Friday, September 20, 2013

Growing gardens and relationships with farmworkers

By Anna Jensen, Community Organizer

I've been thinking a lot this summer about how change is made, and I keep coming back, in various ways, to the centrality of  relationship building.
This year, we made a conscious choice to narrow the scope of our farmworker outreach in order to focus on building deeper, more meaningful relationships with farmworkers. Instead of presenting information about pesticide protections to as many workers as possible, we decided to return to the same three camps at least twice a month during May through August, with the goal of having repeated conversations with workers about their experiences, needs, and ideas for the future. We wanted to support workers not only in their quest for better protections from pesticides at work, but also in other aspects of their lives so that they felt they had what they needed to advocate for themselves.

As we have done in previous years, we brought seedlings and supported farmworkers in organic gardening. We arranged for someone to cook dinner for the largest camp three times over the course of the season, and we sat down and ate dinner with 25 farmworkers, and we listened. By listening, we learned more about workers' food traditions, their knowledge and work backgrounds, and what motivated them to fight for safer work places, or what prevented them from protecting themselves or speaking up.

We distributed over 80 tomato, cucumber and pepper seedlings to 3 camps, increasing access to pesticide-free food for more than 50 farmworkers during the agricultural season this year. The chile peppers in the largest camp did especially well, and one farmworker there said that "one of them is worth ten of the ones we buy at the store." We also conducted hands-on gardening workshops in each camp several times during the season, identifying problem bugs and what to do about each one without using pesticides, as well as finding good bugs to leave alone. Each of those workshops facilitated deeper conversations about the harms that pesticides can cause and the importance of protecting themselves and fighting for alternatives. The workers ended the season with knowledge they can use next year, and pass on to other farmworkers if they don't come back to our area again. Most of the farmworkers we talked to, however, plan to be back in the same place next season, and we ended the season with stronger relationships with those farmworkers that Toxic Free NC can build on next year. We are building a network of farmworkers ready to engage in advocacy, or serve as resources to their friends and coworkers about their work rights and about organic gardening.

Some of these workers will participate in focus groups on pesticides and reproductive health with us before they leave, providing us with information we can use to educate more workers next year. And we will rely on the relationships we have built this year to help spread the word, educate others, refine our work, and involve more farmworkers next year. As the harvest season ends here, I am grateful to all of the farmworkers who welcomed our visits, took time to talk with us, and gave us feedback to improve our work after completing their own long, difficult workdays.

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