Across the Border: Teaching Service-Learning as Labor Activism

Michelle Fazio Associate Professor, University of North Carolina

Summer is already in full swing and with that comes the promise of fresh, local produce available at community-supported agricultural (CSA) farms and farmers’ markets. North Carolina, ranked as the leading producer of tobacco and sweet potatoes according to the USDA, has long held the position of being one of the highest-producing and diversified agricultural leaders in the U.S. Many of my students who live in the rural Southeast region of the state come from farming backgrounds themselves and, as a result, have a strong understanding of what it takes to run a family farm.

However, my students, like most consumers, are far less familiar with the realities of the over 150,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their dependents who labor each year on these farms, contributing to billions of dollars in North Carolina’s economy. These individuals—both H-2A (temporary agricultural workers) and undocumented immigrants—remain invisible to most and are the second lowest paid workers nationwide, making on average $11,000 per year. Without access to overtime, sick leave, workers’ compensation, or the ability to fight wage discrimination, farmworkers have the fewest workers’ rights in the nation, yet, as we know, their labor hand-picking food feeds the world.

Farm work is dangerous work. According to Charles D. Thompson, Jr. and Melinda F. Wiggins, farmworkers suffer from many job-related illnesses due to prolonged exposure to sun, heat, and pesticides and often have limited access to drinking water in the fields. Unsanitary living conditions, including inadequate toilet facilities, also result in multiple occupational hazards that range from dermatitis and Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) to respiratory illness and repetitive work injuries. Farmworkers are also extremely isolated from other communities and face food insecurity, lack access to pre-natal care or health care for children, and suffer from depression.

These matters were exacerbated by the devastation caused by last fall’s Hurricane Florence, which flooded the Southeastern corridor for weeks. As NPR reported, fear over Trump’s anti-immigration policies and inflammatory rhetoric frightened farmworkers away from seeking much-needed food and medical assistance. The severe flooding left many out of work and in need of shelter, but workers were either unable to leave their camps because of their remote location or did not qualify for assistance. Fortunately, local non-profit agencies devoted to promoting migrant farmworker justice, such as the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFwM) and Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), answered the call and provided bottled water and other supplies. They also initiated a fund-raising campaign to support the rebuilding of homes and additional services for the workers and their families.

Most consumers don’t think about the realities migrant farmworkers face, particularly with the recovery efforts still underway, but I want my students to understand them, because they make concrete the local effects of the ongoing political debates over Trump’s border wall, DACA, migrant detention centers, and child separation and deaths. I try to close the gap between national policy and the local community, in part by incorporating service-learning into my classes. In an interdisciplinary honors seminar that I have team-taught several times with Dr. E. Brooke Kelly, our students examine food insecurity and inequality related to the production and consumption of food, and we consider how a globalized industrial food system impacts us as individuals and as a society. The course presents food as a labor and social justice issue, highlighting issues from hunger and food waste to immigrant rights and a labor shortage.

Our students work with the EFwM and SAF to promote National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW), a 20-year-old nationwide initiative that takes place annually during the last week of March to raise awareness about farmworker issues. They design final projects like coordinating a social media campaign and a week-long campus-wide event that included a collection drive for clothing, toiletries, and first-aid supplies as well as a screening of the documentary, “Harvest of Dignity,” and organizing a day-long campus visit for children of migrant farmworkers who participate in theatre workshops, mural painting, and learn more about life as a college student. This semester, we visited a migrant farmworker labor camp, where we met with workers, including some who had just arrived earlier that day and others who had been coming to North Carolina for twenty to thirty years. The workers spoke of being detained at the border for over eight hours and paying kickbacks to travel through the U.S., stories that illustrate Fernando Herrera Calderón’s claim that “Crossing the border has become more dangerous and more expensive.” The workers’ testimony revealed their emotional frustrations in having to leave their homes for eight months out of the year just to earn a living.

It’s difficult to capture in words how extraordinary this experience was for my students. Talking with farmworkers about their struggles on the job about topics such as wages, the economy, stereotypes, and work-related injuries placed them at the frontline of social injustice, interacting with a population they otherwise would not have access to. Those conversations also humanized the rhetoric and statistics they hear from the media and the government, providing students with individual faces and names. This interaction illustrates the power of experiential learning and community engagement. Learning teamwork skills and cultural sensitivity, applying course content to real-life experiences, and reflecting upon what they learned in class and in the fields are central to students’ academic success, increasing their perspective and sense of civic responsibility.

As educators, we must continue to provide opportunities to “cross the border” from campus into the real world to address larger conversations about immigration, inequality, social justice, and working-class rights. As a form of activism, community engagement enriches the learning experience and puts into practice the mission of higher education, helping my students understand the vital role migrant farmworkers have not only in North Carolina’s economy but in food production worldwide.

We all could benefit from considering the various social problems related to food to broaden awareness about the labor conditions and class inequities that shape the agricultural industry. As we prepare for the abundance of fresh corn on the cob, strawberries, collards, and squash, remember to give thanks to a farmworker.


Reposted from Working-Class Perspectives

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Center for Working-Class Studies