Carmen Rojas is the co-founder and CEO of The Workers Lab, an organization that invests in innovation that empowers workers in the United States. This month, she will leave her position as CEO of the organization to become the CEO and president of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which supports low-income families in achieving justice and equality.
During her recent visit to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, The Daily Princetonian spoke with Rojas about her work at The Workers Lab and her thoughts on the most pressing issues facing American workers.
The Daily Princetonian: As a child of immigrants, how has your background influenced your work?
Carmen Rojas: I feel like it has deeply influenced my work. My mom is from Nicaragua, and she immigrated to the United States at a time when 3 percent of workers were in a labor union. She immigrated at the peak of the civil rights movement. And so she came here really at a time when social movements had created infrastructure and opening[s] for people to live really amazing lives. For a good number of people, not everybody, but a good number of people, to live really amazing lives.
And I always had this feeling of being in between. My mom is from Nicaragua. My dad is from Venezuela. I grew up in the Bay Area. And so I feel like, as a Latina in particular, I always felt like I was moving between the United States, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and, especially in 2008, when Obama ran for office the first year, I was living in Venezuela and imagined going back and having a prodigal daughter moment where people would be, like, “Oh, she’s back!” And it wasn’t the case. I was clearly an American person. My relationship with race was different. My relationship with them was different.
And so I feel like, being the kid of immigrants, you learn to sort of hold so many histories at one time from a very young age, that you learn about choices, choices that my parents made that were really powerful and indicative of them wanting a better life and them wanting me to have a better life. And that this is actually possible. I feel like being bilingual and bicultural has really expanded the way that I see opportunity as being something that should be available to every person regardless of where they’re from.
DP: And what do you see as the biggest challenges facing workers in 21st-century America?
CR: So many! Half of working people in the United States earn 15 dollars or less an hour. No minimum wage worker can afford a two bedroom apartment in the city they work in, in this country. Seventy percent of Americans can’t afford a 1,000 dollar unexpected expense. Those are all of the day-to-day challenges or the day-to-day indignities of being a poor working person in this country.
And the other side of that is sort of this consolidation of economic power and political power by a small number of people. I feel like that consolidation and concentration of power and wealth is a threat to the promise of America, it is a threat to our democracy, and it is a threat to our economy. If people are willingly leaving the labor market, because who wants to work 80 hours and be poor? I would rather just not work.
If people are making those choices, I feel like they are making those very rational choices because our system is irrational. So I think there are a whole host of issues that are sort of the laundry list of day-to-day indignities, and the biggest one for me is the concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of a few.
DP: Much of the rhetoric around immigrant workers accuses them of stealing jobs. How does The Workers Lab respond to these accusations?
CR: One — they aren’t. Every national data set that is actually significant has demonstrated that they aren’t … because they are working in industries and sectors that most U.S.-born workers aren’t interested in working in: agricultural work, home care work. They are often working in low-wage, low-benefit, low-protection industries and sectors. Again, a good number of U.S. workers aren’t interested in those jobs.
I would actually ask a different question. This idea that there is a zero-sum, or a finite number of jobs in this country, seems like an absurd idea. The U.S. goes to other countries almost on a daily basis to extract economic resources and well-being, to lower wages, and, for U.S. corporations in particular, to disentangle and disrupt any sort of safety net that exists. So, if U.S. corporations can do that in other countries, why can’t the people impacted by those decisions come to the United States to find jobs?
It seems like an unbalanced proposition where the wealthiest and most powerful amongst us can go and exploit whenever they want to, but those who have been impacted by that exploitation can’t move freely, with the same amount of freedom, to try to find economic opportunity and well-being for themselves and their families. Yeah, it’s not true. And I think there is another question to be asked. Which is this question about who and what gets to move freely on this planet and why.
DP: Do you feel that this rhetoric has changed under the current administration? Has it increased? Decreased?
CR: We had a Latino U.S. citizen have acid thrown in his face in Wisconsin this week. Everything from that to what happened in the shooting in El Paso, this is specific to the Latinx community. There is a concerted effort to make us believe that we are not from here. And we are a core part of building this country. We are a part of the fabric. We have always been here. Always!
If you’re from the West Coast, like I am, literally I have friends who are 15th generation who have been here. If you’re from Texas. And, even if you’re not, even if you’re a first-generation Latino in this country, chances are that you have contributed to the economic well-being of this country in ways that have shaped our future, that have shaped our economy, that have shaped our culture, that have shaped us.
And so the danger for me of this administration is the depth of belief that we don’t belong here and, frankly, how transferable that is. How young Latinx people and old Latinx people … my mom! My mom immigrated here. She lived here for 50 years. She moved back to Nicaragua because she was like, “This is crazy. I don’t want to live here.” Nicaragua is having political unrest right now, and she would rather be there than here because here, somebody can come with a gun and shoot her because she’s speaking Spanish in a supermarket.
That level of vitriol, the consequences of that are so great. I think I have never — even under Pete Wilson in California, who was our most reactionary governor in the state, who tried to pass English-only laws and anti-affirmative action laws when I was growing up, even under that, there wasn’t the same amount of white rage against Latinos and Latino immigrants.
DP: Four months ago, our president tweeted that a group of congresswomen from immigrant backgrounds who are advocating for change should “go back” to where they came from. As a child of immigrants who also advocates for change, how do you perceive this statement?
CR: They are from here! Again, I don’t think it’s accidental … Some people are calling this the last gasp of white supremacy: a desire and commitment by this administration to make those of us from here ‘other’ — and not only through tweets and through words, but through actual policies. Creating a set of policies and creating a cultural environment where we don’t believe that we are from here is not an accident. It’s not an accident, and it’s not new.
This is like a vestige of white supremacy in this country, this belief that white people are from here more than any of us are from here. I love “The Squad.” I feel so motivated by a set of political leaders that are really not only representative of the communities that we work in and the communities that I move in, but also representative of the kind of America that I want to be in, and that I want to contribute to making better. And so I think he’s dangerous, and I hope it’s short-lived.
DP: What do you view as The Workers Lab’s greatest achievements?
CR: You know, our work is to create room for people to imagine a different reality for the working people of this country. And so we’ve had a good number of successes and a good number of failures. For me, the greatest achievement is to demonstrate that when people have resources and the room to try something new, only great things can happen.
So everything from: in South Dakota, we helped fund the Native American construction cooperative to solve a housing shortage on the Pine Ridge Reservation, to our last innovation finalist [which] included this group, from Vermont, of dairy workers who were trying to put pressure on the dairy industry to improve standards for, mostly, undocumented immigrant workers in the industry. We run the gamut in terms of how change can happen in the lives of working people and how power can be built for working people.
I feel like we’ve created exposure and lifted up primarily Dreamers, imaginers of color, immigrant imaginers, and said that these people who have this great proximity to the issues facing poor working people should be at the forefront of solving those problems and have provided them resources. So for me, it’s just creating evidence that when you give people resources, time, and space to try something new, great things can happen.
DP: How has the Workers’ Lab addressed the gender pay gap generally and also for women of color?
CR: That is a great question. Two or three years ago, we helped to launch a platform called We Work Together that essentially has a bunch of tools. One in particular is called Fairy Godmother. It helps you see what your salary is compared to your male counterpart in the workplace. I think information is just … We know there’s a gender pay gap, but it feels really different when you’re like, ‘When you put in my place of employment, this is what the average man makes and this is what I make.’
When you actually see that, I think it’s super powerful. For us as an organization, creating pay transparency across the organization has been really important. So you will never get one of those job descriptions, like here’s a job without knowing how much money you’re going to be paid or with needing to negotiate for your salary.
You know, as a Latina, as a leader of this organization and as part of the staff, we have been working on exposing people to the gender pay gap. I think Nov. 21 is when Latinas make as much as a white man made in 12 months, so it’s almost 23 months. It takes us 22 months and a little bit to make what a white man makes in 12 months. I think the gender pay gap is often framed as the gap between a white man and a white woman. We as an organization are really pushing to expose the pay gap by race, which is really important.
DP: On Nov. 1, the Marguerite Casey Foundation issued a press release stating that you would be leaving The Workers Lab and joining the foundation. Can you tell me more about this transition and your decision to join the foundation?
CR: So, Marguerite Casey Foundation is one of the very few foundations in this country that primarily offers multi-year general operating support so it’s not like, ‘here’s a program or here’s a project or here’s a product, I just want to fund this thing.’ They are really invested in leaders [who] are helping low-income families increase not only their voice but their political participation and their economic well-being in this country.
So, I was really motivated by the opportunity to provide resources to those people who have the greatest proximity to the issues, not only working people but black people, queer people, Latinx people, immigrants. We have an opportunity to actually connect and tether the fates beyond the one specific issue and actually think more holistically on a human level about how to build power for people who have historically been marginalized in this country.
I’m also really excited about how, to be honest with you, when I take this job I will be the youngest and only Latina president of a nationally-endowed foundation in this country. That’s depressing! And I think it’s really important. In considering the opportunity, I think representation does matter. And to really be able to harness a set of resources in ways that lift up our community, I think is so powerful. Yeah, I’m really excited about it.
And also, I built The Workers Lab, and our team is amazing. I built an organization and it exists, and Adrian Haro, who is stepping in to run Workers Lab … I can’t imagine a better person, and I can’t imagine a better team to help advance the agenda of building power for working people. It’s just my time, also. I think leadership isn’t about staying in your job forever and always trying to prove the same point. I think leadership is about creating more room for others to lead.
And knowing that The Workers Lab is not only going to continue to exist but probably do more amazing things than I could have ever imagined feels like I’m delivering on the promise of the space that was created for me.
DP: That press release also mentioned that you built a team that is majority-queer first-generation people of color. Why do you feel that this diversity is important at The Workers Lab?
CR: I feel like it’s important that we say who we are, because there’s no organization that looks like we do and does what we do. We are often the only organization that, when we walk into a room, looks like we do. We are in a field and in a sector in which the vast majority of leaders are white men — straight white men. And I think it’s important to actually, not only for counting purposes, say that there’s a different way. This can look different.
For very practical reasons say, the four leaders of The Workers Lab, the top four people — our parents didn’t graduate from high school, we grew up in low to medium-income households, we all identify as queer. I don’t think people believed that an organization like this was possible, and I think that in a context where diversity, equity, and inclusion are such a buzz, very few organizations are changing or demonstrating what it looks like.
And it was really easy to build a team that looks like ours because I was a leader of that team. I was committed to building a team that could have space in their heart and room in their imagination to want something more for the people in their communities, and that made all the difference in the world.
I think it’s important that we are, and I think it’s important that we say who we are. If we left that off of the table, the assumption would be that we are a majority-straight, white organization. That that is the assumption creates an assumption about who is positioned and poised to solve the problems facing our country.