Community-minded student helps migrant workers

It is a warm Tuesday morning just before 9. Jessica Denning speedwalks down Burnside Street to get to the corner of Southeast Sixth Avenue before class begins. Her morning starts as a volunteer English teacher for immigrant day laborers.

Denning, a 32-year-old community development major at PSU, arrives on time at Back to Back Caf�, where she meets up with the other teacher, Shizuko Hashimoto, a student at Reed. They plan the class schedule and decide to have class outside.

Denning and Hashimoto volunteer for VOZ, an organization that works to protect immigrant workers’ rights in Portland.

A couple of mornings a week, Denning volunteers to help Spanish speakers improve their English. With no formal teaching experience, Denning often finds the work challenging yet rewarding.

“The laborers ask why I do this volunteer work,” Denning recalled. “I tell them that I think it’s vital that we know how to communicate to meet our needs and protect our rights. If I can give people the skills they need to survive, to be self-empowered, to help improve their communities, how can I not do it?”

Denning translates for Tony, a Latino who has agreed to practice his English while he waits for work to arrive.

“We are here to work,” Tony said. In Mexico, he was a college student, studying economics and business but could no longer afford tuition when he decided to move to the U.S. to make more money for himself and his family.

“The wages [for day laborers] aren’t fair,” he said, “but it’s better than the money I’d make in Mexico. It’s hard to live in the U.S. without a college degree and having to deal with constant racism.”

The day laborers are already waiting on the corner for people to pull up and offer them work for the day. If the two teach outside, more students will be able to study English while they wait for work.

Today, students will choose a card out of a hat with a word written on it. Denning and Hashimoto will use the word in several sentences and help students fill in the blank with their own words. One student drew “dreams” and each answered with their own dreams for the future:

“My dream is to earn more money.”

“My dream is to grow my own business.”

“My dream is to have a better life and return to school.”

“My dream is to save enough money to live with my family.”

Denning grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., and was unsuccessful during her first attempt at college immediately following high school. She moved from state to state and finally settled in Portland. At age 28, she decided to give college another try and enrolled at Portland Community College.

At PCC, she became involved in student government and liked the feeling of accomplishment and sense of dedication to students. After graduating from PCC, Denning transferred to PSU in Fall 2004.

Denning chose to major in Community Development because, as a lifelong wanderer, she wanted to identify with local people to help create change in their communities. She wanted to help people work together to make common goals that are worth accomplishing.

Her interest in learning Spanish also taught her about Mexican culture including immigration, border crossing and labor issues between the U.S. and Mexico.

This year, Denning enrolled in a sustainability class at PSU that focused on these issues in depth, culminating in a trip to the Mexico border during spring break to experience life in another country and culture. The biggest impact on Denning was seeing all the reasons why people choose to migrate to the United States.

“I stayed the night in a mission and I talked with three guys who were about to cross the border through the desert, a trip they estimated would take three days,” Denning said.

“I got a much better idea about the risks people take and what it must be like to leave your home, your language and your culture to look somewhere else for work,” she said. “Then I spoke to one volunteer who said it was impossible for someone to carry enough water to stay hydrated through the desert.”

After traveling to Mexico, Denning learned about VOZ and wanted to become involved in helping the transition of immigrant workers. She became a volunteer with the program that teaches English to the day laborers on Southeast Sixth Avenue and Burnside Street.

The English teaching program, run through VOZ, was started by a few Reed students who wanted to use their Spanish education to help improve the community for day laborers in Portland.

On their web site, VOZ describes day laborers as people who are primarily immigrant Latino men. “[They] wait for work on a daily basis. They are hired to do all kinds of skilled manual labor, including painting, construction and landscaping. Many day laborers migrate from city to city in search of work.

“Most day laborers come from areas of Mexico and Central America where the job market is poor,” according to the web site. “They take many risks in order to be employed for a few months in the United States, earning enough money to support their families back in their countries of origin.”

VOZ and the PSU Women’s Resource Center are looking for more dedicated volunteers. For more information, visit or