Dr. Jill Esbenshade has long been committed to creating change, pointing to the famous Karl Marx quote as the inspiration for her work. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Her efforts to create change began in the immigrant and human rights movements, where she saw her activism come together as she traveled to El Salvador to organize delegations of lawyers to investigate human rights violations of political prisoners during the Civil War. Later she became deeply involved in the anti-sweatshop movement, consisting of a largely female immigrant workforce, as the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project for the International Ladies Garments Workers Union (ILGWU) in Los Angeles. Continuing in this vein of activism, her graduate school research focused on the labor conditions in the garment industry, which culminated in the book Monitoring Sweatshops, one of the most regularly cited books on sweatshops.
Jill Esbenshade is currently a professor at San Diego State University, on the boards of the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) and the Workers Rights Consortium, and regularly teaches graduate field research courses grounded in community-based research. She approaches research as collaborations between herself and community partners, who are engaged in the design and distribution of the research projects.
In 2013, Jill and her students interviewed over 300 taxi drivers, as part of a larger local movement to overhaul the taxi industry, an exploitative industry with a predominantly immigrant labor force. The report Driven to Despair, a collaboration between Jill, her students and CPI, detailed the black market where city issued taxi permits were resold at massive markups, making them inaccessible to the majority of taxi drivers. Her work played an instrumental role in radically changing the industry and supporting the years of organizing done by the United Taxi Workers of San Diego. After many months of advocacy following the report, the city council voted overwhelmingly to lift the cap on taxi permits, allowing more drivers to become owners of their own taxis. The research was considered so threatening, the taxi industry contacted her university in an effort to discredit and threaten her professional career. Despite these threats Jill continues to be fearless in her pursuit of justice.
Dr. Esbenshade is constantly expanding her model of community and academic involvement. Last year she collaborated with CPI on the research report Shorted, investigating wage theft in San Diego’s restaurant industry. At a local townhall on wage theft Jill presented the report and advocated to strengthen wage theft enforcement laws (SB588) alongside Assemblymember Toni Atkins and the California Labor Commissioner. This research is also being integrated into the student resources at SDSU’s Career Services, and as part of a labor studies curriculum her undergraduate class created for the students and parents at King Chavez High School.
Dr. Esbenshade’s activism has taken many different forms over the years, but every role has been impactful. Her focus on the intersections of race, ethnicity, immigration, gender and labor has changed the lives of many working people for the better. Her role as an educator and mentor is helping create another generation of social justice warriors. At CPI we are lucky to work with such an inspiring and powerful activist, whose work is creating change in the present and influencing future generations.