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Organizing for change

Cyril Josh Barker | 11/28/2013, 6 a.m.
Leah James and Baby Kayla Photo by Bill Moore

Organizer Leah James is well on her way to becoming one of the next city leaders in the fight for social justice. She’s recently been one of the leading voices in the fight to get a union and fare wages for fast-food workers.

James, 32, serves as an organizer for the nonprofit New York Communities for Change (NYCC). The organization helps people with housing, economic and social justice issues. She’s been with NYCC for nearly two years.

Born in East New York, Brooklyn, and raised in Harlem, James said her roots in organizing go back to her grandmother, who always showed her Black media. James’ grandmother was a political activist and followed Malcolm X.

James’ parents were also politically active in Brooklyn and Harlem. Her mother, Ethel James, is a longtime 1199SEIU labor leader.

“My mother took me to a lot of rallies, protests and strikes not only in New York, but other places,” James said. “I always thought that was incredible.”

At age 15, James got her first taste of organizing when she worked on her first campaign helping people get better health care in 1996. Throughout the years, she’s been involved in political campaigns, including the presidential campaign for John Kerry and President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

“Working on the president’s campaign was one of the proudest moments of my life,” she said.

Locally, she’s worked on campaigns for City Council Members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Darlene Mealy through unions.

She later went on to work as an organizer for 32BJ SEIU, helping security guards in the city get better working conditions and pay. She also got local clergy to help on the issues, including the Rev. Michael Walrond of Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church.

Hired by the late John Hest, James has recently been working with NYCC. Her work with fast-food that has gotten major attention; she has been organizing workers in an effort to get them unionized and raise hourly wages to $15. She also informs fast-food workers of their rights. Most of her work takes place in Harlem.

“We started talking to workers, and they said they want more pay and they want to be unionized,” she said. “I started working in Harlem because I’m from here and I can relate to the people.”

As far as getting fast-food workers better pay, she said it is possible. As a result of activism, she saw security guards’ wages go from $8 an hour to $14. She recalls one fast-food worker at McDonald’s who has worked at the fast-food restaurant for 30 years and is only making $11 as a shift manager. This is an example of why change is needed for fast-food workers.

I just had my first child, and I want to be part of change for the next generation to come,” James said. “I’m really excited about the new change that is about to happen in New York City with the new mayor.”

James added that she hopes to take on a leadership position on the executive level in organizing and wants to continue to fight for economic and social justice issues.