Guerin Blask—The New York Times/Redux

When COVID-19 hit and governors across the U.S. began implementing shutdowns this spring, my phone rang. It was Mary Kay Henry. Politicians were talking about “essential workers.” Crowds were cheering at the shift changes outside hospitals. But as the leader of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the largest labor unions in America, which represents millions of health care workers, among others, Mary Kay knew we needed to hear from the workers themselves. We agreed to co-host a weekly web show called Walkout Wednesdays as a virtual picket line where they could tell their stories. Meanwhile, she continued to advocate and win protections for workers on the front lines, including PPE guarantees, hazard pay, extended health care and paid sick leave. Now she’s working to help get them to the polls.

Poor and low-income Americans have gotten poorer in this pandemic, even as billionaires and banks have seen their wealth increase. Mary Kay knows that our democracy cannot endure this extreme inequality. But she also knows that poor and low-income people of every color and creed can revive the heart of this democracy when they are empowered to rise up together and build a society that works for all of us. This is why she fights to give them a voice.

Barber is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

More Must-Reads From TIME