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Creating a Better Future for Farmworkers

Mary Jo Dudley's passion for elevating the plight of farmworkers started with her own family -- growing up with relatives who worked their own vineyard later translated to her work at Cornell, focused on the lives, struggles and stories of the farmworkers from all over the nation.

I am honored to accept this award on behalf of the many farmworkers who opened their homes to me and my students to share food, music, laughter, personal accounts of their successes and challenges, and their ideas about how to construct a better future for themselves. I’d also like to recognize the deep engagement of students, and the consistent guidance and support of colleagues, family and friends who were integral in making this work possible.

My earliest understanding of farm work started in my childhood when my grandparents, parents, siblings, and I worked in our family vineyard in rural upstate New York. It was here that I first encountered the farmworkers who came in the season to help harvest fruits and vegetables. I gained a more nuanced understanding of the unique contributions farmworkers make to agriculture and communities when I participated in the Farmworker Women’s Equity Project, a nationwide research project that engaged both male and female farmworkers in discussions about opportunities for women in farmwork. Whether in New York, Florida or North Carolina, the farmworkers I met shared a common vision that women farmworkers deserve better lives for themselves and their families.

Some years later, I had the great fortune to interview Cesar Chavez about his life. He shared with me his personal stories about bringing together people of diverse backgrounds to work toward improving the lives of farmworkers. He explained his deep belief in the power of collective action to bring about positive change. His vision, humility, and collaborative approach to creating a more just society continue to inspire me today. 

Carrying forward the spirit of Cesar Chavez’ efforts, the Cornell Farmworker Program (CFP) is dedicated to improving the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families. CFP develops programs that recognize farmworkers’ strong contributions to agriculture and communities, and that create collaborative spaces for engagement among farmworkers, students, faculty, extension professionals and farm owners in order to best meet their needs. We seek recognition for farmworkers' contributions to society, and their acceptance and full participation in local communities.  We envision and make active efforts towards the creation of a state and a nation in which farmworkers receive equal protection under the law, earn a living wage, live in comfortable housing, are safe and healthy, receive due respect as workers and as individuals, and participate fully in their communities.

Through a holistic and ethnographic research approach, we examine the factors that motivate farmworkers to leave their home communities, their views on their journeys to where they are currently employed, reflections on their current living and working conditions, their perspectives on their social and economic contributions to NYS as well as to their home communities, and their hopes and aspirations for the future. Based on the topics farmworkers themselves identify as their priority concerns, we develop and conduct on-farm workshops in Spanish and English. Our “Emergency Planning” workshops address how to prepare for an emergency such as a farm accident, automobile accident or immigration detention.  The workshops provide step-by step guidance on how to make arrangements for and assign guardianship, power of attorney, and other emergency preparations. To support these trainings, the CFP coordinates the production of Spanish language skits in DVD format on “Derechos de Inmigrantes”, which are distributed to farmworkers at our workshops.  We also conduct on-farm workshops in Spanish and English on “Chemical Safety on Dairy Farms” and “Driving in New York State,” and maintain a bilingual searchable database of services for farmworkers in New York State.  These workshops are designed to support farmworkers in their efforts to increase their personal happiness, safety, and confidence when navigating in new communities.

Students play a central role in our efforts with farmworkers.  I am particularly delighted that the nomination for this prestigious award came from my students.  Through on-farm classes and workshops with farmworkers, students have a grounded and service-based learning experience that fosters civic engagement and broadens their worldview.  Through on-farm English classes farmworkers acquire communication skills that facilitate more meaningful interactions in the workplace and in the community. Yet, the impact of these classes extends far beyond providing practical improvements to farmworkers’ living and working contexts. Through these interactions students and farmworkers develop meaningful mentoring relationships. These classes allow farmworkers to feel less fearful or anxious interacting with an unfamiliar local population, and empower them to interact with more confidence in their local communities. For students, the classes help develop an understanding of how constructions of differences shape people’s lives. One student noted: “I won’t ever be able to drink a glass of milk or eat a piece of fruit without stopping to think about where that food came from.”

The Cornell Farmworker Program enjoys a unique position as a trusted collaborator with both farmworkers and farm owners.  In light of the significant cultural and language barriers between workers and farmers, we conduct research and extension activities designed to promote improved workplace communication and cooperation.  We strive to empower farmworkers in their workplaces by attaining new knowledge and skills, greater confidence, and improved relationships on the farm.  We believe that farmers and farmworkers alike will benefit from a more stable employment situation and greater worker satisfaction. These efforts are designed to contribute to the broader goal of sustainable agriculture and strong rural communities by enhancing farm viability and productivity through improved workplace relations. Our approach is based upon the premise that direct engagement of workers and farm owners, particularly when they are culturally diverse, not only enables effective solutions to immediate problems but promotes a more educated and tolerant society over the long term. It also continues Cesar Chavez’s legacy of using education to empower the farmworker population to assert their own human and labor rights in the workplace and in the public arena.

Mary Jo Dudley is a faculty member in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University, and is the Director of the Cornell Farmworker Program, where she works to improve the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families.