From June through November 2012, I am working as a fellow with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), a Durham-based non-profit that seeks to spread the movement for farmworker justice across the Southeast by creating connections between students and farmworkers that will empower both groups. As part of my efforts to raise awareness about and reflect on what I’m learning at work each day, my blog will be devoted primarily to questions of agriculture, migrant farmwork, and the food system for the next few months.
In other words, for the time being, Emmita Infinita is going to be covering the adventures and ponderings of my new alter-ego: Emmita Safista, a little student activist and health outreach worker tackling big problems at an amazing organization called SAF.
There are many ways to dedicate oneself to social justice and to effecting social change. One way, as I learned in college from a few inspiring and encouraging professors, is through education and teaching. Suffering, injustice, inequality. Reality. Life. What we live through and personally experience, even if it moves us emotionally, doesn’t come prepackaged into organized, concrete knowledge that we automatically understand. And without understanding, all attempts at action and change are ineffective at best, retroactive at worst. Living life, processing it, and presenting it as information in a comprehensible and interesting manner is an art form that can be gratifying for the teacher and life-changing for the student. I would be willing to bet that the majority of global change-makers can point to a few particular mentors who started them on the journeys they continue today. These mentors may have simply presented key information in an impactful manner or also motivated their students to think critically and act on their beliefs with self-confidence. Either way, someone had to initially inspire every activist out there attempting to do good in the world today.
Another route toward social change is not to teach about the problem but rather directly work to create a solution. For this kind of work to be effective, I have come to believe that the most successful organizations and projects are those run by dedicated individuals who live in the community they are trying to help, and who do this for the long haul. There are countless examples across the world, but the one with which I have become the most familiar is the Jubilee House Community/Center for Development in Central America. This community of North Americans has been living in Ciudad Sandino, a poor town on the edge of Managua, Nicaragua, for over a decade. They have carried out a large variety of projects based on the needs and requests of their local neighbors – from building emergency housing after Hurricane Mitch to creating a thriving medical clinic and lay health promoter program. They work to harness their personal human capital, their knowledge of the community developed over years working and living there, and the resources of their connections in the States to empower Nicaraguans instead of just giving handouts.
Finally, this brings me to Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF – said as one word that rhymes with laugh). One of my favorite aspects of SAF is that it incorporates both of these previously mentioned routes toward social change. Based in Durham, North Carolina, SAF has been forming college students and recent graduates into farmworker advocates and activists for twenty years. Each summer, some thirty interns and fellows, for two or six months, respectively, are placed with organizations across the Southeast that provide direct services to farmworkers. Fellows like myself all work with organizations providing health outreach in North Carolina (I’m working at the NC Farmworkers’ Project in Benson –more on that in another post), but interns might be placed in health, law, education, or even labor organizing, and work in states across the Southeast. While this direct field experience is the heart of what makes a fellowship through SAF such a unique and powerful opportunity, the background knowledge, skills, and sense of community that SAF provides all interns and fellows at three trainings over the course of the summer are what has really endeared me to the organization. What is more, I am comforted in knowing that SAF is committed to the fight for justice in the agricultural system for the long run. While I will only be working with the farmworkers in Benson, North Carolina for a short time, over its twenty years, SAF as an organization has established strong roots in the channels of farmworker advocacy that operate in Eastern North Carolina; I can be certain that these roots will continue to sprout positive social change long after I move on.
In order to provide some concrete examples to back up my praise, here are the parts of my SAF experience that have struck me, in particular:
Direct skills training: Through the week-long orientation and three-day mid-retreat trainings we’ve had so far, I have received direct instruction on skills and topics including farmworker health issues, health education, interpretation, group facilitation, popular education, testimony collection, anti-oppression awareness, and conflict resolution. I’ve also received guidance and practice with fundraising. I can’t wait to see what our final retreat will hold.
Encouragement of education and reflection: In addition to skills instruction, our trainings have also focused heavily on education about the food system and farmworker issues from both historical and contemporary perspectives. SAF comes at this education from a very specific, activist point-of-view that sees injustice and oppression as historically built into the organization of the food system. But they wear this bias on their sleeves and readily acknowledge that they have a particular framing, which did my inner history major good. What is more, education and reflection aren’t limited to trainings – we have required journals to complete are also encourage to write and blogs such as I am in order to raise community awareness about farmworker issues.
Community building: Although I am the only safista (all people associated with SAF – interns, fellows, and staff) at my placement in Benson, I really do feel like I am participating in a collective movement for change. When all of the interns and fellows regroup at trainings, SAF formally schedules in a lot of time just let us get to know each other, often on a deep level. Making friends with the other safistas has been a particularly special experience for me because half of them are themselves from farmworker families out West. When we’re all together, I love how our conversations effortlessly jump between English and Spanish, often mid-sentence. And even more than that, I love how although we all come from such different backgrounds, we are all drawn together by our dedication to a common cause.
Theater group: The safistas placed in Eastern North Carolina have the chance to participate in a weekly theater group that provides health education at farmworker camps through a play about HIV. While I never thought I would find myself on a stage, the theater group has become one of my favorite parts of the fellowship. I feel that our play is a much less paternalistic method of spreading health education than a typical cut-and-dry lecture. Even more importantly, it provides rare comic relief to a group of people who just deserve a good laugh more than anyone I know. Everyone in the theater group shared my satisfaction when, a few weeks ago, a worker wrote in reference to the play on an evaluation we handed out:
“Sí me gustó, estuvo muy bien hasta se me olvido lo cansado del día, ¡Gracias!” Yes, I liked it, it was so good that it made me forget everything that had been tiring about the day. Thank you!
For our last few weeks of theater, we’re going to actually let the farmworkers take the stage. We had training at our mid-retreat about Theater of the Oppressed and how to use theater to explore the injustices in someone’s reality and what social changes are possible to improve it. I’m really excited to see how it plays out!
To get in on the fun, check out the hilarious blog post by one of my fellow teatreros about one of our recent performances!
Support and mentoring system: In general, I have been really impressed by how organized and effective SAF staff have been in carrying out our internships and fellowships this summer. Having worked in a variety of settings including other small nonprofits, I know this is no small coordination feat. In particular, I think the support and mentoring system that is in place for fellows and interns is praiseworthy and could only function as well as it does with careful thought and planning from above. From finding resources I need in order to do my job in Benson, to dealing with office politics and even taking care of my personal and emotional well-being, SAF has been looking out for me continuously. They have helped me clarify my goals for my six months as a fellow, and I know they will assist me in any way they can so that I am able to achieve what I want.
So there you have it. SAF is awesome. If social change doesn’t result from an organization like this one, then I don’t know how it does.
You’re probably still wondering what it is I do every day. And maybe even why it’s important to work with farmworkers at all. Don’t worry – just stay posted. That’s soon to come!