Naquasia LeGrand was frying chicken, sweeping floors and serving customers for $7.25 an hour when she was recruited by union organizers.
In the 15 months since, the 22-year-old KFC employee from Brooklyn has become one of the most visible faces of a movement that has staged strikes across the country demanding a $15-an-hour wage and union representation for fast-food workers.
She promoted the cause on The Colbert Report, joined a strategy session with congressional Democrats and visited President Obama at the White House. "We never thought it would even get this far," she said. "We're just sick and tired of being sick and tired."
When LeGrand was first approached by organizers of Fast Food Forward, her grandmother told her to stay away from unions. "She just heard 'union' and thought maybe, like, I was going to lose my job or something.
"But you know, sometimes kids don't listen to their grandmas."
Her life has been a whirlwind since. She started organizing small fast-food protests and flash strikes in New York City, and eventually in more than 100 cities. A newspaper profile of her led to the Jan. 16 appearance on Colbert, and that led to her trip to Washington.
She laughed when host Stephen Colbert asked, "Are you at all afraid the colonel might come after you?"
But she stuck to her talking points.
"I worked at two KFCs and still couldn't make it," she told him. "These corporations are making billions and billions of dollars," she added later.
"It's an opportunity for me to represent all of the workers around the country," she said last week. "So I got to make sure I do things right, make sure I get our message out there, what we want, what's our demands and, you know, set it straight."
While these have been heady days, the reality for LeGrand is as close as her next shift at KFC, where she tries to make enough to get by in one of the nation's most expensive cities.
Six feet tall with cheeks that dimple when she smiles, LeGrand was interviewed near the two-bedroom apartment in Canarsie she shares with her grandmother and other family members. She said she was tired after closing the store at 1:40 a.m. and making it home at around 4 a.m. thanks to a complicated subway commute.
Most weeks she works just 15 hours. She had a second job at another KFC but it closed, so now she has lots of time for organizing other fast-food employees. "The first thing I ask them is 'What's your biggest issue?' " LeGrand said. '' 'Talk to me first.' "
KFC spokesman Rick Maynard said franchisees pay competitive wages and provide career training and development, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics says just 2.2 percent of jobs in the fast-food industry are in managerial, professional or technical occupations.
LeGrand said she likes serving people but never planned a career at KFC. She once thought of studying graphic design but now sees herself more as an organizer. She even won over her once-skeptical grandmother, who now proudly introducers LeGrand as "my granddaughter, the activist."
"I have a good way of talking to people," LeGrand said. "So maybe that's why the movement kind of worked out. I talk too much."