Nonprofit Sector

Sí se puede

February 28, 2023

Where We Go From Here

David Villarino-Gonzalez, President & CEO, Farmworkers Institute of Education & Leadership Development (FIELD)

When labor leader Cesar Chavez founded The Farmworkers Institute of Education and Leadership Development (FIELD) in 1978, his goal was to inspire California’s rural workforce to gain self-sufficiency through employee-owned enterprises. “When we talk about self-sufficiency, what we're really talking about is rural communities – immigrant communities – prospering both economically and socially,” says David Villarino-Gonzalez, President and CEO, FIELD. Today, FIELD continues this core mission to improve the economic prospects of rural immigrant communities all over California. They do this through a variety of educational and workforce development training programs, and through developing local cooperative enterprises.  

In this conversation, David shares what he’s learned working with his community, what capacity building means for FIELD, and the importance of listening to the people you serve. Joining him is Jorge Contreras, Manager, Financing at NFF. 

In this video:  

  • FIELD’s work and goals. (0:25) 

  • How David’s family history inspired him to go into this work. (1:10) 

  • What FIELD learned working with its community of farmworkers and immigrants. (2:44) 

  • What Sí se puede [Yes we can] means to FIELD. (3:36)  

  • How a clear vision and core values guide decisions in serving a community. (4:36) 

  • How building capacity for FIELD means building the community’s economic confidence. (5:43) 

  • How economic and social prosperity lead to self-sufficiency. (6:58) 

  • Why listening to your community is essential. (9:03) 


DAVID: I come from a family of immigrants from Zacatecas and Sonora. 

JORGE: We're distant cousins. I think we mentioned that when we first met. 

DAVID: I got the tall güero [blond] gene, but uh– 



JORGE: David, thank you so much for joining us today. Before we get started, can you please introduce yourself and briefly describe your organization's work in a few sentences? 

DAVID: My name is David Miguel Villarino-Gonzalez and I'm president and CEO of the Farmworkers Institute of Education and Leadership Development. And the work that we do is empowering the underserved to become self-sufficient. Our hope is to put programs in place that lead farmworkers, recent immigrants, and high school credit deficient young people to be able to have the capacity to own and operate their own businesses as worker-owned cooperatives. 

JORGE: Before we talk about your programs, I want to ask you more about you and how you became president and CEO of FIELD. So, can you talk to me about, you know, how that – what that journey was like for you? 

DAVID: I come from a family of immigrants from Zacatecas and Sonora. My grandfather on my mom's side, Juan de Dios Gonzalez, you know, he joined Pancho Villa during the toma de Zacatecas and continued with him until he was wounded in the Battle of Nogales.  

Along the way, he was the main organizer for a farmworker union back then in the late 1920s and 1930s that opposed segregation in the school system. My grandfather got an attorney and did a boycott first, and then filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court that they won. And it was the first successful desegregation lawsuit in the United States in education. It was followed up by Mendez about another 12 years later, and then about another 12 years later followed up by Brown v. Board of Education.  

Myself and our cousins, we were very excited about my grandfather's accomplishments. And so, we heard about this Chicano up in Central Valley in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and so probably eight of my cousins, we all joined the UFW (United Farm Workers ), came up here, worked for five bucks a week. And it was just kind of expected of us to kind of get in there and join the good fight. 

JORGE: You talked about the farmworkers and, you know, in the conversations we've had, we’ve talked about the community served, the community that FIELD serves, hablamos de los campesinos [we talked about the farmworkers]. You know, I would love for you to take a second and just talk about some of the strengths that lie in this community – for those who don't know, who are not familiar, who didn't have the pleasure to grow up in a community and family that sees those attributes on a daily basis. 

DAVID: We learned over time that when workers have come here, they didn't really come for themselves so much as they wanted a better life for their children. We don't look at farmworkers and immigrants and young people as unskilled – or labor in the fields as unskilled labor, you know, that’s bullshit. We're here to make sure that people have that confidence to use the skills they already have. 

JORGE: You know, a slogan that's become well known not just in California or in our communities, but, you know, pretty broadly, is “Sí se puede,” the “Yes, we can.” You know, that's a historical phrase that Cesar used and Dolores Huerta and others as well during the United Farm Workers of America movement. I mean, even Barack Obama coined it as one of his key slogans in 2008. So, I want to know, what does that mean to you today, el sí se puede

DAVID: People don't have the same understanding that those of us from the farmworker's movement have, because we defined it. And we defined it as “service to others through a spirit that promotes confidence, courage, and risk taking.” It's not just a matter of a slogan; it is actually having a deep commitment to serve others and to take risks and to have the courage to take those risks. 

JORGE: I think oftentimes we don’t – in certain communities, we don't talk about the opportunities that are in front of them. And also combine that with the – in that conversation – the willingness and acceptance that failure is a part of that process. 

DAVID: When we talk about, you know, building assets to build wealth, we're really talking about making sure that the number one focus is that we're there to build people's confidence. It's not enough to just put a program together. We actually have to sit down and figure out, “What's our vision? What's our core purpose? What are our core values?” These are things that will never change, and we inherited many of those parts from Cesar. But if you don't have a vision in place, your core values, your core purpose, then it's hard to align the opportunities that you want to accept – that come forward in terms of the assets in the community – or more important, things that you want to ignore. 

JORGE: So on the website, you know, it says that “FIELD offers programs for a better tomorrow.” What does that look like to you personally, considering the community you serve as well? 

DAVID: We want people to have the confidence to be able to utilize their capacity – okay – to continue to build relationships where they can decide where they want to invest their profits, how they want to navigate downturns in the economy, how you're going to take the earnings that you build and invest in your kids’ education, and invest in the cooperative in improved technology. 

Right now, we'd like to set up at least five cooperatives with about 50 people each over the course of the next three years. Why can't the workers own the business where they do the harvesting and the packing as a cuadrilla [group]? What about the lower middle class? What about poor folks who don't have papers? They can do it if they own the cooperatives, you know? It's our job just to train them and make sure that they got the support to succeed. 

JORGE: I think it's really impressive that FIELD takes this on and is really innovative and finds ways to weave all these programs together – all in the benefit of the students themselves. So, I wonder if you could just talk to me a little bit more about the thought process of the programs, but also weaving in, you know, what does self-sufficiency mean to you? What does it mean to the organization? 

DAVID: When we talk about self-sufficiency, what we're really talking about is rural communities – immigrant communities – prospering both economically and socially. And the way to do that is to be able to have the ability to be able to go in and run for office, to participate in the civic engagement – to engage civically. To be able to support their kids' education, to be able to support their kids. To be able to, you know, make decisions economically, like where do you want to invest the small profits that you might have? And then from there be able to have a life that is surrounded with a good environment, a safe environment – and a successful – and an environment that leads to success of the kids and the community. For us, it's a way to address economic and social justice. Now, we're not a social justice program, so we look at it as promoting social and economic prosperity. We had phenomenal outcomes just doing education and training with farmworkers in the rose industry. They said, “Well, for us, now we can help our kids with their homework. Now we can help our kids with their homework.” And so that got us moving in terms of preparing them to do English, preparing them to take responsibilities, getting their high school going, getting their CTE (Career Technical Education) going. That was part of capacity building so that we could move towards cooperatives. 

JORGE: The farmworker community, it's not a community that is one thing at any one time. It's complex, you know, it's people that come from a rich history of diversity. Can you just share some of the learnings that you and FIELD have gone through over the years in addressing that? 

DAVID: You have to admit that you don't know everything, and that people know other types of things, because of their experience, than you do. And therefore, to find out what those experiences are, you have to learn to listen. Farmworkers are just like everybody else, man. They have a history – a family history – they have wants and desires just like everybody else. If you're going to change their beliefs, you have to recognize that those beliefs are based on people's experience or the experience of somebody that they know and they trust. Even though they may not speak the same language, even though they may be poor, even though they may have a ton of kids or come here in the back of a trunk of a car, you have to humble yourself. You can't just assume anything; you have to listen. Their best interests might be to educate themselves, to build their capacity, to build their wealth. And it's up to you – the teacher, the organizer, the outreach person, the whoever-it-is that that's providing them that – to help them build that experience. 


Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.