to the corporate funding system here," notes Wilhite. In fact, the Workers Justice Center does not accept funding or donations from any corporate entity. "And that means giving up things and standing up and putting herself on the line. I really would like to be as brave as she is -- I admire her work so much, because she stands her ground. I have seen her get so much backlash from community leaders, but she speaks her truth unabashedly and unapologetically, because she believes so much in what she's doing. There are lives on the line here."

"I'm not a very outgoing director, who is at everything, because I'm focused on the community, and building that power in the community," Licolli says. "I get involved with the workers. I really want to be with the community, trying to make sure everything is moving forward, and we are really moving in the right direction. I also travel a lot to connect with other alliances and to bring our work nationwide. We are probably more recognized for the work that we do nationwide than we are here in Arkansas."

Forging ahead

That's one of the biggest challenges to Licolli and the Center's mission -- generating support from the Northwest Arkansas community-at-large. It's not easy in an area where the poultry industry accounts for a large percentage of the state's income and employment, and poultry corporations in Northwest Arkansas are generous in funding community nonprofits -- a status quo which make those in the nonprofit arena wary of getting involved with an organization whose prime mission is challenging their labor practices. Still, Licolli says her organization has made progress in working with the area poultry industry, particularly Tyson Foods.

"For three years now, we've been in the shareholder meetings," she says. "And we've had the chance to talk to them, and they've listened. It's a huge company, so it's hard to even make sure that everything in their policies are really happening at the poultry plants."

In 2016, Tyson Foods announced a commitment to improve both working conditions, as well as compensation at their poultry plants.

"Just like Magaly, we care about our front-line workers," says Tyson Foods spokesperson Derek Burleson. "That's why we continuously improve worker training, safety and compensation and started a life skills program called Upward Academy. Collaboration with Magaly and groups like Oxfam America and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union have been part of the process."

Licolli says there are big plans afoot regarding a new path and a new direction that she hopes to be announcing soon; she hopes it will mean even more success as the organization goes forward.

And what does success look like to Licolli? Surprisingly, it may mean she's working from the rear of the effort instead of at the forefront.

"I am not the one who is going to free the community," she says firmly. "The community will free themselves. These workers can become the leaders of the movement, the voices of the community, not myself. I'm focused on building that power in the community. It's a lot of work, and it's slow, but I think that's the only way. If we don't do that work of empowering the community, it's going to be really hard to make systemic changes because the people who are affected need to be leading the work."

So she marches forward, keeping one overriding thought in the forefront of her mind.

"It doesn't matter how different we are as human beings if we keep in mind one single goal, and we fight together."

NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK "She has to be protective. She has a lot of support from national peers and is constantly learning to be a leader for her workers. The stakes, for her, are very high." -- Erika Wilhite

NAN Profiles on 07/15/2018

Print Headline: Magaly Licolli


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