Innovator Profile: Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights

by Jeshua John, on March 27, 2023 at 11:16 AM

This 26 year-old, women-led nonprofit is fighting for the dignity and safety of Mississippi's low wage workers. Check out our recent interview with Founder and Executive Director Jaribu Hill.

Like The Workers Lab, the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights focuses on tackling issues that take on the status quo and help workers with the challenges they face every day. The organization was founded in Oxford, Mississippi in 1996 and moved to the Mississippi Delta in 1999. The Delta is the poorest region in the state with 43 percent of its population living in abject poverty. Despite this startling reality, the region often is overlooked by larger funders and other charitable agencies. The Center was established to provide labor rights training for low wage Black and Brown workers, many of whom work in some of the most dangerous and dirtiest jobs in the state. Some of the key issues addressed are health and safety hazards, all forms of discrimination, and wage theft. The Center recently celebrated its 26th anniversary, and we caught up with the Center’s Founder and Executive Director, Jaribu Hill, on International Women’s Day to learn what the nonprofit has been up to recently. 

How has your organization changed or grown since receiving support from The Workers Lab?

In Summer 2020, we received an investment of $75,000 from The Workers Lab that helped us develop our plan to establish a first-of-its-kind occupational health clinic and learning center in the Mississippi Delta. Most of the money went to supporting prevention of workplace injuries, but this investment was unique because it helped amplify our reach into some new networks. It was wonderful to be part of virtual meetings where we discussed race, class, and poverty, and to connect this work to a broader range of people and funders. Networking strengthens the work. 

We recently launched a privilege license rider initiative in the city of Greenville where employers agree to provide a humane, non-discriminatory work environment. The initiative was passed in partnership with the Mayor and got the majority of the city council to vote for it. Businesses that renew their privilege license must agree to conduct business change in a non-discriminatory way. We can also confirm that the Town of Drew, Mississippi also has adopted the privilege license rider initiative and is considering adopting the landlord accountability ordinance. These initiatives will have a profound impact on some of the most vulnerable residents, including food processing and factory workers. We know that profit drives everything, so we want to partner with businesses to make real change. There is an unspoken relationship between corporations and policy makers and we know they both need to play a role in ensuring greater levels of accountability. 

What are your top priorities as an organization now?

Our work is focused on improving quality of life for Black and poor workers. Quality of life is at the center of our work. We conduct Know Your Rights health and safety training, create worker power building opportunities led by workers, and incubate worker-led organizing and advocacy strategies and campaigns that increase worker protections and Workers’ Comp coverage for essential workers.

We also worked with municipal leaders to get a landlord accountability ordinance passed in several cities and towns in the Mississippi Delta. We know there are more than 17,000 renters in Greenville alone, who make less than minimum wage, and workers need quality places to live. There are multiple quality of life resources all workers need - having a house, not a shack or shanty; a good job; access to the education system; and comprehensive healthcare. During the pandemic we saw workers being forced to come back to work without basic safeguards or protections in place, and we’re focused on helping workers feel supported and safe. 

And we are supporting broader conversations around the challenges Black and Brown workers face, including the production of Part 3 of “Dark Work: Devalued and Unprotected,” in honor of Black History month as a way to shine a light on the history of Black and Brown workers in this state. That history includes the story of Wharlest Jackson, a civil rights activist who was murdered after he was promoted at the Armstrong Rubber and Tire Factory. His two children are keeping up his work and story, and our goal is to share even more stories like his. We are hoping to put a book, blogs, and webinars out, and we’ll be included in the Southern Rights Human Rights Conference in December. 

Most workers don’t have any protection from retaliation. We want to lock arms with workers who suffer, and we are interested in continuing to expand our reach and scale up their voices. 

What do you want potential donors to know about your work?

Foundations and funders are part of the power system and we want to raise awareness about how they might apply pressure to the system and force more accountability. If you go to any zone of extreme poverty, you will see the same problems. There must be a way to apply pressure and force change. We want them to make it a priority in their grantmaking and in the voices they choose to lift up. 

We also want to be present in the conversations with decision makers. We’re intimately aware of workers’ needs and how both funders and policy makers can make a difference. 

What advice do you have for new innovators trying to help workers?

My advice is to do your own vetting and your own research. Do site visits where people are doing meaningful work with the most vulnerable people. Don’t listen to others who tell you who is a good or bad organization - do that research yourself. 

And for young people who are trying to get their feet wet, we hope you will study the history of work and the resistance that workers have launched all over the world. Learn from us. Help us find the answers to the questions. Don’t listen to someone who tells you you don’t have rights. 

Those emerging now - take your rightful place in history and reach out for help. We want to transfer knowledge that was passed down by our elders NOW, not when we are dead! 

We want to interface more and more with young people, people of color, and poor white people. If we know people have the same interests, we can fight together to win victories. 

We want to see platforms that give way to those connections. We want this work to be elevated. Workers come together. Capitalism is the enemy, not other workers who suffer. Unity is key.

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