Witness

Rural & Migrant Ministry

Welcome to Witness,

the official blog of
Rural & Migrant Ministry.

For questions or comments, feel free to contact us.

Please consider donating here.

Want to get Witness posts delivered straight to your inbox? Click here.
  • September 4, 2014 9:03 pm

    Party time

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Katia Chapman, Youth Empowerment Assistant Coordinator and Intern Coordinator for RMM. We’re about to throw a party in NYC, and Katia’s here to tell you all about it. -gm]

    This might be news to you, but Rural & Migrant Ministry knows how to party.

    When we throw a party, we ask cutting edge bands like the Razor Blades (get it?) and Flaco Navaja to play live salsa, cumbia, and merengue music. We work with up and coming caterers like Chef Gabriela Alvarez, who offers hors d’oeuvres featuring healthy twists on Latin American soul food. We mingle and dance on the second floor of Bar 13 in Union Square, with access to the rooftop to boot.

    RMM has to know how to party because so much of our justice journey is about the good fight. The fight for justice is long and can sometimes feel dark. Anyone who has stood with us in Albany, made calls, or sent postcards knows that it can feel like we are shouting into an abyss of political games. It can feel like we are not making a difference, but we have to know we are doing just that. If we had not made a difference, the Assembly would not have passed the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act numerous times, each with a stronger majority. If we had not made a difference, Governor Cuomo wouldn’t have acceded publicly in March 2013 that it is an important piece of legislature, and his daughter Michaela would not have written such a powerful letter for our blog on the subject. On a different level, farmworkers would not be willing to bravely speak out if they did not believe they were fighting for something worthwhile. These victories that culminate in eventual success is what fighting for justice is all about.

    So sometimes you have to Party for Justice as well: to keep up positivity, to connect on a different level, and to raise needed funds for the campaign.

    So please join us on September 18th. If a party from 8-11pm in Lower Manhattan is not accessible to you, please pass on our invitation to other contacts and listservs in the city. And—it’s not too late to offer a sponsorship or donation at any level!

    Contact me, Katia, for more information, either by email or by phone at 845-309-8420. I am happy to send you our beautiful invitation as well if you are not on our mailing list and have not received one yet.

    For more information: http://nyforfarmworkers.brownpapertickets.com/ On Facebook: http://on.fb.me/1nPcbOj

  • August 19, 2014 6:55 pm

    Unsure footing

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post, written by myself, was originally delivered as a sermon to the Lyall Memorial Federated Church in Millbrook, NY on August 10, 2014. The reading from which the sermon draws can be found here. -gm]

    Good morning.

    First of all, I want to thank you all for having me here today to talk about the work of Rural & Migrant Ministry. It’s work I’m passionate about, and considering this congregation’s history with Rural & Migrant Ministry, it’s work you all have helped to accomplish. Though many of you may be familiar with what we do, I thought I’d give a brief overview for those who may not be so familiar. Broadly speaking, Rural & Migrant Ministry is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to the empowerment of the disenfranchised in our state, especially farmworkers and rural workers. While our work with farmworkers and the Justice for Farmworkers campaign is a primary thrust of RMM, our efforts encompass many other populations. To name a few: We seek to empower rural women through yearly conferences that support them in their educational or entrepreneurial aspirations; we work to connect children and young adults of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds through summer camps and youth groups where they can speak openly about their lives and the challenges they face; and we help to educate and train people of all backgrounds to become better allies to the marginalized persons who live in their communities. But as I said, working to empower farmworkers in their struggle for equality is a primary aim for us, and it’s what I’ve come to talk with you about today.


    Currently under the laws of our state, farmworkers are excluded from many of the basic protections afforded to other workers. Farmworkers are excluded from overtime pay. Farmworkers are not allowed to collectively bargain with their employers. Farmworkers are not guaranteed a day of rest. These exclusions have been in place since the 1930s, and, to our minds at RMM, they are a relic of a bygone era. But in attempting to ally with our farmworking neighbors, we face an uphill battle.

    Now, whenever I’ve been asked to speak at a church, I’ve always tried to address the day’s Gospel or scriptural reading, trying to connect it with the work and mission of RMM. Part of this is of course a deference to the usual shape of a worship service, but more importantly, it’s helped me to examine the work we’re involved in within the context of what it is we proclaim as Christians. So, in preparing to speak with you all, I spoke—or I guess emailed with—Pastor Donna, who shared with me the week’s prescribed readings. And when I looked over them, I was stumped, especially by the Gospel. It’s not that today’s Gospel lesson is not a familiar one, or for that matter, a particularly difficult one to understand. The whole walking on water bit is hard to forget, and, if you grew up in the Christian faith, you learn that one pretty early on. And it was that familiarity I struggled with initially. Maybe it’s the know-it-all side of me that reacted this way, but my initial reaction was, “What can be said about the parable of Jesus walking on water that’s not been said a thousand times before?” And furthermore, “What can I possibly say about the work of Rural & Migrant Ministry that at all relates to this parable?”

    After rereading the passage so many times that I could probably recite it for you now, I decided to place myself in the position of Peter, and to truly envision what it was Christ was asking him to do.

    Picture this: you’re on a boat with a bunch of other guys (one of whom is Jesus), and you drop Jesus off on land. He tells you to go on and wait for him elsewhere on this body of water and to stay in the boat. The modern equivalent of this, I guess, would be Jesus telling you to just keep the car running. Just run around the block and come back. Eventually, after speaking to the gathered crowd, Jesus wants to meet back up with Peter and the rest of the disciples, but the boat, due to high winds, has pushed itself far out into the water. This is when Jesus walks on the water, out to the boat and to the disciples.

    It’s at this point that the disciples promptly start freaking out. And wouldn’t you? There’s a guy walking toward you on water—this is not a regular boating experience. They think that it’s a ghost that’s approaching them. They yell, and they scream.

    Jesus calls out to them and calms them, and they quiet themselves. But Peter, seemingly not content to believe that this person walking on water is in fact the Son of God, calls out to Jesus and says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

    What a strange request. And really, what a strange reaction from Peter. He’s literally just seen the impossible become possible, and in an instant, he’s ready to try it out for himself. And so he does try it out for himself, as Jesus says to him, “Come.” At this point, Peter steps foot on the water and begins to walk toward Jesus. For all the text shares with us, Peter does this with ease, that is until a strong gust comes through and puts fear in his heart, puts doubt at his core. At this point, Peter begins to sink and cries out for Jesus to save him. Jesus catches Peter and raises him up, asking him why he doubted. They then return to the boat, where all the disciples remain amazed and dumbfounded, saying, truly, this is the Son of God.


    The work of RMM is difficult. It can at times even feel impossible. In trying to stand with farmworkers, there are a multitude of hurdles to face. There is the length of time for which these laws have been in effect. There is the political climate of our state and our country at present, in which bipartisanship smothers any possibility of civil discourse. There is the language barrier, the socioeconomic divide between worker and ally, the power of lobbyists, the struggling economy, the near invisibility of the farmworking population—all of which is enough to convince you that it isn’t possible to create equality under the eyes of the law for farmworkers.

    And this is why I’ve come to sympathize with Peter in today’s Gospel reading. It’s a seemingly impossible thing that Jesus calls him to do. It seems, frankly, crazy, to walk on water. And it would be crazy, and impossible, if it weren’t for the fact that it was Jesus calling Peter to do it. But because he is called, Peter is able to do what should not be possible, to accomplish what should not be accomplishable.

    A cynic might say that trying to create equality for farmworkers in New York State is a fool’s errand. Indeed, it can be tempting to believe the naysayers as the list of reasons pile up. It can be tempting to listen to the doubts, the fears. It can be tempting to succumb.

    But today’s lesson teaches us that, if Christ calls us to do something, calls us to achieve something seemingly impossible, we cannot let our fears get the better of us. Indeed, for a moment, as Peter begins to walk toward Jesus, he notices the strong winds beating against him, and fear sets into his heart. As soon as he recognizes the winds, he begins to sink into the water. But he calls out to Jesus in humility, who causes him to rise once again.

    Amidst the work of RMM, when I begin to doubt the possibility of what we set ourselves on doing, when I listen to the naysayers, I am, like Peter, allowing for my fear to overcome my faith. When I am unsure of my footing, when I believe myself to be sinking down, I have forgotten the nature of the calling, the nature of the work being done. I have forgotten that it was not my own doing, but the efforts of the Spirit that brought me to this work—and if there is one thing I cannot afford to forget, it is this. It is a simple teaching of the Gospel—to trust in faith over fear—but it is easily forgotten in the midst of life, in the midst of work.

    In standing with farmworkers in their struggles, there will be fear that the work cannot be accomplished. There will be fear that your efforts could prove fruitless. There will be fear that, in promising to workers that you’ll fight alongside them, you’ve promised too much and delivered too little. But for all the hundreds and thousands of possible fears, there is but one great hope. There is one great faith. In trusting in this, the work will be done and the workers raised up. One must only remember who it was that called them in the first place.


    In closing, I ask, as I always do, that you consider deepening your relation with Rural & Migrant Ministry. There are many ways to become involved, so I encourage you to talk with me after the service to see what it is you could bring to the table. In our community in the Hudson Valley, farmworkers are our literal neighbors. If you have any desire to become better acquainted with them, we, at RMM, can help you with that.

    Thank you for your time, and thank you once more for having me here today.

    Thank you.

  • August 5, 2014 8:40 pm

    25 years of camp

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Laura Lecour, Managing Director of Rural & Migrant Ministry. Our Overnight Camp of which Laura writes is celebrating its 25th year later this month. -gm]

    Rural & Migrant Ministry’s Summer Leadership Camp Programs, funded entirely through private donors and foundations began in 1989 for rural and migrant children, many of whom were either in summer school, working, taking care of their siblings while their parents worked, or migrating. RMM is the only organization in the Hudson Valley that focuses on the needs of these children who otherwise would not have had such an opportunity.

    Day camps in two communities in five rural counties, and a one-week Overnight Leadership Camp, welcome over 200 campers, ages 8–18, regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity. The camps welcome staff and campers that are roughly 40% Latino, 40% African-American, and 20% European-American—embracing diversity and addressing the growing racial misunderstandings in our community by bridging cultural and racial barriers.

    Overnight camp takes place the third week in August in Holmes, NY. To carry out its theme-based program (this year the theme is Celebrate!!), the camp utilizes professional artists and educators. In collaboration with artists-in residence, former farmworkers, and former campers, our kids relish the opportunities to build supportive relationships and develop positive identities. They learn that they matter and that they belong. Through shared leadership and participation, RMM provides a consistent, nurturing, diverse, and stimulating environment ensuring increased resiliency in these youngsters, resulting in higher levels of social competence and problem solving skills.

    The annual trip at the overnight camp is beyond description as to how unique and engaging it is for these kids. The whole camp takes an exciting annual trip to a place that the children would otherwise not experience, such as the beach, the aquarium, or a water park. In recent years, we have gone to the Dutchess County Fair, allowing the children to collaborate with the Local 4-H Club as well as local congregations.

    These camps provide a vital service to working families and offer many young people a first-time experience in personal enrichment and leadership development. For many, these camps represent the first step in a long relationship with RMM and with each other. They are given the opportunity to develop skills and attitudes that will enable them to face and overcome barriers that confront them each day of their lives. Camps are a leadership experience that give children a taste of democracy in action and begins their journey to empowerment.

    There are other reasons that our camps increase resiliency and success in these children. Our youngsters are able to “be themselves” with other children with whom they share similar barriers, ensuring a sense of community and belonging. Each year the number of staff that are former campers increases, as the camp takes on the feeling of a family reunion. They are able to see their own potential in these adolescent volunteers who have been through our camp programs already, thereby experiencing positive role models and concrete possibilities. Fourteen of our camp staff last summer were former campers, giving back to the community by utilizing the leadership skills they learned to become peer educators and role models. They learn to socialize and empathize with people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and cultures, reducing cultural tension and ignorance within the community and enhancing respect for all. Campers leave with measurable daily living skills, as well as new friendships that cut across cultural and racial barriers, making them better citizens overall. In addition, many of our campers enter our year-round Youth Development Program, 99% of whose members have gone on to college, the majority of which are the first in their families to have done so.

    We are dealing with a population that is easily marginalized. While many resources exist for urban, inner city children, there are few opportunities and resources for rural and migrant children, mostly overlooked and underserved. With the rising gasoline prices, their lack of transportation (public or private), and their geographic isolation, it is challenging to reach these children and provide them with a tangible opportunity to connect. Our Overnight Camp is often their one opportunity each summer to be children. 

    In these challenging and urgent economic times, RMM invites you all to help make their summer an unforgettable experience.

    Thanks so much for your support of our children!

  • July 23, 2014 8:52 am

    A banner year

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Giselle Sanchez Huerta and Spencer Tilger, Youth Arts Group interns at RMM. Giselle is a rising junior at Vassar College, where she majors in education and Latin American and Latino/a studies. Spencer just graduated from Vassar with a degree in geography. -gm]

    This past year brought many new exciting opportunities for the Youth Arts Group. As young social justice warriors, they are continuously finding new ways to fight for the issues low-income communities of color and migrant communities face, seeking justice and creating art. Over the course of the year, YAG members have been very active in planning and participating in events. Highlights of this school year include putting together a successful fundraising dinner for their DREAM Act committee, participating in an overnight program at Vassar College, presenting at the New York Coalition of Radical Educator’s Conference, and hosting workshops for Farmworker Albany Day. And that doesn’t even include this summer!

    What is even more impressive is that, for six of our members, this was their first year in the group! After being selected by their fellow students in the fall, our new members jumped right into the many adventures of YAG. Here’s what one student had to say about his first year:

    “My first year with the Youth Arts Group has been more than a delight. I have done a variety of things I thought I could never do. I have gone to see a film that taught me about the reality of racial profiling that I would have never learned about in a regular day of school, or even thought of learning it. I got to travel to a conference in the Bronx called “NYCoRE” and meet many people who can help me learn things about being undocumented and see the perspective of minorities. I have also showed my passion for the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act through arts during the Farmworker Albany Day, where I also ran a workshop with two other YAG members. Even though these are very few highlights, my year has been filled with amazing opportunities that not everyone gets. I have also met some of the greatest people in YAG. They make me feel like I have a second family to go to when things get bad, and it has been a great pleasure working with all of them.”

    -Mario Pineda, 14

    To end the school year on an educational and fun note, the YAG Family (as they often call themselves) took a trip to Vermont for four days and three nights, where we camped on the shores of Lake Champlain and enjoyed the sunny weather. While in Vermont, we ate some yummy samples during the Ben and Jerry’s Factory Tour, learned about the lives of dairy farmworkers with Migrant Justice (a farmworker advocacy group), explored the ECHO Aquarium, and learned new activist art techniques with the Bread and Puppet theater company. In order to make this trip possible, students had to fundraise $1000 from local businesses and supporters, representing YAG to strangers and explaining what we do. Perhaps most impressively, two students raised $440 just by themselves! The fundraising was well worth it, as one member of the Youth Arts Group had this to say about our time in Vermont:

    “If you miss out on a trip or on any given opportunity, you miss out on what life truly has to offer. I’ve always believed that trips help you grow as a person. Trips bring the whole package…adventure, excitement, experience, and fun! So much like the Vermont trip I came back from. Vermont was an experience like no other. Within the four days, we camped and explored the beautiful city of Burlington, Vermont. I even learned how to build my own tent! Along with all the other fun things we did my favorite part would have to be the amazing connections I made with the many diverse people I came across. I came back with more confidence and comfort of speaking to others, something I’ve always had trouble with growing up. It now comes as natural as breathing, and I can honestly say I learned something about myself that I had not known: how much love I have for people, nature, and Thai food!”

    -Mariel Lopez, 17

    Even after the year has ended, the students are continuing to do great things throughout the summer. Five students are going to Seattle to build connections with other youth, artists, and activists on the West Coast. While there, they will be learning and performing spoken word poetry, conducting independent research projects, and connecting with people engaged in similar work to that of YAG. In particular, they will be learning about migrant struggles and stories in the Pacific Northwest, and the current activism surrounding the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. Another group of YAG-ers will also be heading out of state to Alabama, where three students will participate in a weeklong recreation of the 1961 Freedom Riders. There they will learn about the Civil Rights Movement and bring that information back to all the other students.

    Back in the Hudson Valley, the DREAM Act committee is currently in the process of finishing a multi-summer project that is taking the form of a short documentary entitled The DREAMers Among Us. This film follows the stories of five different DREAMers and the struggles they have faced, unable to attend institutions of higher education because in-state tuition in New York is not available to undocumented students. They have decided to finish this short film by the end of the summer, after working on it for over a year, and use it as a tool to educate others. At our many residential editing days, the students have been learning how to cut bites, add music, make transitions, film and edit b-roll, and all the other magic needed to make a film. A couple of undocumented YAG students share their dreams in the movie as well. Here is what one student, who has been working on the project since the beginning and is in the film, has to say about the project:

    “It’s just amazing to think in all the obstacles we have overcome while making this film. In fact, it’s been a long, challenging, hard, yet indescribable journey. Working in the Dreamers Among Us Documentary for the past year has been a remarkable life experience for me. Being part of this project has made me a feel like I have something to fight for; it has given me strength to stand for what I believe, and it has made me stronger. I truly believe this documentary is going to bring light to millions of undocumented students, not only in New York, but in the US. That’s what inspired me to overcome my fear and share my story. That is the only reason why I put my effort and passion in this project because I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing this for the future generations of DREAMERS to come.”

    -Sandra Montoya, 20

    To compliment the DREAMers Among Us project, YAG has also been hosting Wednesday movie nights for the month of July, where we have watched socially-conscious films and discussed them over food. Previous discussions have been about homelessness, Japanese internment during WWII, and the power of art in healing trauma Today, Wednesday, July 23, will be our final movie night, where we will be screening Cesar Chavez and discussing farmworker rights and the labor movement. The screenings are open to the public, and local teens are especially encouraged to attend. YAG has had a busy year and we look forward to the next one, which we can be sure will be full of even more challenges and successes.

  • July 17, 2014 12:38 pm

    Onward

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Gerardo Gutierrez, Justice for Farmworkers Campaign Coordinator at Rural & Migrant Ministry and founder of the Gutierrez Law Firm. -gm]

    June 2014 marked the end of another legislative cycle without any change in the law for NY farmworkers. The exclusions that originated in the 1930s remain in the books despite the efforts of those involved directly and indirectly with the Justice for Farmworker Campaign. Despite this, the JFW Campaign has made huge strides. Unlike previous years, the JFW Campaign now counts on organized regional committees in Long Island, New York City, and Western New York, composed of  grassroots, community-based organizations, nonprofits, student groups, and others, all coming together with one simple goal: to bring overdue justice and fairness to NY farmworkers.

    This year, JFW conducted more statewide activities than in any other year. A statewide phone campaign honoring Cesar Chavez was carried out, urging the NYS Senate to take action on the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. We had statewide vigils at the end of session asking the Governor to take a more active role in bringing justice to farmworkers. We had four buses full of supporters and allies for Farmworkers Albany Day on May 5, 2014, our yearly advocacy day, during which legislators—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—heard about the plights surrounding New York farmworkers. The message was clear: the JFW and its allies will stand with NY farmworkers until the State brings equality to those who have been forgotten by the law.   

    As we move forward, we can only say that the JFW’s coalition is growing stronger. More people are learning about the campaign, and more people are asking why these exclusions still exist. The old excuses used to keep the status quo are not longer as convincing as they were. As we move forward, the campaign is regrouping and planning the next steps for the legislative cycle. While the legislative changes to the law cannot happen until next year, this does not mean we can or should wait for our elected officials to come back to Albany.

    We are heading into an election year, and this is the time when those seeking election or re-election listen to their constituents. This is the time to ask your representative to stand with those who are the most disfranchised. This is the time to hold accountable those who, playing politics, will not stand against the injustice faced by farmworkers.

    Attend local political town halls, rallies, debates, and forums of those seeking public office and ask, “Will you stand against injustice?” Or, if she or he is against it, ask, “Why won’t you stand for fairness and equality?” Ask those leaders if, in 2014 going into 2015, the modern slavery of farmworkers, as the situation is described to by some newspapers, is the best we can do.

    The answer is simple for all of us who believe that treating farmworkers differently than other workers is wrong. The status quo of the 1930s can no longer be sustained. There is a better way to do things. We can find a way to treat farmworkers with dignity and fairness and secure a reliable workforce for our agricultural economy and community.

    This summer, speak for farmworkers at rallies and events. Talk to your neighbors and friends about the plights of farmworkers and stay connected with the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign’s upcoming actions. Be vigilant and persistent, and the fight against injustice can be won.

  • June 17, 2014 8:25 pm

    Retreat to move forward

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Amy Bonnaffons, board member of Rural & Migrant Ministry. I usually say how people came into contact with RMM in these introductions, but Amy covers that territory herself with her post. -gm]

    I first became involved with RMM about 10 years ago, when I was in college and worked as a summer intern. I have many memories from that summer—Richard’s campfire stories, YAG hangouts, lobbying in Albany—but mostly I remember a lot of driving. Picking up YAG members and taking them home; going to events in one part of the state or another; driving 30 minutes one way for the first meeting of the day and 45 minutes the other for the next. I remember being all too aware of the size of New York state, and of how one of RMM’s main challenges was simply the distance we had to cover to keep our allies together.

    Two weeks ago, I found myself once again hurtling across the state in a van, this time for RMM’s annual board retreat. This was my first retreat, as I’d just joined the board a couple of months ago. During the seven-hour drive to Lyons, NY, I had plenty of time to get to know the board members in my van, who included a union leader, an Episcopal priest, and a Rabbi (sounds like the start of some kind of bad joke). Once we got to Lyons, we had a very packed 24-hour itinerary, which included not only taking care of RMM-related business but also touring the area so that we might understand the struggles of farmworkers there (especially undocumented ones), the work RMM was doing with them, and how the organization might expand its role in the region. We heard heartbreaking stories of workers who were afraid to leave their homes, even to go to the grocery store, for fear of the dual threat of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol; of children left behind when their parents were deported; of priests who actually called their parishioners and warned them not to come to church, for fear of them being picked up and detained. The border is a real thing—at points we could practically see Canada—but it was also clearly an idea, a tool used in the ongoing campaign to make sure certain people remain in the shadows.

    Some of these stories were already familiar to me, as I’d been to Lyons before on RMM’s alternative spring break. But hearing them again, in the presence of those hearing them for the first time, they had even more of an impact on me. We all left with a deeper sense of why RMM’s work is so crucial, especially in the western part of the state.  During the seven-hour return trip, I was struck again, as I had been as an intern, with the size of New York state and the challenges implied by that size. The ground we have to cover is not just metaphorical—it’s soberingly literal. As the miles melted behind us, I felt more aware than ever of the challenges facing New York state’s rural and farmworker populations, but also more confident in the diverse and committed team of individuals working to ensure their voices get heard.

  • June 9, 2014 8:29 pm

    Five steps

    What foods you eat and where you purchase them are ethical decisions. For consumers economically privileged enough to be able to consider where and what they purchase, there is an increasing demand for organic, sustainable food produced by small-scale farming operations. The most direct way of purchasing this sort of food is through farmers’ markets, but increasingly, grocery chains that focus on organic and ethical products are becoming popular. Chief among them, in terms of popularity and visibility, is Whole Foods Market.

    Whole Foods should be applauded for their thorough efforts to provide food that is not only good for the consumer, but good for the environment as well. Their commitment to small farms is beyond admirable, and their partnering with third-party evaluators to ensure that the products they sell meet their high standards is a practice all grocery chains should strive to match. Take for instance Whole Food’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards, reproduced below:

    Step 1: No crates, no cages Animals live their lives with space to move around and stretch their legs.

    Step 2: Enriched environment Animals are provided with enrichments that encourage behavior that’s natural to them—like a bale of straw for chickens to peck at, a bowling ball for pigs to shove around, or a sturdy object for cattle to rub against.

    Step 3: Enhanced outdoor access Pigs, chickens and turkeys might live in buildings but they all—yes, each and every one of them—have access to outdoor areas.

    Step 4: Pasture centered When living outdoors, chickens and turkeys get to forage, pigs get to wallow and cattle get to roam.

    Step 5: Animal centered; all physical alterations prohibited At Step 5 the well-being of the animals is the primary focus; efficiency and economy are secondary.

    Step 5+: Animal centered; entire life on same farm Animals raised to Step 5+ standards must be born and live their entire lives on one farm.

    For those who choose to eat meat, these standards ensure the welfare of animals during their lives on a farm. This level of care is not typically taken by grocery chains, where the economic is privileged over the humane, where price trumps care. Whole Foods notes that even achieving Step 1 is considered a great achievement, as most farming operations will never reach that stage due to the added cost and difficulty. Whole Foods, in choosing to use this 5-Step system, is educating the consumer in the welfare of animals, teaching them to seek out these practices in their food providers.

    These steps are brought to the forefront on Whole Foods products standards on their website. They are integral, it seems, to the ethos of the company. But while we can applaud Whole Food for their commitment to animal welfare, so clearly laid out, we can also push them further. For instance, in their commitment to farmworkers.

    Only once, in Whole Foods’ stated quality standards, do you find mention of farmworkers, and it is a passing reference within the greater heading of organic food:

    Choosing organic supports farmers and producers who believe in good health, quality foods and earth-friendly sustainable agricultural practices. And that’s good for everyone, from the farm worker to the planet to your family—and future generations too.

    In combing Whole Foods’ website, one can find that, in 2008, they partnered with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, supporting their struggles for fairer wages and better working conditions. This is an important and admirable partnership, but one wonders why it isn’t at the forefront, as the animal welfare standards are. Why are farmworkers given less mention that farm animals?

    Why are there not 5-Step Standards for farmworkers?

    To borrow Whole Foods’ rhetoric:

    Step 1: Basic dignity Farmworkers are freed from such humiliating conditions as improper housing and lack of proper bathroom facilities in the fields. Adequate living spaces and sanitary working conditions improve the lives of workers.

    Step 2: Equal rights Farmworkers are afforded the same rights as other workers in New York State, including the right to a day of rest, the right to overtime pay, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to disability pay.

    Step 3: Reduction of fear A change in the culture will reduce antagonism toward non-native farmworkers, who serve an integral role in the farming industry. Farmworkers will be able to leave their dwellings without fear of deportation, and with it, separation from their families.

    Step 4: Hope Farmworkers, having achieved the above steps, are released from a cycle of grinding poverty, and the desperation that comes with it. Their children may aspire to greater dreams than solvency. They may become farmworkers after their parents, or, if they choose, teachers, scientists, artists, or politicians.

    Step 5: Equity Working as a farmworker is no longer a degrading, dangerous, or economically impossible position. Farmworkers are treated as equal members of our society, not relegated to the shadows and fringes.

    Step 5+: Law The conditions outlined above become standardized across the State of New York with the passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. These standards move from being opt-in, bourgeois concerns to a common set of rules all farms must abide by.

    Now, in outlining these five steps, it is not to chastise Whole Foods. Their work and partnerships have helped achieve improvements in the quality of life for many workers, both nationally and internationally.

    Instead, these steps are to suggest that Whole Foods could go further.

    Just as Whole Foods educates consumers on the welfare of animals, so too could they educate consumers on the problems faced by workers who are essential to the process of getting the food from farm to table. Whole Foods could commit to promoting a vision of organic food that does not whitewash the nature of farm labor, but tackles it directly. It is an uncomfortable topic, to be sure, but so is the topic of animal welfare, which Whole Foods so firmly addresses.

    A sustainable future for farming must include the farmworker as part of its vision. Whole Foods, with its economic strength and visibility, could be a greater ally to farmworkers than they already are. Including farmworkers in their quality standards is only the next logical step. Their ethos is impressive, but there is always room for improvement.

    Sustainable and healthy food systems are only sustainable and healthy if they incorporate the lives of farmworkers. A comprehensive food ethic is only comprehensive insofar as it considers every portion of the process, and every person involved therein.

    -gm

  • May 29, 2014 1:00 pm

    A history of exclusion

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Joseph Weiman, Catherine Cuan, and Jake Sottak. All three are students at Vassar, and Joseph is an intern for RMM. They produced this video for a sociology class, taking up the issue of the history of exclusions faced by farmworkers. Their video serves as an excellent overview of the issue, and they hope, by having produced it, to give voice to the struggles of farmworkers in New York State, and to spread awareness of the issue. -gm]

  • May 20, 2014 10:30 pm

    A letter like no other

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Michaela Kennedy Cuomo, daughter of Kerry Kennedy and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Michaela wrote this letter to Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk. The letter, I believe you’ll find, speaks for itself. -gm]

    Dear Senator Tkaczyk,


    A man spent all twelve hours of sunlight each and every day sweating, all seven days of each and every week struggling in the fields of his backbreaking labor. He has worked that way for each and every year for the past ten years straight, without one day off, without one penny of overtime pay. He is the man I just got off of the phone with, the man who lives just a few hours drive from you and me, the man who suffers outdated injustices. He is a New York State farmworker. You are one of the few Democratic state senators who has declared you will vote against his emancipation, the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. Rather, your efforts will preserve the last of the Jim Crow laws, and freeze progress and deny the attainment of basic rights.

    The founders of our nation, the writers of the Constitution, declared the farmworkers’ rights in the very first lines: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…or of the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Acknowledging these fundamental human rights, we passed the New York State Labor Relations Act, requiring that workers’ rights be guaranteed under law. The act recognizes the right to collective bargaining. Furthermore, it states that workers should be protected by an equal minimum wage for adults and children alike, overtime pay, disability insurance, a right to a day of rest, and by training or shortened working periods if they are in dangerous conditions. However, a discriminatory and unjustified provision to the Act, section 703, excludes and neglects farmworkers from both the federal and state recognition of workers’ rights. So, just as the founders of our nation fought for fundamental rights two centuries ago, so, too, are New York State farmworkers fighting for their rights today. They need your help. Some have lost their jobs simply for advocating their rights. One farmworker I spoke with told me that he and his coworkers were threatened that they would be fired for any complaints, the mention of their rights, or even for speaking with anyone who does not work on the farm. They are shackled, have nowhere to turn, and so, Senator Tkaczyk, I hope you will not turn a blind eye to this injustice.

    As a farmer yourself, you know how important farmworkers are to the survival of our farming communities, and you know that many farmers treat farmworkers with dignity and respect. Sadly, not all farmers treat the laborers well. Self-regulation by farmers has failed to protect farmworkers across our state. So, farmworkers need to have the law on their side in order to protect their basic rights.

    Ceciliatkaczyk.com says that you have spent over 20 years working for affordable and supportive housing, so you must have seen that the farmworkers’ housing is of the most dismal in the state. There are countless stories of female farmworkers being forced to perform sexual favors for unscrupulous crew leaders on large farms simply to earn the opportunity to make a few cents performing back breaking work. Your website claims that you “will stand up and fight to ensure that state government treats all New Yorkers with equality and dignity” because “there is an intensifying effort to strip women of their hard won rights in our society and in the workplace.” Surely, a female leader who is an advocate for women’s rights will not disregard the indignity faced by women farmworkers. Child labor is not illegal on farms in New York State and child farmworkers earn less than adults, a measly $3.20 per hour. In effect, children are taken out of school to work. Your website claims that “Cecilia knows New York’s children deserve a high-quality education.” So surely, as a former school board president and fighter for education, you would not allow large farmers to deny children their education. Your website says that you believe New Yorkers “deserve a more efficient health care system;” so surely you would aim to assure the very farmworkers who make your own farm viable and their brethren across the state have access to health care. Your website’s letter published says that you ran for New York’s 46th district because “we need someone who is going to fight for Upstate New York’s fair share.” So surely, you will not deny New York farmworkers their fair share of rights, and you will not deny upstate New York small farmers their fair share of economic opportunity. I truly admire your endeavor of justice, but your lack of support for the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is at odds with each of your honorable causes.

    The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act does nothing more than extend to the 100,000 men, women, and children farmworkers who make up this great state the fundamental rights of labor protections that almost every other working American has been afforded since President Roosevelt signed the fair labor legislation bills in the 1930s. This legislation would give farmworkers what the New York State Labor Relations Act recognized as the basic necessities to which humanity has a right. These are fundamental rights, but rights that you are concerned will financially deplete your district. Your concern is understandable, as providing these basic justices sound expensive, but in reality, this legislation would be in your district’s economic interest.

    Your website recognizes that “Family farms are struggling across New York” and that “For the regional economy to recover and prosper, small farms must be given the tools they need grow.” Giving farmworkers their rights would be the tool needed to give small farmers like you and those in your district economic opportunity. Eighty percent of New York farms, including many in your district, do not have any farmworkers. The small farmers who do employ farmworkers have few of them, and often provide housing for their farmworkers in their own homes, and often pay their farmworkers almost double minimum wage. On the other hand, large farmers provide mass housing in stacks of one-room shacks, which house large numbers of people with unsanitary bathrooms with twenty workers per toilet. They pay their farmworkers much less than small farmers do and provide none of the expensive benefits that small farmers often do, such as the healthcare you value, insurance, heat in winter, or air conditioning in summer. In effect, small farmers pay much more for farmworkers than large farmers do. Since small farmers already provide the minimal rights that farmworkers deserve, requiring large farmers to do the same will create an even playing field, and enhance the competitiveness of small farmers.

    I am confident that if I merely lay out the facts for you, you will see that there is truly only one option. There is only one moral decision as a Democrat, one right decision as an advocate for discriminated minorities, one logical solution as a champion of women’s rights, and one humane decision as a conscientious human being. I have faith that you will make the right decision, and support human rights and support your district. I know that we will pass this legislation, because we have hearts that are filled with compassion, minds that are opened to opportunity, and state senators with dreams of creating a New York State that lives up to its most cherished values.

    You have one month to back this legislation, to bring it to the floor, to deadhead leftover Jim Crow laws, to toss sexism in the compost heap, and in their place grow the companion plant of long overdue equity. With your leadership we can weed out the Republicans and their big business cronies and make room for minorities and small farmers to flower. By backing this bill you will help the 46th district to cultivate its immense potential. Thank you for considering your ability to fulfill such tremendous rights, dreams, and needs, and support the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

    Sincerely,

    Michaela Kennedy Cuomo

  • May 14, 2014 7:44 pm

    The Speaker speaks out

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver. Below is a transcript of the speech he gave in Albany on May 5, 2014, standing with farmworkers and allies in the heart of the Capitol. To see a video clip of Speaker Silver’s speech, click here. -gm]

    Good afternoon. Farmworkers. Advocates. Welcome to Albany. I and my Assembly colleagues are proud to be standing with you.

    I know this is Justice for Farmworkers Day here at our State Capitol, but I am more inclined to agree with Reverend Witt and say that everyday must be “justice for farmworkers day” here in the State of New York.

    And I am going to tell you why.

    We New Yorkers pride ourselves in being champions of civil rights, champions of workers’ rights, champions of social justice.

    Yet, some of the hardest working men, women and young people in this state - the unsung heroes of our robust and critically important agricultural economy - still do not have:

    The right to collectively bargain;

    The right to a day of rest each week;

    The right to overtime pay;

    The right to unemployment;

    The right to workers’ compensation;

    The right to disability insurance, rights that almost every other New Yorker takes for granted.

    In the year 2014, how is it possible, in a state that prides itself on standing up for working people?

    Farmworkers are not farm animals. Farmworkers are not second-class citizens, and farm work is not some kind of less valuable work.

    Your health and safety matter! Your rights and your ability to provide for your families matter!

    What you contribute to our economy and to our quality of life here in New York is important.

    Let’s be honest about this:

    No teacher, no law enforcement officer, no nurse, no construction worker, no journalist, no senator, no assembly member would tolerate this kind of disrespect or this kind of treatment.

    Almost exactly a year ago, May 13th of 2013, the Assembly Majority - led by the former chair of our Labor Committee, and longtime advocate for farmworkers’ rights, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan - passed the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which you helped us craft.

    We have been passing this legislation for almost a decade and let’s be very clear, we are not proposing to give farmworkers anything more than rights that every other worker enjoys.

    As this legislative session winds down, together we must convince our colleagues in the Senate to embrace our legislation and put an end to farmworker injustice once and for all.

    It’s time for New Yorkers to live up to our legacy. It’s time for New Yorkers to stand up for farmworkers.