Lora Jo Foo was born in San Francisco's Chinatown to immigrant parents. She began work in an uncle’s store at age 9 to pay off a family debt, and at 11 she took a job in a garment sweatshop with her two older sisters and mother. She later became a garment and hotel union organizer, then a labor lawyer, and finally a volunteer fighting for environmental justice.
Lora Jo writes about her childhood in Earth Passages, Journeys through Childhood. The book includes brief memories of her childhood and luscious nature photos she took over 10 years as she came to terms with her traumatic early years. The front cover of the book displays a photo of Bryce Canyon with one tree growing among the stark hoodoos. “I am the tree,” she reflected.
As a young adult, Lora Jo enrolled in the San Francisco State College extension education program located in Chinatown for young people of color. The program offered freshman classes and was staffed by regular SF State professors. Lora Jo continued her studies at the main campus with majors in psychology and a focus on Asian American studies.
In her last semester of study, she dropped out to join the garment workers' union and became a shop steward representing the Chinese, Latino, and African American workers. She then left the garment industry to work in the hotels. Yes, this meant working as a seamstress and then as a hotel maid. After years of manual labor, union activism, and one difficult strike with significant infighting among various left factions, she was “burned out.” She finally realized that she could contribute more meaningfully to the plight of immigrant workers by getting a law degree.
She graduated from Golden Gate Law School in 1985 and passed the California Bar on the first try. As a lawyer, Lora Jo advocated for garment, restaurant, construction, domestic, and other sweatshop workers. She researched and wrote about Asian American women's issues. Later in her career, Lora Jo earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University focusing on environmentally sustainable international development. In 2004, she accepted an assignment with the AFL-CIO Voting Rights Protection Program, working in battleground states to ensure that minority voters' voices were heard.
In 2012 she retired and transitioned into her cherished work in environmental justice as a volunteer. She successfully fought plans for a major coal export terminal in California. The case remains in court.
When asked about why she chose to live at Pilgrim Place, Lora Jo cited her friend, Margo Okazawa-Rey, who encouraged her to visit and find out more about our community. Our focus on social justice and intentional community were important to her and she is happy that she made the decision to make Pilgrim Place her new home.
She will be selling her Earth Passages book at Festival. All proceeds will benefit RHSP.
Credit: Joy Hofer