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Johnston alumnus Gabriel Thompson explores challenges and joy of labor

by Michele Nielsen ’99

As a child, Gabriel Thompson ’01 Johnston, didn’t enjoy high school and felt history class was just memorizing facts about a distant event. Fortunately, his parents encouraged him to explore subjects he was interested in and introduced him to social movements through their anti-Vietnam War organizing. After his first year at Redlands, Thompson participated in a transformative month-long summer program in which he helped organize janitors in Denver.

Three professors in the History Department impacted Thompson’s thinking: David Tharp, Jennifer Keene and James Sandos. “What I remember most clearly was their deep enthusiasm and a sense that the topics we were studying mattered,” he says. “History as taught by that trio was about exploring and investigating the world and trying to see it through different perspectives. They encouraged me to do extra reading, pointed me in the direction of books that influenced them, sat down with me after hours. They treated me like an adult. After my high school experience, that was refreshing and inspiring.”

While working with residents of low-income housing in Brooklyn, N.Y. Thompson used grassroots organizing techniques to empower through self-advocacy. He had no idea those same techniques had been developed much earlier by a man named Fred Ross, a low-profile, highly influential labor organizer who mentored many people, including César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, founders of the National Farm Workers Association.

In America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century (2016), Thompson weaves interviews, historical records and the memory of place together to reveal the intense drive that led Ross to dedicate his adult life to empowering others, often to the detriment of himself and his family.

Thompson has written extensively on labor, immigration and related issues for Color Lines, The Nation, Mother Jones and The New York Times, immersing himself deeply in the communities on which he is reporting. “The ongoing learning curve for me has been to better understand how deep my privilege goes,” he says. It is awe-inspiring to learn how many huge challenges people face that I never had to overcome and how they do so with dignity and sometimes joy.”

What’s next for Thompson? Currently, he is interviewing farm workers, growers and teachers who work with children doing field work in California. These interviews will become a Voice of Witness reader allowing the individuals to share their own narratives. “Here I get to hit record and ask open-ended questions and mostly listen, seeing where the topic goes,” he says, “allowing them to talk about their lives apart from being farmworkers. Just like anyone else, work is one thing they do, but they do much else, too.”

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