In a town where everybody’s looking for their ace in a hole, Erika Washington hit the jackpot with a local legend known as Miss Ruby.
“I’ve been connected to Miss Ruby for a number of years,” Washington says. “She unofficially adopted me and has been a mentor and just a great person to have around and talk to and get guidance from.”
Based in Las Vegas, Washington serves as the executive director of Make It Work Nevada, which promotes organizing and activism involving issues such as affordable childcare, paid family leave, paid sick days, pay equity, and racial and reproductive justice — particularly focusing on how these issues affect Black families and women of color.
Given their mission, it’s fitting that the organization is located in a city that was the birthplace of one of the most important Black feminist movements in the United States.
An Unintentional Activist Fueled by “Mother Power”
Ruby Duncan — whom Washington reverently refers to as “Miss Ruby” — is a trailblazing legend in the world of activism. But she didn’t envision her life taking that path.
A native of Tallulah, Louisiana, she was living in Vegas in the 60s, supporting her seven kids by working in the kitchen of a casino — a job that required her to prepare 1,500 salads within the span of three hours each day. After she lost the job due to a workplace injury, Duncan was invited to join a sewing program, where she earned money she badly needed — and also discovered a community of other poor Black mothers struggling to survive in a system that seemed designed to keep them from getting ahead.
“There were just very little resources, especially for Black folks, in Las Vegas at that time,” Washington says. “It was a very, very, very segregated town.” Washington notes that the city and state are still fighting for progress in so many areas, and only finally achieving long-overdue milestones.
Just a decade ago, Steven Horsford became the first Black congressman to represent Nevada. Horsford — who has participated in virtual events and other initiatives hosted by Make it Work Nevada — was appointed chair of the Congressional Black Caucus last month.
Duncan would go on to become one of the founders and leaders of a group of Vegas women who protested injustice in the welfare system and fought for better and more equitable safety net programs — while at the same time battling racially-based “welfare queen” stereotypes about those who relied on these programs. These stereotypes were often perpetuated by politicians who wanted to strategically control the narrative so they could build public support to cut benefits and programs for low-income families.
The women started a movement they called “Mother Power” and launched the Clark County Welfare Rights Organization, with Duncan serving as president.
A series of new policies in the late 60s and early 70s that cut many low-income Vegas families from welfare programs served as the catalyst for protests and activism initiatives, which culminated in a large march down the Las Vegas Strip in 1971.
Duncan was also instrumental in creating Operation Life, a multipurpose facility that provided medical care, literacy and library programs, and advocacy and self-help services for low-income Vegas residents. She served as the organization’s executive director from its opening in 1972 until 1990.
Storming Caesars Palace
The new documentary Storming Caesars Palace, produced by Hazel Gurland-Pooler, premiered this week on PBS and Washington got to help host the premiere event in Las Vegas. It’s based on a book by the same name that chronicles this movement, which the film calls “one of the most extraordinary, yet forgotten, Black feminist anti-poverty movements in U.S. history.”
One of the most powerful elements of the film is that the women themselves — some of whom have died in the several-year period since their segments were recorded — tell their own stories, in their own words.
“I think it is important for us to hear it from their own words, and not through the lens of someone else’s thoughts from just reading about what happened versus the folks who were actually there,” Washington says. “The best part is sitting there with Miss Ruby watching with her. She just gets tickled. And she says things like, ‘That’s right, that part happened.’”
The event was an opportunity for community members to learn about this important local history, while also giving some inspiring and dedicated women a bit of well-deserved and long-overdue recognition.
Duncan and some of the other Operation Life women attended with their families, along with relatives of founding members who are now deceased.
“The event was wonderful,” says Washington. “We had a really great turnout. We hosted it alongside Vegas PBS and the Las Vegas–Clark County Library District. We had a community screening of the movie at the West Las Vegas Library — which is also a byproduct of the work Miss Ruby did.” The original West Las Vegas Library was run by Operation Life in the 70s and 80s.
Washington feels the documentary is a valuable tool that organizers can use to educate people about relevant issues and the history of the struggles and accomplishments of organizers like Duncan.
“I want it to be seen everywhere. We want it to be seen at the Capitol in DC, and we want it to be seen by junior high and high school students. People don’t think of Las Vegas and anything remotely significant in the fight for equity and equality. I think it’s important that we know our history, because it’s not just Las Vegas history or Nevada history. It’s American history.”
An Unconventional Path to Organizing
Like Duncan, Washington also never set out to be an organizer. “I didn’t really know what organizing was,” Washington says. “For the longest time, I didn’t know that this was a job. I always wanted to be a journalist. But it was hard to find work, because I feel like I was born too late for the type of writing I wanted to do.” She arrived in Vegas in 2008, and decided she wanted to write for the only Black-owned newspaper in the state, the Las Vegas Sentinel-Voice.
She wrote a story, added some photos, and made a case to the editor, Ramon Savoy, as to why he should hire her. It worked, and, Washington says, “We were connected ever since. He was at the movie event. He gave me my Las Vegas education. I could not have learned as much from any book as I learned from him.”
After the paper ceased publication in 2014, Washington went to work for the Las Vegas Urban League, where she would help people obtain services like utility and rent assistance. “We were doing some good work, but it was not the work I felt like I was called to do because we weren’t helping people help themselves.”
When the national Make It Work Campaign became active in Nevada in 2015, Washington was recruited to be the state director and discovered her passion for organizing and advocacy with a focus on helping people advocate for themselves. After the national campaign disbanded in 2017, Make It Work Nevada became a state-based organization, with Washington remaining at the helm ever since.
Learning from the Past – and Looking Towards the Future
Washington says it’s amazing to think about the impressive things a determined group of women – with virtually no resources and, in some cases, not even a high school education — accomplished, despite so many obstacles and challenges in their way.
“Miss Ruby says, ‘They wanted us to fail.’ They couldn’t understand how these poor women without education could run anything, but often the people who are closest to the problem are the solution, and we don’t have to wait for somebody with an advanced degree to tell them what needs to happen,” Washington said.
Washington says in some ways, the daily role of an organizer in her position looks much different than the “roll up your sleeves” approach of activism pioneers like Duncan. “I’m having a lot of Zoom calls. I’m advocating, and blogging, and lobbying and such, but it doesn’t feel as powerful.” That’s why Washington considers the “boots on the ground” efforts of volunteers and grassroots campaign organizers so important. “I think there’s something about having to really meet people where they are and having to meet them in person. Without that contact, you can miss the heart of the struggle.”
She admits it can sometimes be disheartening to see how little progress seems to have been made with certain issues. She notes that the cost of living has gone up, but the wages and benefits for a check-to-check worker have not increased at the same pace. Most people still don’t have access to paid family leave, paid sick days, or good, affordable health insurance. Affordable child care is out of reach for too many and a universal basic income is still not a reality, though pilot programs around the country are gaining steam.
“So we’re pedaling what feels like sometimes on a very stationary bike,” Washington said.
Still, there have been meaningful victories that Washington celebrates as positive steps in the right direction. She’s proud that Make It Work Nevada has played an active role in achieving some wins in the state – things like paid sick leave legislation and a bill that gives formerly incarcerated people the right to vote. They’ve also expanded Medicaid to include doula services, which she says they hope will help lower maternal mortality rates.
What keeps her hopeful, she says, is the passion of the activists and organizers that are following in her and Duncan’s footsteps: “You have young people who want to get involved, who want to keep having these conversations, and have bigger conversations and not ask for scraps. They want it all.”