Zinn Education Project Connects Students to Life of Unsung Hero, Win Calif. History Day

In January, Janet Kelly contacted the Zinn Education Project to help her 7th and 8th grade students research Fred Ross Sr., a little known but influential grassroots organizer, for their History Day Project about the United Farmworkers’ Union.

Kelly wrote, “Our school is a small single-school district with predominantly low-income, English as a second language families. My students were initially interested in this topic, as their families, friends, neighbors predominantly work in the fields. During their research they discovered the role Ross played in helping Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta develop their organizational strategies and fervor. Can you help us find more information about Fred Ross?”

The Zinn Education Project introduced Kelly and her students —Jairo Aguilar, Matthew Dunn, and Wendy Martinez—at Kings River Elementary School in Kingsburg, Calif., to Gabriel Thompson, a journalist and author currently writing a biography about Ross. Thompson wrote a profile of Ross for the Zinn Education Project, one of the few resources available online about Ross. Thompson introduced them to Ross’ son. Kelly wrote, “We have developed an ongoing conversation with Fred Ross Jr. thanks to your involvement in our project.” Under the annual theme of “Leadership and Legacy in History,” the students created a dramatic performance titled An Unlikely Union of Three Leaders: Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Fred Ross.

Fred Ross Sr. (second from left) with Cesar Chavez (left), Luis Valdez (second from right) and Dolores Huerta (right), late 1980s. Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library,  Wayne State University.

Cesar Chavez, Fred Ross Sr., Luis Valdez, and Dolores Huerta, late 1980s. Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library.

In May, Kelly wrote again, “Their performance WON at California State History Day and now they are off to National History Day in Washington D.C. These kids have considerable hurdles to navigate in order to compete at that level. Needless to say, we are very excited.”

According to the National History Day-California website, “Over 44,000 students participate in NHD-California each year with nearly 1,000 competing at the state level contest in 20 entry categories.” The team won the California History Day competition in the Group Performance-Junior Division.

Kelly continued, “The purpose of my e-mail is to say thank you for your help, and to let you know three kids from a K-8 country school, who are either from farm worker families, or one generation away from field work, are going to Washington D.C. due to their hard work, and help from people like you. THANKS!”

In their paper, the students wrote:

Sometimes three leaders entwine like grapevines, and together build a powerful union that bears remarkable fruit. This line from our script explains our topic: three unlikely leaders whose leadership left a lasting legacy.

After last year’s History Day, we started brainstorming leaders. Jairo had met Dolores Huerta at a conference, and Wendy and Jairo had seen the Cesar Chavez movie. As Hispanics we were interested in Latino leaders. In our research we discovered Fred Ross, and his influence on Dolores and Cesar.

Instead of focusing on the United Farm Worker Union, we focused on the three leaders and how their leadership helped create change for others. Their leadership styles were different, because they didn’t glorify themselves as leaders. They worked to help others become leaders themselves.

Fred Ross Jr. remarked,

I was deeply moved to learn that Jairo, Wendy, and Matt had discovered the significant role my father played alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the fight for justice. They teach us the valuable lesson that the most enduring legacy of this unlikely trio is found in the thousands of social justice leaders and activists across the country who they trained and inspired.

Congratulations to Aguilar, Dunn, and Martinez, and to their History Day coaches Janet Kelly and Patrick Delgado. This is just one example of the power of introducing students to people’s history.


Matthew Dunn, Jairo Aguilar, and Wendy Martinez.