I am honored to be named a "Champion of Change," particularly during the week that lifts up individuals who honor Cesar Chavez’s core values of service, knowledge, innovation, acceptance of all people, and respect for life and the environment. I first learned of Cesar Chavez and the farmworker movement the year that Chavez died. During that spring of 1993, I was studying theology at Duke Divinity School and looking for a summer internship. I found that my previous internships working primarily with homeless women in MS, MO, DE, and NC proved critical to my understanding of the root causes of poverty, my ability to build relationships directly with homeless individuals, and my interest in working for social and economic justice.
I learned about the work and ideals of Cesar Chavez that summer during an internship with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), but I also learned a lot more. I learned about my own white, working class community in the Mississippi Delta, about my dad’s experiences sharecropping in the Delta, as well as about how my grandparents had been able to purchase the land I grew up on through a New Deal program that allowed sharecroppers to become farm owners.
One of the roles that Student Action with Farmworkers plays is supporting young people to explore their own family and community’s history, as well as to learn alternative views and stories of history—primarily told by those that are marginalized in our communities. For SAF this means sharing with young people the history of agriculture in the US, how this history connects to larger issues of class, race, and globalization, and the stories of those most oppressed in the agricultural system—farmworkers.
It also means providing meaningful ways for young people to make a difference. Through internships, fellowships, a youth group, and student organizing school, Student Action with Farmworkers develops the leadership of young people so they can be effective participants in the farmworker movement. SAF works with a diverse group of young people, with the majority being from farmworking families themselves. Through our work, farmworker youth are able to identify with workers, reflect deeper into their own story, and give back to their communities.
By using creative tools such as documentary and popular theater, we not only record and archive workers’ stories of labor, but we also present these stories to the larger public. Through presentations, workshops, actions, and film screenings, Student Action with Farmworkers’ youth, alumni, and partners shed light on the injustices faced by field workers throughout the year as well as annually during National Farmworker Awareness Week. The week of action is called during the last week of March in honor of Cesar Chavez’ birthday. Last year over 25,000 individuals took action to improve conditions of farmworkers.
SAF addresses the immediate problems faced by farmworkers by providing access to culturally and linguistically appropriate healthcare and teaching English as a Second Language, while working on the root causes of these issues by advocating for equal treatment of agricultural workers under the law and supporting workers that are organizing for a safe workplace and wages they can live on.
As I have continued to stay involved with Student Action with Farmworkers since that summer of 1993, it is my hope that through our programs, young people are able to learn about the injustices in our current food system, have a greater understanding of people from diverse backgrounds, and develop innovative ways to make change. For twenty years, SAF has provided students with the knowledge, mentorship, and opportunities to serve, advocate, and organize their communities in support of fairness for farmworkers and their families. I think we’ll continue to do so for another twenty!
Student Action with Farmworkers is a nonprofit whose mission is to bring students and farmworkers together to learn about each other’s lives, share resources and skills, improve conditions for farmworkers, and build diverse coalitions working for social change.
Melinda Wiggins is the Executive Director of Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), a nonprofit organization bringing students and farmworkers together to learn about each other’s lives, share resources and skills, improve conditions for farmworkers, and build diverse coalitions working for social change.