Communicating Candidly: Farmworkers Cause Philanthropists to Reflect on Truth and Trust

Blog | Posted by Jenny Rempel | December 14, 2012

North Star Fund is a founding member of Community Food Funders (CFF), a philanthropic organizing project formed to provide information, resources and networking opportunities for funders in the New York, New Jersey and southern Connecticut region. CFF aims to invest in the transition to an equitable, ecologically sound and sustainable regional food system that emphasizes local growing, processing and distribution.

CFF steering committee members visiting a local farm owned by former farmworkers.

Through the downpour, it was hard to see all 10,000 acres that make up the fertile Black Dirt region of New York. Having moved from San Francisco to New York City less than a month prior, I was eager to explore my new foodshed, meet the farmworkers whose labor provides us with food, and learn more about the lives of migrant farmworkers - downpour and all.

I was on a site visit as a steering committee member of Community Food Funders (CFF), a philanthropic organizing project that provides resources and networking opportunities for New York, New Jersey and southern Connecticut funders to invest in an equitable, ecologically sound and sustainable regional food system. I came to CFF through the Tom Ford Fellowship in Philanthropy, which gives me the opportunity to spend 11 months working on sustainable agriculture and food systems at the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation.

The goal of this CFF site visit was to meet with a few of the roughly 5,000 farmworkers working less than 60 miles from NYC in Orange County, New York. Though our site visits were intended to illuminate the unique set of challenges facing New York farmworkers, we learned more about the challenges of communicating, comprehending, and collaborating than we did about the difficulties of life as a migrant farmworker. 

Steering committee members of Community Food Funders having lunch at the Alamo with local farmworkers.

We arranged for a lunch of quesadillas and chimichangas at the Alamo Farm Workers Community Center to talk with several Hispanic and Guatemalan farmworkers about their experiences. Today's global agricultural system demands cheap labor, and upstate New York has ushered in waves of Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, and indigenous Mexican Indians to work in the onion and lettuce fields of the region. As border crossings become more difficult, farmworkers are now staying in Orange County year-round. That means farmworkers often try to work as many hours as they can until winter, when they are frequently unemployed. 

Hortencia, one of the farmworkers who shared lunch with us, works six twelve-hour days each week. But when a group of funders asked her what challenges she faces in the onion fields, Hortencia could only tell us how much she loves her job, repeatedly assuring us that "nothing is hard." The farmworkers present insisted that the only problems they faced were with other workers, never with their farmers or supervisors. Despite long hours and strenuous working conditions, the farmworkers we lunched with seemed determined not to share anything negative about farm work.

After several unsuccessful attempts to ask farmworkers about the trials and tribulations of their work, a staff member of the Alamo described the challenges she sees New York farmworkers facing. She told us that many immigrant workers, including legally certified ones, live in fear of immigration raids. They drive uninsured and carry Pennsylvania drivers' licenses because of a recent law forcing New York license applicants to present a social security number. Further, recent cuts in the New York Department of Labor's Rural Employment Program have left farmworkers without trusted outreach coordinators. The program now has just one counselor fielding complaints from six counties. 

However, we learned of these changes not from the farmworkers who might have been affected by them, but from a healthcare manager who spoke for them. In the context of our brief site visit, we were unable to build the trust necessary to hear concerns from the farmworkers themselves. 

I cannot accept an economic and social order that forces individuals to work 80-hour weeks and endure pesticide poisonings, higher injury rates, and wage theft. But the farmworkers we spoke with shared no such complaints and were eager to work extra hours. Perhaps my vision of a five-day workweek and basic workplace protections reflects the assumptions of an upwardly mobile white girl who is unable to listen to what workers themselves want. Or perhaps our approach was wrong: though seasonal workers don't want restrictions on their hours, they probably do want a system that affords them better pay. Perhaps the status quo is so ingrained that farmworkers and farmers can't even conceive of better working conditions or adequate pay in a five-day workweek. Or perhaps it's just hard to find the truth in a complex, broken food system and a social order that is undeniably unjust.

The CFF visit to the Black Dirt reminded me of how difficult it is to build trust and hear the truth. Even if we don't hear the answers we expect, we need to listen. To do so, we must build and maintain trust. Without this, philanthropists will struggle to toe the line between upholding our values and responding to community needs. With farmworker communities and many others, trust building takes more time than a quick site visit can provide. Only through carefully cultivated, trusting relationships can we learn of and address actual needs rather than assumed ones.