Trailblazing labor studies student reflects on experiences that fuel her fight for justice

This story is part of our 2021 Labor Studies Graduation Stories series.  Ashley Michel will be one of the graduating student speakers at the upcoming Labor Studies Virtual Commencement Celebration this Friday, June 11. This story also formed part of IRLE’s Women’s History Month series in March 2021 but was updated in June 2021 to include a video interview with Michel produced by Vanessa Codilla and Micaela Aragon. 

Citlalli Chávez-Nava | March 22, 2021

Inspired by her family’s history and women labor icons, Ashley Michel will complete her labor studies degree during Women’s History Month to become the first college graduate in her family.

Shortly after, she will continue to pursue her passion for social justice and organizing at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a local organization recognized for innovative advocacy in support of low-wage workers and progressive policies.

Born in Fresno, Michel eventually moved to the San Diego-Tijuana border region known for its reliance on immigrant labor and where the social implications of complex immigration politics unfold. Her grandparents migrated from Mexico to the Central Valley in California as Bracero farmworkers after WWII.

“My great-grandpa and all his kids did a lot of migrant farm work during and after World War II. So I have that family history. My paternal family still lives in the Central Valley,” she said. “So agriculture is something that runs pretty deep. My grandpa was a supporter of the United Farm Workers so throughout his life, that imagery was really close to home because he would always be wearing his Eagle hat.”

Michel also draws inspiration from her mother, a hard-working domestic worker who worked tirelessly to raise her and her brother. She adores her mother and considers her “the number one woman” in her life, at the core of all her work and achievements.

Michel also holds immense admiration for California State Senator and former Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, María Elena Durazo, who she credits for transforming Los Angeles into the capital of immigrant labor organizing in the United States.

“I was super inspired by her story. I think of her because she played such a huge role in mobilizing immigrant workers in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” said Michel. “I think of her background and it really hits home because her parents were both farmworkers. So we share that similar history.”

The confluence of regional factors, personal family history, and the household economic challenges facing Michel’s single-parent household, deeply impacted her life and also gave her a unique understanding of the nuances facing working-class families.

“My mom got a pretty good gig as a nanny but she was unfortunately still underpaid. We were definitely classified as working poor because my mom was making $12.50 as a domestic worker in San Diego County.” she said. “Almost all of our income would go to rent and food, and that’s it, we didn’t have a car. A lot of things that other teenagers had at my high school, we just couldn’t afford.”

In high school, Michel enjoyed learning and reading but only began taking the college application process seriously during her senior year. Through the support of an academic advisor who even helped her borrow a Chromebook for college applications, she was accepted into UCLA. Initially, she majored in global studies, but after participating in the Labor Studies Research Program (LSRP), realized that she was more passionate about tackling the problems facing local communities.

So she pursued labor studies instead. Labor studies is an interdepartmental major within the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, that promotes rigorous hands-on research and experiential learning in community and workers settings. As a student, she enrolled in signature course initiatives such as the Community Scholars Program and LSRP that connect students with the challenges facing low-wage workers several miles east of Westwood.

The Community Scholars cohort she joined was titled: Organizing for Schools and Democracy in Los Angeles, followed the historic Los Angeles teacher strike in 2019, and marked the turning point in Michel’s academic journey and professional development.

“Community Scholars was one of the best experiences I’ve had at UCLA, and it was still in-person. I had never had a class where it was purely discussion-based and really interactive and there were people there from community organizations, graduate students, and undergrads,” she said.

After this course, Michel completed a summer internship at LAANE which led to a job offer — even prior to graduating this coming June.

Soon, she will organize parents and youth and support the broader effort to establish community schools focused on educators, youth and community members unifying their forces to democratize public education. As she discusses her new job, her enthusiasm is palpable but she’s also grounded and well-attuned to the complexities of organizing parents and youth during the COVID-19 crisis.

“This is a really interesting time to enter this work because the media is kind of spinning this narrative that it’s parents versus teachers. Yet, parents and teachers are united and the majority of them do not feel safe if teachers aren’t given priority for vaccines or if they’re not given adequate resources to adhere to CDC protocols…it’s going to be a contentious political landscape but I’m ready for it.”

As she looks further into the future, Michel hopes to bring some Los Angeles-style organizing tactics to the San Diego border region where she aspires to establish a permanent home. She’s committed to reimagining this city’s approach to labor and social justice so her community can reflect the values she believes in.

“I really hope to radicalize and expand the labor movement down there and I hope to see an economy that is restructured for fairness and not for billionaires,” she said.

We invite you to join the UCLA Labor Studies Commencement Ceremony and to hear Michel’s graduation speech on Friday, June 11 at 12 p.m. , here