Features

September 8, 2014 at 9:00 am

Cultivating Farmworker Advocates, One Student at a Time

Like many farmworker advocates, Melinda Wiggins can rattle off a long list of injustices faced by the people who harvest America’s food — stagnant wages, unsafe working conditions, housing often unfit for human habitation, and one she finds particularly unconscionable: Many farmworkers aren’t allowed visitors in the camps where they live.

“I’ve had a grower tell me it’s just like his kids who want to have visitors,” she told me. “They need to ask him for permission. And I’m like, farmworkers are not your children! What are you saying? But the growers see their worker as a child. As property.”

Credit: Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

Credit: Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

Two decades of advocacy have not weakened Melinda’s incredulity, which fuels her work as Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers, a non-profit that sends college interns into migrant farmworker camps for a summer of healthcare, legal, and education outreach.

Last summer I followed a bunch of SAF interns — they call themselves safistas — around camps in North and South Carolina. I was so impressed it took all of a moment last week to decide to become a regular donor when Melinda put out the call. (They don’t ask for much: only $10 or more a month. Here’s where you can donate.)

Melinda was raised on her grandparents cotton farm near Phillipstown, Mississippi. Surrounded as a kid by farms and farming, it was only when she left that rural and isolated place that she saw a distressing side of agriculture.

In 1993 Melinda departed the Mississippi delta for divinity school at Duke University. There she applied for a stint with the newly formed Student Action with Farmworkers, a chance encounter that opened her eyes to the systemic injustice suffered by farmworkers. Realizing her true calling, Melinda gave up the ministry for a permanent job with SAF.

SAF is unique among organizations that help farmworkers. There is no permanent team of outreach workers. Instead, every summer they hand-pick twenty or so college students from schools across the United States. After a week of training they provide much needed services for ten weeks, then disperse for careers as varied as you can imagine.

By rebuilding their team each summer, SAF provides to the world a perennial crop of witnesses to the plight of farmworkers.

SAF has sent more than 700 college students into farmworker communities since its founding in 1992. That’s when it emerged from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, which had been incubating the concept behind SAF since the 1970s, and incorporated as an independent non-profit.

The Center for Documentary Studies, home of SAF

The Center for Documentary Studies, home of SAF

Safistas do more than provide services. Most produce documentaries about their experience, a nod to their origin in the Center for Documentary Studies, which still houses SAF in a converted 19th century mansion on Duke’s campus. Some stage theatrical productions modeled after the social protest works of playwright Luis Valdez. They all can contribute to a Tumblr blog, allowing anyone to follow their work in the camps.

When Melinda joined SAF, interns were mostly Duke students from privileged backgrounds. One grew up in a farmworking family. Now that ratio has nearly flipped, with a majority of Safistas having farmworking backgrounds. Many have worked the fields themselves, like Daniel Guzman who I wrote about here a few weeks back.

Safistas from farmworker households often arrive with a sense of shame. They know what it’s like to miss school, to miss meals, and to be called out by other kids for working in the fields—harvesting potatoes is not likely to make a kid popular at school. But after ten weeks of sharing their stories with eager listeners, of indeed being honored, they can take away from SAF something far too few farmworkers are allowed: a sense of pride.

All Safistas leave with a new sense of perspective on the plight of farmworkers. “We contextualize it,” Melinda explains. “We talk about the history of agriculture, and how this is happening all over the country.”

Melinda and the other SAF leaders do more than bombard the students with how bad things are for farmworkers. The shock and outrage is inevitable. But by discovering and commiserating and brainstorming as a team, they get a collective sense that they can do something about it.

“Most people who learn about farmworker issues don’t know what to do,” Melinda tells me. “But Safistas leave here knowing something can be done. And what their role might be.”

Melinda may have given up a career in ministry when she took a job with SAF, but I don’t think she strayed too far from whatever drew her to divinity school in the first place. She runs an organization dedicated to helping the poorest of the working poor, and to opening the eyes of young people at the cusps of their careers so they might spread the word wherever they go.

That sounds plenty divine to me.

-Michael Durbin

This article was originally published on Michael Durbin’s blog, The Considerate Omnivore.