Barrera, whose most recent job title was Manager of Community Development, came in for his last day before his retirement on July 1, after 25 years of working for Access Living. He has filled many different roles and worked on a number of issues for the organization since his start and said he is not done yet.
“Keep going. Have faith in the people,” Barrera said as words of advice. “People deserve the benefit of the doubt - not only once, but twice or three times. Never give up. You only fail if you don’t do it.”
Barrera’s path to Access Living was a circuitous one that shaped his outlook and approach to activism. As a teenager he served in the US Army as a Platoon Sergeant in Korea. He then worked for General Motors (GM) for more than ten years where he became interested in advocating for the rights of the autoworkers through union organizing.
“We formed groups to start pushing ourselves, the company and the union, to create more equality within the workplace,” Barrera said about his time as an autoworker. “[We pushed for] more respect for women and other minorities, and also access to the trades.”
He then spent two years as a full-time volunteer for the United Farm Workers – the union founded by Cesar Chavez – which he said served as his most valuable education. After briefly returning to GM, Barrera founded InkWorks Printing and Art Gallery in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. InkWorks’ aim was to showcase art in their gallery and distribute pamphlets and literature for nonprofits and progressive political figures. Oppression, race and labor were frequent themes of InkWorks’ gallery and printed materials.
Through his network of unions and fellow community organizers, Barrera learned about Access Living and joined the organization in 1989. Starting out as a Case Coordinator, Barrera knew he eventually wanted to take on a leadership position, but said his direct work with client services gave him an important understanding of the people with whom he was working and advocating, and the barriers the disability community faced.
“[The intention] was that I should know the community that I’m going to be fighting for so that I could witness firsthand the oppression of people with disabilities,” Barrera said.
“That helped me become a better organizer, and it helped me have more passion for the disability rights movement.”
Barrera quickly became interested in fair housing initiatives as well as civil rights activism and enforcement. Access Living recognized his advocacy and organizing abilities and gave him the job title and platform to pursue action on the issues he was compelled to address. After that, as Barrera said, “The rest is history.”
That history included taking a leadership role in the country’s first team to enforce the Fair Housing Act’s civil rights provisions for people with disabilities. He developed housing policies for Access Living and led best-practice trainings throughout the nation. He worked with the Department of Justice on Fair Housing Act compliance standards, which established court precedents and garnered mandated funds for constructing accessibility modifications. He also testified before Congress, co-authored the National Home Inclusive Design Act and co-founded the influential group Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing (DRACH). DRACH is still a very active group that meets at Access Living twice monthly. They fight for accessible, affordable, integrated and fair housing. In 2013, DRACH was part of a successful campaign that led to the inclusion of protection from discrimination based on source of income in the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance.
Of all of his accomplishments, Barrera takes particular pride in the work he did to make housing more integrated so that people with disabilities weren’t confined and closed off from the broader community.
“We had to reform some of the regulations that funded segregated housing,” Barrera said, describing his work for housing integration. “We accomplished that by doing quite a bit of protesting, civil disobedience, getting arrested, and building village tents in front of HUD [US Housing and Urban Development]. [We took over] the HUD buildings, and other federal buildings. We did it by almost any means necessary.”
Nonetheless, Barrera said that there is still more work to be done with integrated housing. He helped launch Equal Access Across Chicago (EAAC} to move that advocacy work forward. He plans to dedicate some of his post-retirement time to activism and advocacy for the Latino community, especially Latinos with disabilities. He is particularly interested in working on anti-bullying initiatives for young Latino students with disabilities.
“Free our people” has been a rallying cry for the disability rights movement and Barrera, who is unparalleled in his use of rallying cries, is a great champion of that saying. “We’re not just saying free our people from nursing homes,” he said. “I mean free them from oppression. Free them from living under a shadow of shame. […] Give them the knowledge to participate in their own freedom.”
At Barrera’s retirement party, many people took to the microphone to give remarks of appreciation and signed off by shouting, “Power to the people!”
In response, Barrera concluded his remarks by leading the crowd in a chant of, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people won’t stop!”
Everyone joined in and kept the chant going.