Witness

Rural & Migrant Ministry

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  • 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.

  • May 7, 2014 7:57 pm

    Farmworker Albany Day 2014

    Nearly a year ago, we were in Albany for the same purpose. We were there to stand in witness to the farmworkers in our state, and to tell our state legislators, both assembly members and senators, that farmworkers deserve equal rights under the law. Though the bill passed in the Assembly that year, as it had many times before, it did not make it through the Senate. The law did not change in 2013. For this reason, we were there again, in the capital, in 2014.

    Well, I say “we,” but then, it wasn’t only the familiar faces this year. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    We gathered in the Westminster Presbyterian Church as we had the year before, with the Youth Arts Group, Youth Economic Group, and other younger advocates across the way at the Emmanuel Baptist Church. While the buses arrived one by one, the hall at Westminster began to fill with workers and their allies—people of faith, people of conviction, and people of purpose. Meanwhile, at Emmanuel, youths gathered to prepare for the day. Youth Arts Group members and alumnae gave short speeches as a means of orientation for those new to the cause. They shared their experiences and the pain associated with this work. Whether it was their parents that worked the fields or themselves, it mattered little. The laws created fear, said the first speaker Ana, current Youth Arts Group member, and fear tore families apart. Her plea became emotional before she left the stage, but throughout, she was bolstered by the applause of her peers. Christina, an alumna of the Youth Arts Group, took the podium and said of Ana, very emphatically, “Stories like hers are why we’re here today.”

    Shortly after, those gathered in Westminster were grouped and given directions for the day, while those in Emmanuel prepared their spoken word, Theater of the Oppressed, and various banners and chants. The rally was soon to begin in full, but not before the group at Westminster was taught a few songs that they would take to the Capitol building to announce their presence, their witness. De Colores, We Shall Overcome, No Los Moveran, We Stand For Justice—a choir was assembled in just a few short minutes. Lastly, Librada Paz took to the mic to tell the workers that their stories mattered, that telling your story, the story in your heart, was the only way to make the politicians believe.

    Soon after, the whole assembly moved outside and marched on the Capitol. They carried signs (Our Voices Will Be Heard, and, Shame On You For Betraying Farmworkers), and shouted together to announce their arrival. The procession spooled around the circular park outside the Capitol, walking it twice before entering the building. We passed through metal detectors, which slowed—but did not halt—our progress.

    Once everyone had passed through security, we gathered at the Million Dollar Staircase. We sang together in that space, our voices bolstered by a banjoist and guitarist, singing No Nos Moveran and When The Saints Go Marching In. The Million Dollar Staircase is a central aspect of the Capitol building, and can bring you from the bottom floor to the very top. Because of this, our voices were able to fill the space around us, below us, and above us, swelling and sweeping through every hall.

    When our songs came to a close, Andrea Callan of the Workers Justice Center of New York spoke to the group, speaking of the exploitation of workers in one of New York’s largest industries. Agriculture, she explained, was a 4 billion dollar and growing industry, but one which treated its workers more poorly than any other. Ana, who spoke earlier to the younger members of this assembly, spoke then to the whole of the gathered group, including the likes of Kerry Kennedy and Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver. Speaker Silver spoke after Ana, with passion and a sense of growing injustice, making his strongest point when saying, “Farmworkers are not farm animals; farmworkers are not second class citizens.” Kerry Kennedy simultaneously admonished and incited the citizens of the State of New York, saying of these continue injustices, “We are better than that, we are the Empire State.” José Cañas, a dairy worker, closed by saying he was happy to see a family of workers with him today, saying, “I am convinced, today, that I will be bringing good news back to my fellow workers.”

    The assembly then broke up and moved around the Capitol in groups. They met with senators and assemblypersons to share their stories, and to ask for their support of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. The Youth Arts Group rotated throughout the building performing Theater of the Oppressed. They stood in poses that suggested positions of dominance and domination, where one person held utmost power and the other was left helpless by their oppressor. Songs were sung outside the senate floor, where it became apparent that many politicians have mastered the art of moving through a space without making eye contact with others. No matter what activity a group was involved in, their mission remained the same: to ensure that Albany could not ignore that we were there, and were not silent.

    When the day finally came to a close, we returned to Westminster to debrief. The Rev. Richard Witt, Executive Director of Rural & Migrant Ministry, addressed the crowd, assuring them that their being here, bearing witness to these injustices, was more than enough.

    “Albany knew we were present today,” he said. “Albany saw us. Albany knows.”

    He encouraged everyone to continue on this vein, to continue to press the issue until the struggle is won. He told everyone to speak to their senators, to speak to their friends (who would then speak to their senators). But most of all, he said that we must keep on.

    The Rt. Rev. Prince Singh, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, gave a final blessing, summoning the words of Sir Francis Drake, enlivening them in this new context:

    “Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.”

    Ultimately, as the buses returned, it came time for everyone to go home. And, before you think I set up a narrative feint at the opening of this piece with no intention of ever returning to it, here’s where it ties in again.

    It became apparent in the final moments that, though we can’t know with any certainty whether the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act will pass the Senate this year, we can say with complete certainty that the plight of farmworkers has reached a larger audience.

    In previous years, one could expect the usual suspects to attend Farmworker Albany Day. You’d have your faith folks, and your labor folks, and your faith/labor folks—and that’s a lot of what you’d find. Geographically speaking, you’d find a lot of Western New Yorkers and downstaters. But this year, things were different. We had people from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and most importantly (in terms of reaching amenable senators), Long Island. We had new contingencies of foodies and conservationists, people who were interested in food justice and farm-to-table sustainability.

    We had more, and different, people.

    “The breadth of the food system was represented today,” the Rev. Richard Witt said later, over the phone. “The concern about farmworkers is growing.”

    The coalition, he said, is growing. And if we are to celebrate one thing amidst the ongoing struggle, it is this. That the voices are rising, both in number and intensity.

    And what do these voices say?

    Among other things, Sí, se puede. Yes we can.

    -gm


    Photos for this post were graciously captured and offered by Matthew Townsend, Communications Missioner of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester. For his full set of photos, click here.

  • April 28, 2014 8:32 pm

    Food justice for all

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Ruth Reichl, food writer and host of Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth. She gave this speech at the recent Symposium and Dinner in New York City, speaking on the night’s theme of The Broken Food Chain. Her new book, Delicious!, is out next week. -gm]

    Had you told any of us that one day American food would be as good or better than anything in Europe, and that chefs would be celebrities, we would have thought it was a fabulous joke. We were at a crossroads—but we didn’t know it.

    I bring this up because, in our food obsessed society, it’s easy to forget how much has changed in American food. And how quickly it has happened. In 2006, less than ten years ago, I gave a speech at the convention of newspaper editorial writers exhorting them to editorialize about the state of American food. To them, I said, in part:

    “One of the things I’d like to do this evening is to try and convince you that many of the important issues we’re dealing with today are, ultimately, about food. And that they belong not only in food sections where, in my opinion, they do not often enough appear, but also, very much, on the editorial pages of our newspapers. More importantly, I’d like to remind you that of all the things that you are likely to write about in your editorials, this is one thing that readers actually do have the power to change. Sure, if they don’t like the war they can write to their congressman or vote them out of office, but it’s a lengthy and ultimately unsatisfying process. Should they decide, however, that they no longer want to eat factory animals, their recourse in very easy: they simply have to stop buying them. If everybody in America decided to stop buying factory-raised animals tomorrow, the industry would stop producing them. Immediately.”

    I went on to talk about all the issues that you know about.

    The thing is—they were shocked. In 2006, the 350 educated newspaper editorial writers I was speaking to did not know about confinement animal facilities where animals were tortured, or dairies where cows were bred with udders so large they were unable to stand up. They did not know that 80% of all antibiotics used in America are fed to perfectly healthy animals. They did not know that we had fished most of the large fish out of the oceans, or about the pesticides that were destroying the water table and creating dead zones in the ocean. I ended the speech by saying:

    “For most of human history, most people have spent the bulk of their time finding, growing, cooking and storing enough food to stay alive. In 1919, the average American had to work 158 minutes to buy a 3-pound chicken; today it takes fifteen. Put another way, as recently as a hundred years ago, the average American spent half his income on food. Today, Americans spend less than 6 percent of their after-tax income on groceries. These are stunning statistics. Still, we need to ask ourselves—and our readers—to consider the costs.”

    The editorial writers sat there, literally stunned by what I had been telling them. They hadn’t known. And it galvanized them. In the months that followed, I got so many requests for the speech that I printed up a copy. I was very proud of myself, but now, looking back at that speech, I’m ashamed. I had outlined all the problems with the American food system. I had considered the possibility of ecoterrorism. I had discussed problems with imported food. I talked about the impact of stores like Walmart. I talked about farmers, and how they are being squeezed. But I never, not once, mentioned the people who raise and pick the food that we eat. I never mentioned the workers.

    And to this day, they continue to be ignored.

    We are at a remarkable moment in the history of American food. Things have changed. Newspaper writers now routinely editorialize about problems with food supply. The educated public understands that eating is an ethical act. Most of us are no longer ignorant of the environmental costs of the way we raise our food. We know pesticides; not only what they do to us, but also what they do to the environment. We worry about the loss of farmland. We worry about the fate of the oceans. We worry about the way we raise our animals. And we are very concerned with the rise of diabetes, the crisis of obesity, and the way we are feeding our children. We are treated to daily editorials on these subjects.

    But we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking that so long as we’re going to farmers markets, buying food from small local farms, joining CSAs, we’re doing our best to address these issues. People who were once blissfully unaware of the moral issues involved with feeding ourselves are no smugly complacent about addressing the issues. We’ve created a myth about the land, and we don’t really want to know the truth. It’s too uncomfortable. And so, in a very real sense, the sustainable food movement is stalled.

    I can’t help thinking about Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle in 1906 as a cry for justice for the men who labored in the stockyards. As he said, ruefully, “I aimed for the public’s heart, and … hit it in the stomach.” He had hoped that exposing the working conditions of the people who packed meat would create change. It did, but it was not the change he wanted. What Sinclair launched was a consumer movement rather than a labor movement. As he put it, he became a celebrity, “Not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.”

    And sadly, that’s pretty much where the sustainable food movement is at the moment. We are deeply concerned about the future of the land. We want to guard it for our children. And we are concerned with the health of ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. But this is a selfish concern. We agonize over what we are putting into our bodies while remaining blind to the problems of farmworkers.

    This has to change.

    I believe that one of the truly important moments for restaurant workers came just after 9/11. On September 13th, I got a call from a New York chef. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been thinking about the families of the people who worked in the restaurants at the World Trade Center. So many of them were undocumented. What’s going to happen to their families now? How are they going to pay the rent?” I hadn’t thought about that. I hadn’t wanted to. But many chefs did think about it, and together they created a fund to support the families of those workers. On October 11th, restaurants all over this country donated 10% of their profits to the fund. Doesn’t sound like much, right? Well, so many chefs joined the effort that they raised $23 million. What had happened, in the wake of that disaster, was that people at the top of the restaurant business came to understand what it means to be employed at the very bottom.

    Things aren’t perfect, but it started a certain awareness. There’s now an organization called ROC, the Restaurant Opportunity Center, and this week they’re sponsoring High Road Restaurant week, celebrating restaurants that treat their workers fairly. The question is: how do we start bringing people to this same understanding when it comes to those who pick our food instead of wash our dishes?

    It begins, as so many things do, with transparency. When we were buying our meat in supermarkets, it was easy to ignore the fact that those pretty plastic-wrapped steaks were once part of living beings. But once writers began detailing the horrors of confinement animal facilities, it was impossible for decent people to continue feeling we had a right to cheap meat. When we understood that we were eating tortured animals, it didn’t taste so good. Consumers began to understand that we had a choice. We could still eat meat, we just had to pay more for it.

    Now we need to understand exactly what kind of conditions farm workers labor under. We need to know that the average migrant worker, without whom the $28 billion fruit and vegetable industry would not be possible, earns $12,500 to $15,000 a year, and the average total family income is less than $20,000. We need to know that farmworkers lack what everyone else considers fundamental rights. They don’t have the right to a day of rest. They don’t have the right to overtime pay. And they don’t have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

    Most people are still unaware of these facts. Certainly, when Barry Estabrook came to me six years ago to say that tomato pickers in Florida were virtual slaves, I thought he was exaggerating. I was more knowledgeable about the animals we eat than the people who worked with them. I did not know that human beings in the United States were being held in such horrific conditions. I believed in voting with my dollars. I just didn’t know that I was going about it the wrong way. And today, I’ll have to admit, I have a hard time accepting that too many workers rights here in New York are laboring under equally horrible conditions.

    In 2006, I ended my speech to the editorial writers this way: “I think the greatest shame of America at the moment is that food has become a class issue. We live in the wealthiest nation in the world, and many of us are eating better than we ever have before. And yet, at the same time, a stunning proportion of our citizens are stuck eating the poorest imaginable diet, one that is laced with fat, with sugar, with pesticides and antibiotics. We are conducting an experiment on a whole generation of children, bringing them up on ersatz food, with no idea what the consequences of this will be.”

    Reading that now, I’m ashamed of myself. I was shockingly unaware the poor people I was talking about were the very people who were making it possible for me to continue eating beautiful produce. I was giving this impassioned speech, and not looking at the truth that was right in front of me.

    I have to believe that if most Americans knew this truth, they’d want to make changes. We are constantly being told that it’s impossible to raise the cost of food, that people won’t stand for it, but let’s remember those figures from 100 years ago. Back then, the average American spent half his income on food. Now we spend less than 6%. Wouldn’t most of us be willing to spend more so we don’t have to feel guilty every time we reach for a peach? Isn’t it time we fostered a serious sense of outrage about what is going on?

    If we are ever going to have a food system that is really sustainable, it cannot be done on the backs of the people who are picking our food.

    How do we do that? For starters, we ask uncomfortable questions. Whole Foods trumpets its ethical meat policies, and their corporate statement says that they are dedicate to “continually improving the lives of farm animals.” We should demand that they have the same standards for people, demand that they strive to improve the lives of farmworkers. And although it’s embarrassing, we need to do the same when we shop at farmers markets. When we buy beautiful tomatoes or heirloom apples, we need to come out and ask who picked them, and how they were treated.

    So this is a plea to eaters all over America to take up this cause. Things are better than they were ten years ago. We’ve put the whole notion of sustainable food onto the table. Now we need to expand the very definition of the word, so that it includes not just the people who eat the food, but those who raise it and pick it as well.

  • April 23, 2014 10:26 pm

    Further injustice

    [Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from Alexa Savino, intern at Rural & Migrant Ministry’s regional office in Long Island. She was introduced to the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign by her professor, Margaret Gray. Alexa is a junior at Adelphi University, where she studies political science. Her post was originally written for International Women’s Day, and focuses on issues faced by female farmworkers. -gm]

    In the United States, female farmworkers play a vital role in agricultural production, providing a sustainable diet for Americans and keeping our economy afloat despite incredibly arduous conditions. Yet their plights—being barred, like their male counterparts, from receiving collective bargaining rights, overtime pay, and a day of rest from extremely strenuous work—are further exacerbated by greater complications specifically attributable to their gender. Human Rights Watch’s 2012 report Cultivating Fear exposes the way their vulnerability has been exploited, as sexual harassment and violence often go unaddressed on farms and thus continue in a cyclical manner. Women in the fields deal regularly with, and have thus become accustomed to, “rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism, vulgar and obscene language,” behaviors and actions which are pursued largely by people in powerful positions (employers or superiors in the hierarchy of the farm labor dynamic).

    Cultivating Fear foregrounds the narrative of Patricia M, who came to the United States from Mexico and found work harvesting almonds. At the end of a typical work day, rather than dropping her off at a designated location—the gas station where workers congregated in the mornings and evenings—the foreman responsible for the laborers’ transport brought her alone to a vacant field, tied her hands with her bandana, and proceeded to rape her. This was not an isolated incident, as it occurred on multiple occasions.

    What allows for the continuation of such despicable practices? It is a known fact that women, in particular, are effectively debilitated by the paternalistic relationship between employer and employee on farms. Farmers frequently provide basic necessities to their workers, including living arrangements and transportation, so workers feel indebted to their employers. (In Patricia’s case, the foreman frequently offered her food, and she “knew he was not offering them innocently,” as he would frequently remind her, “Listen to me…and you’ll have a job.”) This sense of indebtedness is debilitating, as it results in laborers’ reluctance to report abuses. Women are unable to speak out against aggressors because they do not feel as though they occupy a position from which they can legitimately challenge their treatment, since they are suspended in a state of perpetual socioeconomic dependency. Fearing that loss of employment and greater physical harm would result from reporting the incident, Patricia was powerless and frightened, and the rape continued until she became pregnant by the foreman. This proves that abuse is not merely physical: women also face psychological conditioning that entrenches them more deeply in system that subjugates them and commodifies their work, their bodies, and their minds.

    So there is a current failure of our sociopolitical systems in two respects, as mechanisms are not in place to protect this vulnerable group as laborers and as women. Modernity ought to leave no place for such blatant human rights violations to occur when social, political, and legal institutions are capable of cooperating to defend basic social justice initiatives. The first step? Awakening public consciousness. It is our responsibility to provide for those who assist in providing for us. Supporting the NYS Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which seeks to address farmworkers’ exclusions from just labor practices, is a necessary precursor to empowering females on the fields. From there, we can move forward by continuing to demand dignity and respect for those who are structurally inhibited by oppression from speaking for themselves.