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Leaning on past experiences, Oakland scholar leads the way for workers' rights

Oakland scholar leads the way for workers' rights
Oakland scholar leads the way for workers' rights 02:47

WASHINGTON -- According to data reported by the Brookings Institute more than 53 million people in the United States work in low-wage jobs. Sharit Cárdenas López spent their childhood watching their mother struggle to support a family on less than what many of us spend on luxuries every year.

Sharit's mother, Maria Cardenas, was bustling around her Oakland home recently, pausing her afternoon chores just long enough to take their FaceTime call. The daily video chats, frequent phone calls, and text messages have kept the pair close as Sharit moved around the country.

"I am very proud of her," said Cardenas through an interpreter. "Without a doubt, 100 percent proud."

Cárdenas López is proud, too. Their mother is living in a nice home, with a real kitchen and light-filled rooms. It's a big change for the family, which has seen more than their fair share of hard times.

"There's a lot of disadvantages," explained Sharit of their family's experiences. "There's a lot of limiting but it's also a way of becoming stronger. "

While they were in high school, Sharit was cleaning houses with their mother for extra income. The family lived in a cramped basement apartment as Maria recovered from multiple operations due to work-related injuries.

"She just continues pushing," Sharit told KPIX 5 back in 2015. "And it scares me to know that her necessity is so big that she takes that pain."

Their financial struggles also hurt.

"There's a lot of stress, [with] rent, bills, gasoline, food," said Sharit at the time. "It did get to the point where we were at the edge of starving."

Seeing her mom suffer physically, and emotionally was an isolating experience for Sharit.

"That changed me a lot," recalled Sharit of that time. "I always saw this idea of the American Dream ... it's easy you just work hard, and then suddenly you are going to be middle class ... Everybody is chasing a dream ... but it's not as easy as it seems to be."

Then a college internship at an occupational health center showed Sharit that their family was not alone

"I learned about workers' rights," said Sharit. "It was a location right in Oakland, maybe a five-minute drive from my house. And seeing all the people that were coming there. That's when it all clicked to me ... It wasn't just my mom. There were many people who are neglected ... more likely to get hurt ... many times not able to get a job."

Seeing people in need inspired Sharit's career path. She now works for SEIU, a service industry union representing low-wage workers like her mother, Maria. Sharit plans on continuing their career in labor. They particularly want to help women of color and the LGBTQ+ community succeed in the workplace.

"I am a policy analyst," explained Sharit. "I'm in charge of unemployment, insurance, worker health and safety ... environmental justice, racial justice, whatever falls into those themes."

It's a big title, but Sharit says their commitment to work really boils down to just one special person.

"My mom's always made it very clear that if you give, you're gonna get back," declared Sharit.

Maria agreed.

"I know that everything she puts her mind to, she will be able to accomplish while keeping [others] in mind and helping those who need it," she said.

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