How uncovering the history of her hometown helped this mom find her activist voice.
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The Kresge Foundation

15 years ago, Hilda Villegas' family was counting on her: She needed to find both work and child care, and it couldn't wait.

Hilda was a single mom with two daughters — the oldest was 4 and the youngest only 3 months old. Their father wasn't providing the support they needed, so Hilda had to drop out of college to care for them. The problem was that she had very little work experience, so it wasn't easy to find a job. But her family was depending on her.

Thankfully, her daughter's teacher told her that a local organization called La Mujer Obrera provides great child care and could pick up her kids for day care. She jumped at the chance to sign up.


But La Mujer Obrera is a lot more than just a great child care service. The El Paso, Texas, organization is committed to looking out for members of the surrounding community and helping them in any way it can.

Children of La Mujer Obrera attend the spring festival at Tierra es Vida Community Farm. Image via La Mujer Obrera.

Despite having limited work experience, La Mujer Obrera gave Hilda the chance to work as a receptionist; and that, in turn, helped her learn new job skills. They even helped her secure an apartment that was a five-minute walk from the day care center and in the neighborhood where she'd lived her entire life.

"Being able to live in the barrio and having a job here was ... the best thing for me in terms of a safety net," Hilda says.

La Mujer Obrera took a creative approach to giving this single mom the support she needed, and it's a wonderful example of how it empowers working women.

Founded in 1981 by female garment workers and Chicana activists, La Mujer Obrera focuses on basic human rights for women of Mexican heritage. It hosts community organizing programs to help local residents stand up for their rights when it comes to economic and environmental issues.

La Mujer Obrera leaders also recognize that residents like Hilda can't show up for community organizing unless they have some of their basic needs taken care of. After all, juggling work and family responsibilities along with community involvement isn't easy.

So by providing things like child care, nutritious food, and job training, La Mujer Obrera is helping community members attend civic meetings and get their voices heard.

That's also why the nonprofit's programs include a community farm and farmers market that provide jobs and fresh, healthy food. It operates these programs thanks to a grant from The Kresge Foundation's Fresh, Local, and Equitable initiative, known as FreshLo.

The grant is especially important to La Mujer Obrera because the funding comes from an organization that also focuses on multiple aspects that revitalize a community — like arts and culture, health, and community development — rather than just one of those aspects.

An educational workshop on nutrition and fresh food preparation. Image via La Mujer Obrera.

At La Mujer Obrera, fresh food goes hand-in-hand with empowering the community. By maintaining the farm and market, the leaders help local immigrants stay connected to the food that helps them feel at home, such as nopales, a nutritious type of cacti that’s common in Mexico. This also gives residents a chance to connect with nature and green space, which is all too rare in the area.

For the garment workers who once helped establish the organization, being exploited in dehumanizing conditions like concrete factories was the norm. So now, La Mujer Obrera sees reconnecting with the land in nourishing ways as a form of resistance.

A children's march for education, led in part by Hilda's daughter, Katherine, on the left. Image via Hilda Villegas.

With the organization's support, Hilda didn't have to stress as much about providing for her family — which, in turn, helped her focus on the needs of her community.

"They gave me the opportunity to learn how to speak, how to define myself," she says. "A person can actually grow to their full potential, knowing that you have this organization that cares, not just about you, but about your kids … and they actually care about the community."

Hilda went on to participate in several of La Mujer Obrera's community organizing programs — including community outreach, educational workshops on local government, and environmental studies — to learn more about the effects of the area's poor air quality. In the process of learning community organizing strategies, she also uncovered the history of how immigrants built her community and how her ancestors survived.

For example, the La Mujer Obrera Community farm serves as an educational hub for workshops. While cooking workshops teach participants how to prepare healthy food like nopales, they also provide history lessons on how the ancestors used different types of cacti over the course of their lifetimes. In the process, participants get a chance to discover how cultivating fresh food plays a role in keeping families and communities united.

As she has learned and recruited more residents to participate, she has also developed leadership skills. In fact, she's now the community organizer for a project called Familias Unidas del Chamizal.

A display at La Mujer Obrera's 2017 Ancestral Health Fair. Image via La Mujer Obrera.

Hilda is helping Barrio Chamizal, the neighborhood where she grew up, keep its schools open, address environmental hazards, and secure vital resources such as fresh food for the underserved community. Her knowledge will help her neighbors continue to lift up their neighborhood for many years to come.

From being a struggling resident in need of opportunity to becoming a community leader, Hilda has come full circle.

It's a remarkable transformation, but Hilda points out she's far from the first to uncover her power and use it for good. La Mujer Obrera is simply building on the wisdom that's been present in her community for centuries.

Hilda with her daughter, Mary Ann. Image via Hilda Villegas.

Hilda tears up when she thinks about how her work will help the next generation. She has four children now, and the two daughters she first brought to La Mujer Obrera's day care center are now 16 and 19 years old. They've been empowered to make positive change too.

For example, through La Mujer Obrera, Hilda's 16-year-old daughter, Katherine, is learning about an environmentally sustainable practice called water harvesting that her ancestors actually used. She helps collect rainwater to grow the community farm produce, such as dark leafy greens, multi-colored peppers, and fragrant herbs.

Every day, Hilda and her family continue to learn more about the environment, their health, and the role that food plays in community wellness. Hilda still considers herself new to healthy eating, but she's so inspired by ancestral practices like water harvesting and cultivating edible plants that her attempts are turning into habits.

While these practices improve her quality of life, they just might help save the planet, too.

"[Our ancestors] respected the earth and what it represented. The earth is life for us," Hilda says. "The only ones that can defend the earth are the people — the people that live here."

via KTLA 5 / YouTube

A little after 7:30 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles County Sheriffs received multiple reports about a herd of cows running through the streets of Pico Rivera, a city 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

This Twitter video does a perfect job of encapsulating the surprise residents felt when they saw 40 cows running through their quiet suburban neighborhood.

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via KTLA 5 / YouTube

A little after 7:30 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles County Sheriffs received multiple reports about a herd of cows running through the streets of Pico Rivera, a city 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

This Twitter video does a perfect job of encapsulating the surprise residents felt when they saw 40 cows running through their quiet suburban neighborhood.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."