New PCUN director wants to build bridges
Reyna Lopez has been named the executive director of PCUN, the treeplanters and farmworkers union based in Woodburn, a move she says is like "coming home."
Not only has Lopez worked closely with PCUN in recent years through various roles with sister organizations in the Willamette Valley, but PCUN's advocacy is personal.
Born in California, Lopez moved to northeast Salem when her Mexican immigrant parents were interested in becoming part of the thriving treeplanting industry of Marion County. Her dad got involved in Christmas tree farms and her mom worked in a factory, so Lopez learned about PCUN early in life.
"I come from a working class family, I had to go in the fields as a kid and I hated it," she said.
Lopez graduated from McKay High School, where a teacher encouraged her to pursue higher education. She was able to get a scholarship to Willamette University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a minor in sociology.
"When I was younger, I was passionate about justice," she said. "In college I figured out that I wanted to do something in politics."
While at Willamette, she was able to get an internship, which later turned into a staff position, in the office of then-Sen. Ben Westlund.
"He showed me what it meant to fight for what you care about and work across the aisle," she said. "He was inspirational to me because he had such strong values, never compromised them. But I loved that he wasn't stuck in old ways. He was flexible and open minded."
From there, she worked for the Oregon Bus Project as a volunteer coordinator followed by a four-and-a-half-year stint at CAUSA Oregon as its civic engagement director. While there, she was field director for the November 2014 Measure 88 campaign, which was defeated but advocated for providing a driver's card without showing proof of legal residency.
"It was still successful because it was the first biliterate and bicultural campaign in the history of Oregon," Lopez said.
From there, Lopez worked for Our Oregon as director of outreach, working to raise the minimum wage and on the Yes on 97 campaign of November 2016, another measure that failed at the voter's booths.
"I like a challenge," Lopez laughed about why she's often on losing campaigns. "There are a lot of reasons to come onto a hard campaign. I think it's more than a campaign, it's really about building awareness. And at least now people have more awareness of the inequalities in taxes (from Measure 97)."
Lopez also served as interim director of the Fair Shot for All, which is made up of Oregon labor groups, racial justice organizations and community groups working with the state legislature for equality, such as access to paid sick days and ending profiling.
Family Forward Oregon was her most recent stop on the road to PCUN. There she worked as federal campaigns director, fighting for the paid family leave bill to go to the legislature.
It was while there that she got a call from Jaime Arredondo, who was serving as PCUN's secretary/treasurer, as well as acting director until moving next door to CAPACES Leadership Institute as its new executive director in late November.
"Jaime called me and said, 'We need a new executive director. It's time to come home,'" Lopez said. "It just feels right. This job reflects the challenges of the society and community. It's not an easy job but probably one of the most rewarding to my spirit."
Though she's thrilled to be at PCUN, Lopez said she might pursue other political ambitions someday.
"I would love to run in Salem," she said, noting she recently moved back in with her mother in northeast Salem. "I owe a lot to that city. I would like to see major changes there."
But for now, Lopez is excited to get her feet wet in her new role.
"We're growing as a community, we're growing as an organization, so we need to make sure all systems are really good, ... strong for the next generation," she said. "I really do believe that it's not just about what's on the outside, but change comes from the inside."
Part of Lopez's new role is also to run APP, PCUN Political Action, where she once served as a board member.
"We need to bring innovative ways to do politics and change the way decisions are made at the local level, the state level, the national level," she said. "We need to bring in not only leaders who reflect what the community looks like, but make sure they understand the root cause of why the farmworker life expectancy is 48, why farmworkers have a higher rate of miscarriages, why they face so much more sexual harassment and violence."
She said she's excited to see politically-minded young people growing up in the area.
"They've seen what it's like to not have a voice and now they have the tools to address it," she said. "They speak two languages, they're confident, they can get information quickly. It's them who are changing the tide around civic leadership roles so they reflect the values and demographics and vision of the community."
That empowerment has been challenging in the past year, as there are more publicized scares of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the Woodburn area.
"I get calls nonstop," Lopez said. "This isn't new — it's happened under every president. The national rhetoric is hurtful and only perpetuates divisions, but it apparently also reflects something that is there deep down in society."
She wants to be able to reach out to that population that has negative feelings toward immigrants and farmworkers.
"They think we're taking something from them," Lopez said. "But I'm sure they know someone undocumented in their circle of trust. And at the end of the day, we want the same thing you do: We want you to thrive, we want the community to grow together. The way we can solve problems is by having conversations and building bridges, not separating ourselves even more."
Though her first day on the job was Jan. 16, a community gathering to welcome Lopez is planned from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 14 at PCUN, 300 Young St., Woodburn. The event will feature music and food.
In a letter to PCUN supporters, PCUN Board President Ramon Ramirez wrote, "We're excited to have such passionate and dedicated mujer (woman) leading PCUN through the next phases of our movement."