Professor, San Diego City College, San Diego State University, Cuyamaca College
AFT Guild, San Diego and Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community Colleges, Local 1931
Larissa Dorman takes her inspiration from her students and, in turn, inspires her students to be part of the struggle to change lives—their own, and those of the people around them. Dorman is a part-time faculty member who teaches political science in two community college districts and at the local state university in San Diego. Only 30 years old, and “despite the lack of any permanent job security as a part-time nontenured faculty member,” notes AFT Guild Local 1931 president Jim Mahler, “Larissa has excelled in every project she has undertaken.” She began teaching at San Diego City College five years ago and was immediately struck by the drive of her students—many of them people of color who are first-generation college students—and how they were buffeted by the political structure. “They were working incredibly hard to stay in school,” she says, “holding down multiple jobs. You could see their desire to be there.”
She thought it would be a good place to promote activism. So with three students, she started a student club, Bringing Education and Activism Together. Within a year, with students talking to students and making presentations, BEAT’s mailing list had grown to 1,000 names and had spread to four other colleges. During spring break in 2010, BEAT activists joined the five-week, 352-mile March for California’s Future. They staged a “Ramen-in” at the governor’s office to protest fee increases that left the students only able to afford Ramen noodles. They’ve set up a food pantry for poor and homeless students, providing free bag lunches to anyone who comes in, no questions asked.
A vice president of her local, Dorman initiated the Guild Intern program, which hires eight paid interns each semester with the goal of showing them how unions work from the inside. It involves students in political actions, voter-registration drives, legislative lobbying and organizing activities. In the day-to-day life of the college, Dorman has helped engage the students on the path of social justice unionism by encouraging them to work with community groups and allied organizations. When a student was murdered on campus last year, she helped organize the campus to respond as a family—to talk about domestic violence, to press the district attorney to apprehend the woman’s husband and to create a fund for the victim’s little girl. With the student interns, she founded a Workers’ Rights Center at San Diego City College. The center provides free basic workplace rights advice to students, nearly 100 percent of whom hold jobs outside of school. “They are at-will employees,” Dorman says. “Many feel they have no options. We empower them to take the labor code to their employers.” After only one semester in existence, the Workers’ Rights Center has already provided needed assistance to dozens of students, says local president Mahler.
Dorman was Local 1931’s main contact with the Occupy San Diego Movement, serving as a liaison between the local and the protestors, and providing logistical and supply support. Dorman sees her work as an extension of the union’s work. “Our local is incredible,” she says. “The type of social justice unionism we practice is inherent in our desire to work with community groups and improve the lives of our faculty, staff and students.” To her colleagues, it is Dorman who is extraordinary. “She has had a dramatic impact on the labor movement and on the betterment of the lives of all working families in San Diego,” says Mahler.