Mattresses and torn pants: The struggles of working families

Gun shots and blackouts every evening as revolutionaries chanted in the streets are some of my earliest memories. As many immigrant families, we came to the United States to be in a stable political environment, but the revolution I was born into tore my family apart — my father stayed in his home country while my mother, siblings and I moved to the “States.”

Although we had it easier, because my mother is an American citizen, we still struggled for a long time to get our footing — financially we never recovered.

Being raised in a working family means a lot of things. I can still remember sleeping on a mattress on the bare floor with my mother, having only two pair of pants — both torn at the knees for a long time — and the time we headed to the cash register to buy school clothes only to hear “Denied. Do you have another card?” And, of course, we didn’t. Working families do their best to “make-do,” and my mother always found a way to make-do and keep us happy.

All the while, my mother was a constant force in my life, along with my grandmother, and they both instilled in me that it is always better to give than to receive and to help make people’s lives better. They were my role models, and these two strong, hard-working, independent women shaped who I am today.

It’s these lessons and experiences that shaped my career and my desire to help others and to always fight for the underdog. I began my career in the White House working for President Bill Clinton on American Indian issues, moved back to my hometown to work with middle-school students with Civil Rights leader Bob Moses’ Algebra Project, and then after graduate school at MIT for City Planning a move to my wife’s hometown: San Francisco.

In our great city, I began my work by helping immigrants living in public housing keep their homes as their federal subsidy was threatened — I did this with then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano and his staff.

Next, I went to work for Mayor Gavin Newsom in the office of Community Development helping more than 200 nonprofits deliver services to low- and moderate-income communities, and then on to the Department of Public Works helping clean and green communities while employing hard-to-employ young people get their first job opportunity — many former gang members and formerly incarcerated.

After my time with The City, I went to work as a labor organizer for the Janitors and Teamsters unions. Over the past eight years, I’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of men and women as they’ve fought for their dignity and respect. During this time, I was the main point-person for labor on the campaign for the passage of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and then the fight for the minimum wage increase to $15 an hour on the Proposition J campaign.

I’ve worked on two collective bargaining agreements with the janitors, helped lead the passage of the Retail Workers Bill of Rights with United Food and Commercial Workers — helping part-time employees all over San Francisco. I’ve stood on picket lines, participated in actions and strikes and led the passage of multiple pieces of prevailing wage legislation helping thousands of workers.

Because of this work, leading Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris and Jackie Speier have all endorsed me.

Despite all my hard work, I know many will still choose not to accept me, spreading lies and trying to undermine my life’s work by shoving a “silver spoon” in my mouth. They say things like, “He’s not one of us.” Being told you’re “not one of us” has many xenophobic undertones and is a nuanced way to exclude and promote hate.

Fighting for working families has never been about political posturing for me. I have lived this experience my entire life and will always represent this community from my heart.

Everything that I do and everything that I will be about will be to help working people. I will fight everyday for working families and make sure their voices are heard at City Hall and beyond, because without us, this great city will no longer be great.

Ahsha Safai is a labor organizer for the Janitors and Teamsters Unions and candidate for the District 11 seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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