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Monday, October 10, 2016

Remembering Geraldean Matthew

On September 26th of 2016 the friends and colleagues of an incredible woman, activist and farmworker, Geraldean Matthew gathered to honor her memory. The stories, memories, and community shared will sustain those who knew and respected Geraldean.  Our community still feels the loss of such a committed and beloved advocate for change. 

"She could hang out in the state capital and be swanky, and she could be picking endives the next day," said Ron Habin, an anthropologist who partnered with her over the years. "It's all the same to her."

We want to sincerely thank Bethany Rodgers of the Orlando Sentinel for her beautiful tribute to the one and only Geraldean. Please read the piece she wrote honoring Geraldean.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

In Honor and Recognition of Geraldean Matthew

On Saturday, September 3, at about 8:30pm, the world lost a strong warrior in the struggle for social and environmental justice. Geraldean Matthew transitioned peacefully from this world to the next, leaving behind a lasting legacy in the lives of the countless people whose lives she touched through her dedicated and unselfish work in and for her community for more than three decades. 

Born in Belle Glade, Florida to a farmworker mother, Geraldean grew up as a young girl traveling the seasons up and down the east coast harvesting crops as varied as corn, cabbage, oranges, peppers and even Christmas trees in Southern Canada.  Eventually, her family settled in the agricultural town of Apopka, Florida, where she remembers working in the vegetable fields on what is Florida’s fourth largest lake. The Lake Apopka farmlands are infamous for being the site of bird deaths and alligator reproductive anomalies due to the extensive amount of fertilizers and pesticides applied to the crops.  Geraldean remembered being sprayed directly by pesticides and bringing home empty pesticide containers for various uses around the house – long before there were any regulations to train farmworkers about the dangers and health effects of pesticide exposure.

As a young woman in the late 1970s, Geraldean met the four courageous nuns who moved to Apopka and formed the Office for Farmworker Ministry to work with the largely African American and later Hispanic and Haitian communities in the area.  That was the beginning of Geraldean’s education about the issues of social injustice and her becoming engaged in what would become a life-long work of making a positive difference in her community.  Later, as a staff member of the Farmworker Association of Florida, Geraldean was known as fearless in her outreach to the HIV/AIDS community in Central Florida, leading the way into potentially dangerous environments if she knew there was someone in there who needed her help.

In the 1990s, when the Lake Apopka Farmworker Project was established at FWAF, Geraldean was at the forefront of efforts to help farmworkers displaced by the closing of the Lake Apopka farms to find re-training, new jobs, housing and assistance for their basic and immediate needs.  Oftentimes, thinking more of others than of herself, Geraldean woke early to transport people to jobs miles away and worked late into the night doing outreach and education. Later, in 2005, she was the co-coordinator, along with anthropologist Ron Habin, of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Environmental Health Survey, which sought to identify the health conditions in the community of former Lake Apopka farmworkers and their experiences of pesticide exposure.  A decade later, she was most proud of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt Project, which she helped inspire, and of the book Fed Up: The High Costs of Cheap Food by author Dale Slongwhite, which captured the stories of some eleven former farmworkers and community members. 

In the last year of her life, as Geraldean was suffering the consequences of multiple chronic illnesses likely related to decades of direct and generational exposure to organochlorine pesticides, Geraldean Matthew told Fed Up author that they had at least two or three more books yet to write together; that she had many more from a lifetime of stories that still needed to be told.  Sadly, those stories leave us along with Geraldean, as she moves on from this world to the next.  Still, those Geraldean leaves behind have a wealth of stories of their own from a vast treasure of memories of working alongside Geraldean for years – at rallies and demonstrations; lobbying to decision makers in the state capitol; going door-to-door conducting a health survey; testifying at meetings and conferences, including at the EPA; speaking to countless church, student and civic groups about her personal life and the conditions for farmworkers; outreaching to AIDS patients in crack houses and on the streets; organizing meetings and community events; and motivating and inspiring others to get involved.

Geraldean may be gone, but her spirit lives on in all whose lives she has touched and by leaving the world a better place for her having been in it.   We will miss you Geraldean.  You are now free of the suffering of this world.  May you be at peace and may your spirit soar free!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Lake Apopka’s Untold Stories

The Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt is featured as part of Art and History Museums Maitland “Untold Stories” exhibit. The Blue Quilt draws your eye as soon as you enter the Maitland Historical Museum in its own alcove in the entryway. Linda Lee, principal quilt maker, and Mary Ann Robinson, who has family members memorialized in the quilt, had a chance to see the quilt beautifully displayed with family and friends.

On the visit they were very lucky to have the personal attention of the museums curator for a tour of the rest of the amazing exhibit, located in the Art Center, and a tour of the Historical Museum where the quilt is displayed.  The Quilt has been extremely well received by the public, and we are thrilled that the exhibit will bring more attention to the former farmworker community, and farmworkers plight broadly.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Farmworker Memorial Blue Quilt on Display at A&H's Maitland Art Center

We at the Farmworker Association are very excited that the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Blue Quilt will be on display as part of “Culture Pop: Untold Stories” at the Art & History Museums Maitland Art Center. The exhibit will run July 15th through September 4th at 231 West Packwood Ave in Maitland, Florida. If you live in the Central Florida area, don’t miss this exhibit!

The art show is comprised of “Untold Stories which is made up of two exhibits that artistically depict the narratives of different populations. Inspired Storytelling: Tomengo’s Maitland Project A&H’s former Artist-in-Action Trent Tomengo presents a series of oil paintings inspired by photographs, artifacts and profiles of working-class residents of Maitland and its surroundings from the late 1800s and early 1900s.The African American Narrative : (Select works from the Polk Museum of Art) An exhibition recognizing noted contemporary African American artists working in the narrative tradition to address personal and historic themes. Pieces from the African American Narrative are on loan from the permanent collection of the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, which began in 1983 and now includes works by nationally and internationally recognized artists.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Future Medical Professionals
 Learn Lake Apopka History

         Many young people go into medicine with altruistic intentions, built on empathy for others and a desire to help people. The medical profession however, sometimes fails to help people who desperately need medical care. Farmworkers are an example of this failure, as so many doctors are not trained in occupational health and cannot correctly diagnose or treat farmworkers. With awareness of this issue, we are so happy to partner with Central Florida Area Health Education Center (AHEC) in their summer program that reaches across 9 counties and brings together high school students who are interested in the medical professions for a camp at UCF.

           The students have a chance to attend workshops, learn more about the medical field, and meet other students who share their interests. Jeannie Economos, Health and Safety Coordinator, Becky Wilson, AmeriCorps volunteer, and Dale Slongwhite, author of “Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food” were invited to present information about farmworkers to the group.  Before we met with the group of 20 students, they had a workshop on domestic or intimate partner violence. The camp focuses not only on the hard science of medicine but on the interwoven social issues medical professionals need to be aware of. We were so happy to bring awareness about farmworkers’ conditions to future medical professionals.

      To help students understand the realities farmworkers face, we chose to focus on the story of Lake Apopka. All the students live in surrounding Central Florida counties and are in proximity to the Lake which boasts two EPA recognized Superfund sites, the highest class of contamination. The students watched Geraldean Matthew, former Lake Apopka Muck Farmworker and community leader, discuss the harms to her health, family, community, and environment on film, because she is currently in the hospital. We know that if she was healthy enough she would be speaking to students herself, but her words carry power in person, and recorded. One student asked in awe “you know her?” referring to Geraldean.  Jeannie responded that she had known her for 20 years, and a wave of understanding spread across the student’s face as she saw that farmworkers were regular people, with friends who cared about them. It is much harder to dismiss someone when they are only one person removed from you.

            The students then broke up into four groups, each given a scenario centered on Lake Apopka. Questions like what their lives would look like without farmworkers, how many hands touch the food they eat before it gets to them, and others encourage students to put themselves in the shoes of farmworkers and understand their ties and ultimately what they owe to farmworkers. While only two hours of their time, this knowledge is something they will hopefully carry forward in their future careers, and change the medical field for the better.

Volunteers plant 1,000 trees along Lake Apopka

Cherry Lake Tree Farm joined a cooperative effort with St. Johns River Water Management District, and Keep Lake Apopka Beautiful to plant 1, 000 two-year old Bald Cypress trees on the North Shore of Lake Apopka. Sixty volunteers in four teamsworked at three sites spanning two counties. Cherry Lake Tree Farm provided the trees.  Bald Cypress is considered a keystone species in regional wetland ecosystems, providing valuable habitat, particularly for birds. Until Saturday, Bald Cypress trees were notably absent from the Lake Apopka Restoration Area. The toxic history of Lake Apopka cannot be undone, but efforts like this to improve the ecosystem are so necessary.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Farmworker Memorial Quilts Featured in New Book!

We are so excited to be part of an incredible new book with Quilt Index!

The Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts project have a place in this extensive research work that culminated in the publication of the new Quilts and Human Rights book that has just been released. The long-awaited time has come, and we are delighted to share this news and information with all of you!

"Quilts and Human Rights offers a new understanding of the history of global human rights as seen through textiles of awareness and activism. Of all the textile forms linked to human rights activities, one form—the quilt—has proved an especially potent and popular form for individuals, working alone or as part of organized groups, to subversively or overtly act for human rights. Through a description of this activity over time and space, Quilts and Human Rights advances awareness of critical human rights issues: suffrage, race relations, civil wars, natural disasters, HIV/AIDs, and ethnic, sexual, and gender discrimination. Quilts and Human Rights pays tribute to the individuals who have used needle skills to prick the conscience and encourage action against human rights violations."

Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, is a South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop, and wrote the forward for this new book!

Praise for the Book:  

“Beautifully written, with a venerable combination of straightforward expression and intellectual sophistication, Quilts and Human Rights successfully bridges the fields of women’s studies and visual arts with a brilliant survey of national and international human rights quilts.”—Carolyn L. Mazloomi, founder and director of the Women of Color Quilters Network

“Quilts and Human Rights tells superbly scaffolded stories about the powerful intersection of threats and threads.”—Patricia A. Turner, author of Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters 

“This well-researched and important book sheds new light on the work of thousands of quilt artists who have used needle, thread, and cloth for advocacy, education, and reflection on human rights.”—Rev. Canon Mpho Tutu, executive director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation