For more honorable mentions and the winning Bostonians of the Year, click on the drop-down list at the bottom of this article.
To human traffickers and employers who don’t play fair with immigrant workers, a word to the wise: Do not mess with Lydia Edwards.
Armed with two law degrees, a sharp intellect, and an activist’s heart, Edwards has taken on bankers, lawyers, and foreign officials who flout US labor laws. And whether it’s fighting for a live-in nanny’s overtime pay or helping a woman who’s had to escape abusive employers, Edwards is fired up.
“Every now and then you get a person who is exceptional,’’ says Jacquelynne Bowman, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services, where Edwards, 35, has a fellowship. “The work that she does and the energy that she brings to it, you’ve got to sit back and pay attention to it.”
Edwards was part of a team of advocates across the immigrant worker community who pressed for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Massachusetts and was often its public face. The bill became law in April. She works on wage cases and assists victims of labor trafficking to seek visas — along with sometimes helping them find safe housing and grocery money.
Lately Edwards has been mulling some new projects and ideas. With her recently earned postgraduate law degree in taxation from Boston University, she aims to help immigrants and others create cooperatives so they can earn a living without being exploited by unscrupulous employers.
“Until they get their visas, they’re really stuck in an unfair, gray world,’’ Edwards says. “It’s really taking workers’ rights to the next level.”
Under a cooperative model, Edwards says, housekeepers, landscapers, and other workers can become owners of their own groups, have a say in their pay and hours, and ultimately become more connected members of their communities. “We are competing in a capitalist market, unapologetically, in a capitalist way,” Edwards says. “It is more inclusive.”
She is also considering taking her political experience a step further, with a possible run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Anthony Petruccelli of East Boston.
It’s a long way from Gwinn, Michigan, the tiny town in the Upper Peninsula where Edwards grew up. After earning her law degree at American University in Washington, D.C., in 2006, and a court clerkship, she was ready to hit the big time, joining the Boston office of Holland Knight. But in 2009, after a national layoff, Edwards went looking for fresh inspiration. She found it while volunteering at the Brazilian Worker Center in Allston, where she would ultimately run a clinic for domestic workers after a state Appeals Court clerkship. Fluent in Portuguese and conversational in Spanish, she is now doing similar work at Greater Boston Legal Services, a nonprofit known for its work in family law and housing. Though that fellowship runs out in August, Edwards has just secured two more years of funding from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Bowman of Greater Boston Legal Services says Edwards will be able to dive even more deeply into expanding economic opportunities for domestic workers.
“If you’re going to do systemic change, you’ve got to be creative, you’ve got to be innovative, and you’ve got to be willing to work hard at it, and Lydia does that,’’ Bowman says. “For her, it’s not just a job, it’s a life mission.”
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