Student Action with Farmworkers: Labor Advocacy Group
by April Leanne Simon
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people migrate to North Carolina. These men, women, and children arrive with the harvest season to work in fields of fruits and vegetables, pine trees and tobacco, and meat and poultry processing plants. They are largely hidden away from public view, but each and every one of us relies on their contribution to our state’s industry and economy. Migrant farm work has a long legacy in the United States, and contributes to a particularly rich culture and folklife in the Southeast. For more than twenty years, Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) has used documentary work to share farmworker stories with the public and to bring students and farmworkers together to learn about each other’s lives, to share resources and skills, and to honor their contributions and culture.
Since being incorporated as a nonprofit in 1992, SAF has taught documentary skills in photography, audio recording, and folklore to a diverse group of twenty college students from across the country who come to North Carolina each summer to engage in SAF’s programs with farmworkers. A majority of the students hail from farmworker families, and many have themselves worked in agriculture—like Lubella Torres, a 2011 SAF intern, who said, “For many years, I underestimated what my family had to go through to put food on the table and was embarrassed of what my family did for a living.” She “lived the life of a true farmworker; not one portrayed in some movie with actors, but one that saw and felt it all. For me to be able to show my parents that I am willing to stand up for the farmworker and their family is…priceless.”
In addition to working with farmworker agencies doing legal, health, education, and community organizing outreach throughout the summer, students also work in pairs to identify and document one farmworker’s folklore narrative. Students work collaboratively with farmworker participants, who labor in the fields and agricultural processing plants in rural North Carolina. Most farmworkers are native Spanish-speakers, recent immigrants, and earn less than $11,000 annually. Students share the documentary skills they learned, encouraging workers to photograph and document their own lives, and work with farmworker participants to edit their documentary projects together. “Although we live in different worlds in many ways,” 2008 SAF fellow Leanne Tory-Murphy said, “the common work of the documentary project helped us to break down some of the barriers that might have separated us, because we came together in the spirit of listening and being heard.”
The collaborative process allows farmworkers to share their experiences in the fields and labor camps, sites which often go unseen and are sometimes inaccessible even to outreach workers. Additionally, they are able to lend their own voice to conversations about topics that unequivocally impact them—such as immigration, child labor, and poverty—conversations that they are all too often left out of. Agustin Sanchez was fifteen when SAF workers interviewed him, and he described his difficult experiences starting work at age 10: “Well, it was very hard for me because I was very little. And I could hardly lift a full bucket. And I’d see all the people filling them up really fast and they would lift them up high. And one time I filled it up to the top and then I couldn’t lift it…I drug it away. And then it emptied out, the entire bucket, I dropped everything.”
SAF uses the documentary images, interviews, and writings to produce bilingual publications, traveling exhibits, virtual exhibits, and theater performances to educate the public about farmworkers. In the past, SAF has shared their bilingual traveling exhibit, Nuestras Historias/Nuestros Sueños—Our Stories/Our Dreams, across the state and nationally; launched a bilingual website that provides a virtual exhibit space for their documentary work; presented students’ documentaries at an end-of-summer reception for the public in Durham and at the NC Latin American Film Festival; and shared their documentary slideshows with students, community members, and people of faith through presentations across NC.
In celebration of their 20 year anniversary, SAF’s farmworker youth group, the Levante Leadership Institute, created a portable mural using their personal stories as a jumping off point to graphically tell a collective story that not only captures their experiences and those of other farmworkers, but also highlights SAF’s work to address farmworker injustice. The experience allowed the youth to think creatively about documentary work and empowered them to open dialogues about their own experiences in the context of farm labor and folklife.
As SAF forges into the future, the group continually seeks new ways to build relationships and share farmworker stories. SAF believes it is vital to collect the stories and experiences and educate the community about the important cultural contributions that farmworkers make to the state of North Carolina.
April Leanne Simon was an SAF intern in 2009, and has since continued to work in food justice. She serves as Education Director with Zomppa, a nonprofit which educates children about healthy eating, cultural awareness and social responsibility. She also serves on the SAF board of directors.
Simon, April Leanne. “Student Action with Farmworkers: Labor Advocacy Group.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 59.2 (Fall-Winter 2012):43-46.