Monday, July 11, 2011

Farmworker Advocacy: We're All Important!

Hi there Toxic Free NC fans! This is Abi Bissette. I’m the Student Action with Farmworkers intern this summer working on the Farmworker Documentary Project. This project is in its third year running. Its intent is to share farmworkers’ stories with a broad audience. By increasing awareness about the struggles farmworkers face every day, we hope to move people into action in support of the people who harvest our food. This year, the documentary I am making focuses on youth working in the fields and their experiences with pesticides.

Lately I have been doing a lot of visiting. Visiting farmworker camps and family houses, looking for people with interesting stories who might be willing to be interviewed for this year’s documentary. On one such visit to the Wilson area last week, one house in particular struck me as a textbook example of the ways in which farm workers’ rights to safe, healthy living conditions are being violated. As we drove up the dusty dirt driveway towards a small house in ill repair, a woman stepped out onto the front porch. She was young, and appeared to be in the late stages of pregnancy. After approaching the house and greeting the woman, other members of my group and I began explaining our work to her. One was from Migrant Ed, the other worked with migrant youth and families and I worked for an agency that informed farm workers of their rights surrounding pesticides in the fields and at home.

Early on in the conversation, two little heads peeked around the corner of the house. The older of the two boys exclaimed “¡Eso no es Papá!” looking, surprised, at our group of gringos. The woman explained that the older boy was her little brother and the younger was her son. Her parents and husband were still at work. Because she was close to her due date, she had not been working since they arrived in North Carolina two weeks earlier.

As the other two farmworker outreach workers continued to talk with the woman, I took a moment to watch the boys run around in front of the house. I was jolted out of my reverie, though, when one asked the young mother, “do they tell you when they spray the tobacco field here?” pointing to the thriving field not ten feet from the front door. The woman answered, unconcerned, that growers never inform the family when they are about to spray the fields, nor are they advised about how long to wait before it’s considered safe to walk through the tobacco after it’s sprayed. As she was talking, I watched the two boys giggling as they playfully hit each other with limp tobacco leaves.

Looking at the field, the tobacco didn’t look dewy with pesticides, but how could you tell? How could a person know the damage that is being done to their own health by living and working in such close proximity to pesticides? How could this pregnant mother know how the pesticides she was breathing would affect her soon-to-be-born baby in and out of the womb? I was reminded of my role as a person who shares safety information. “But what,” I wondered, “is the point of telling someone the importance of wearing long sleeves at work to protect against pesticides if the pesticides are being sprayed in through the front door?”

I was also reminded that in terms of helping this woman, my information was only going to go as far as she was willing to take it. I could give her all the numbers for legal aid and various other governmental agencies that I could think of, but it was this young immigrant mother who would ultimately have to decide to take the next step and seek contact. This made me aware, once again, that my relationship with farm workers is a partnership. Without the information and connections held by advocates, many workers would be unaware of their power to advocate for themselves. Without the input and self-advocacy of farm workers, advocacy work is self-serving and ineffective. This puts my weekly outreach visits into a different perspective. By involving farmworkers in my documentary, I hope to make them aware of the importance of their stories in creating social change. By taking these stories to the general public, I hope to make my audiences aware of the importance of their support in making sure current laws are followed and new legislation is passed so that everyone can have access to food that is delicious, environmentally friendly and ethically sound.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What a good writer. Thanks for sharing Abi! :)