At age 15, Jessica Conte began her first job working as a grocery store clerk. Part of the job meant joining her first union. Membership and the overall concept of unionizing quickly struck a chord with her.
“I even attempted to organize a strike for higher wages,” Conte said recently. “But it didn’t happen.”
Now, there’s a lot happening on the Labor front for Conte, an adjunct faculty member at CSU Dominguez Hills. Outside of the classroom, she’s the lead coordinator of the AFT 1521 Student Intern Program, an endeavor that nurtures the next generation of labor activists from a pool of LACCD students.
Currently, each District campus has four or five interns, depending on its size. Conte and her two co-lead coordinators, Kelly Velasquez and Golden Sheard, each oversee regions comprising three LACCD campuses and meet weekly with interns. The entire group—roughly 40 students—meets monthly with all three coordinators.
“We educate them on union and labor history as well as social justice history and train them on how to be locally involved in social justice organizing and activism,” Conte explained. Another stated goal of the program, she said, is to train interns on how to push for and help provide resources for Dreamers and other marginalized students on LACCD campuses. Program interns spoke at a Board of Trustees meeting a few weeks ago in support of that mission.
The program is also producing its own future leaders. A year ago, Sheard was one of the program’s student interns. Now she’s overseeing interns at East Los Angeles College, Trade Tech, and Los Angeles City College.
“As an intern, I got the chance to go to Sacramento and lobby senators on issues that are important to the state’s community college students,” Sheard said. “The program helped me begin to understand the intersection of politics, education and labor. Such internships give students an opportunity to be knowledgeable advocates in all of those areas.”
Before joining the Guild, Conte taught in middle schools and spent time in the non-profit world. She worked in South Korea helping local migrant workers gain access to quality education for their children. The Guild’s Student Intern program allows her to combine two of her most fervent interests.
“That what brings me here doing this work,” she said. “It’s really great to work with the students and merge my education background and social justice advocacy. I’m really passionate about this work.”