Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Community Engagement at Innovation Montessori Ocoee

For the past few weeks, the Farmworker Associaton of Florida has had the pleasure of participating in a community engagement course at Innovation Montessori Ocoee. Former AmeriCorps member and now-teacher Lashae Copeland invited FWAF to participate in several courses to help teach a group of seventh graders about farmworkers in the community.

The first class was led by Dale Slongwhite, author of Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food. She began the class by asking the group of 12 and 13 year-olds a simple question, "Who here eats?" The simplicity of the question seemed to throw off the students, a few of which needed reminding to raise their hands. From that question came deeper ones. As Dale pulled avocados, tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, spinach, and a carrot out of a bag, she asked the students, "do you know where these fruits and vegetables come from?" Once again, the students seemed stumped.

The students already understood that grocery stores are a location where community members can purchase produce, but when we asked how the grocery stores got their food, there was silence. From there, Dale was able to guide the students through the process of how food gets to their dinner table. When discussing farms, Dale introduced them to the definitions of "farmers", "crew leaders", and "farmworkers".

As students became familiarized with the difference between a farmer and a farmworker, they quickly realized that a farmworker would have to work in dangerous, exhausting conditions considering the physical labor and harsh heat that the job would bring. We then showed them a timeline presentation of the Lake Apopka farms. Even though many of the students knew Lake Apopka was nearby, none of them knew about the sordid treatment of the farmworkers and environment of Lake Apopka.

After learning about the history of the Lake Apopka farms, the students separated into breakout groups to discuss different scenarios that would highlight the struggles of farm work. From the exercise, the students reflected on every day situations that are impacted by farmworkers. For example, one group discussed how every single item on a fast-food hamburger would get to their hands. They realized that everything, from the bread to the lettuce and the burger, would need to pass by human hands in order to make it to themselves.

As the students learned more and more about the process of obtaining food and the jobs of farmworkers, the question came up as to how they were treated for their efforts. When we told them that farmworkers are often the victims of harsh treatment, unsafe conditions, and wage theft, there was an air of confusion in the room. One student stressed that what we were describing was illegal, and should not be allowed to happen. While we agreed, of course, we stressed that this happens far too often, and it is still something that farmworkers struggle with in the current day.

The next week's class was led by both Dale and Linda Lee, a former Lake Apopka farmworker who spends her time spreading awareness of the Lake Apopka farmworkers and the injustices farmworkers face. This class time was spent focusing on the hardships that Lake Apopka farmworkers faced after the farms were shut down due to environmental concerns. The class watched the short film, "Out of the Muck", which introduced the students to several Lake Apopka farmworkers.

After the video, Linda spoke with the students about her life in the muck and as a Lake Apopka farmworker. She told them about the harsh weather conditions that she faced, as well as the wage theft that happened often to her and other farmworkers. Linda also discussed the presence of environmental racism in her neighborhood, seen through the presence of toxic sites such as medical waste incinerators and landfills, all of which are located in areas that have homes, schools, and other public services.

Linda then displayed her blue quilt from the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt project. The students listened as she explained different people and memories that are portrayed within the quilt squares to commemorate those who worked on Lake Apopka farms.

After listening to Linda and learning about the Lake Apopka farmworkers, the students will make their own quilt squares in the next class. This will allow the students to reflect on everything they have learned about farming, environmental justice, and the Lake Apopka farmworkers. Hopefully, by spreading awareness of the Lake Apopka farmworkers and their history, these students can promote change and equal rights in the future!

Monday, September 30, 2019

Spreading Awareness of the Lake Apopka Farmworkers

On September 25th and 26th, the Farmworker Association of Florida was given an opportunity to spread the stories of the Lake Apopka Farmworkers to several classes of college students.

For several years now, Dale Slongwhite, the author of Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food, and Linda Lee, the lead artist behind the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial quilts, have gone to Seminole State College to teach students about the history of the Lake Apopka farmworkers. This is done through the courses of professor Anne Riecken, who invites Dale and Linda to speak so that her students can gain insight into this example of environmental injustice.

Dale began the class by introducing herself and how she was inspired to write her book, which features interviews with multiple Lake Apopka farmworkers. She said that while attending a conference on environmental justice, she heard Linda speak about her past as a farmworker. Linda's story was so unique and shocking that Dale wanted to do more to investigate and spread the story of those who worked on the Lake Apopka farms. After nearly five years of work, Dale published her book in 2014.

After Dale's introduction, a short film was shown to the students. The film, Pesticide Lake, explores the long term effects of pesticides on the Lake Apopka ecosystem and the former farmworkers. Linda reflected sadly afterwards, stating that all the other Lake Apopka farmworkers featured in the video have passed away. The video is only four years-old.

Linda's time to speak came after the film, and she stated, "Muck life is a hard life."

Over the course of three different classes, she covered a variety of topics that explored her and her family's lives as farmworkers. The common themes of Linda's discussions were the unfair treatment of farmworkers and the health issues that arose from working with constant pesticide exposure.

Constantly, the farmworkers on Lake Apopka had their wages stolen by crew leaders and growers who exploited their work. Linda recalled a time when she and several other farmworkers stayed after work until 11 o'clock at night to move cabbages because they were promised compensation for their work. She said they never saw a dime from that evening. If a farmworker complained to a crew leader about their stolen wages then they were fired, or even run out of town by the farms that employed them. The options were either allow your wages to be stolen, or face unemployment and homelessness.

Additionally, farmworkers were at a constant threat of being sent to labor camps. Often when farmworkers were walking somewhere there would be cars that came along and offered them a free ride to their destination. Once they got in, they were taken to camps where they were given food, alcohol, cigarettes, and other items. When they would try to leave, the camps told the farmworkers that they owed them money for the food and alcohol that was given to them, and they would have to work it off if they wanted to leave. However, it was nearly impossible to work off their debts to the camps, since the camps would charge the farmworkers to eat and live on their property. Escape was usually the only option out.

While the treatment of farmworkers by the farms they worked on was difficult enough, Linda said the health consequences have been seen at a massive level. Former farmworkers went on to develop different diseases caused by the constant pesticide exposure. Lupus, kidney failure, black lung disease, and different forms of cancer were just a few of the causes of death that Linda named for those facing pesticide exposure over the years. Additionally, many of the diseases caused by pesticide exposure were passed on to following generations, meaning that the farmworkers' children and grandchildren still face problems caused by the pesticide exposure from decades ago. However, because the government refused to spend any money researching the long term effects of the pesticides on farmworkers, the farmworkers have not received any help in paying for or receiving medical treatment. At one point, Linda says she would attend 10-14 funerals a week. "They were human beings," she said, speaking about the farmworkers, "and they were good human beings, too."

Dale and Linda always take the time to hold up one of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial quilts for the class, so that the students can see how the lives of the Lake Apopka farmworkers are memorialized.

The environmental injustice that farmworkers still face is seen in the placement of toxic facilities right beside the homes. The health effects of living by such toxic locations is still having an impact on families. Linda ends her discussion by encouraging the students to stand up to politicians and advocate for what you believe in.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Visiting the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts

Yesterday, I began my 11-month service term with the Farmworker Association of Florida as a Notre Dame AmeriCorps member.

Despite growing up a mere 20 minutes away in Orlando, I was unfamiliar with the organization, and I still have a lot to learn about the Apopka community and history. However, my first day presented the perfect opportunity to learn about the stories behind the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt project, giving insight into the culture and history of Lake Apopka farmworkers.

Linda Lee, one of the main artists for the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts, was at the Farmworker Association to display her work from nearly ten years ago. Linda's reason for placing her quilts on display was for visiting author Nano Riley. Nearly 20 years ago, Nano wrote her book, Florida's Farmworkers in the Twenty-first Century, and in the process she interviewed several people from the Apopka community.

Linda knew multiple community members presented throughout Nano's book, and even had family members featured as well. Nano is now back to write an article about the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilts, and Linda was happy to display the quilts as well as her other projects.

I was able to ask Linda about specific patterns and the stories and inspiration behind them. The pattern below is referred to by Linda as, "The Forgotten Women". She said she made this quilt to commemorate the women who worked in the muck for years, but were never remembered or thanked.

The pattern below was inspired by her memories of her father, who was a farmworker in the orange groves that employ so many Florida farmworkers. Linda said this is an image of her father climbing up a ladder to harvest oranges from the trees, with the truck that was always taken out into the groves with him.

The image below shows two patterns, one featuring a boy holding a basketball, and the other shows a woman with her purse. Linda often uses human hair in her creations, saying she was inspired by her granddaughter, who was a hairstylist, and occasionally sewed hair for her clients. She brushes and rolls the hair on the quilts to keep it looking nice. When referring to the quilt of the woman below, Linda said she calls her the, "Sassy Lady", claiming, "she's just what they call a baller."

While Linda was given the opportunity to display her quilts for Nano, we also made a visit to the home of Mary Ann Robinson, another quilt maker and former farmworker from Apopka.

Nano interviewed Mary Ann for her article, asking about the life of both her and her mother as farmworkers in the muck. Mary Ann's description of the muck work was eye-opening. She described how the crop dusters would make daily pesticide drops over the farmworkers, and how the grueling work was something she stopped as soon as she could. While Mary Ann spent about six of her teenage years working in the muck, her mother was there for almost 20 years. The lack of research behind the Lake Apopka farmworkers' health conditions means it could never be proven, but Mary Ann believes that her mother's early-onset Alzheimer's was caused by the repeated exposure to pesticides.

Mary Ann has a quilt displayed in her home as well, specifically dedicated to the memory of her family, the majority of whom were farmworkers as well. Several of the squares feature pictures of her different family members.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to speak with Linda and Mary Ann yesterday. Their involvement with the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt project and their first-hand experience as farmworkers allowed me to gain so much insight into the history of Apopka and the Farmworker Association. Although I still have 11-months left in my term, so I'm sure I will have the opportunity to learn even more.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Legacy Museum: from slavery to mass incarceration

"Education about the legacy of racial inequality, truth and reconciliation, is what leads to real solutions to contemporary problems." EJI.


Last Friday July 26, in Apopka, Linda Lee, Mary Ann Robinson (organizers of Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt), Linda Lee’s grand-daughters and great-grandchildren: Cinnamon and Cheyanne, Pootie, Duke and Squirt, Luckner, (organizer of the Haitian community at FWAF) Leonor and Maria, (FWAF leadership group), Ana ( FWAF youth group), boarded a bus that came from Miami and went to Alabama, picking up almost 50 people working in grassroots organizations with FLIC.

Together we were going to visit two physical spaces made by Equal Justice Initiative, which seeks to publicly confront the truth about our history, as a first step towards the recovery and reconciliation of our communities.

On Saturday July 27th, we all entered the first national memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, black people terrified of lynching, black people humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, black people oppressed by contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculptures gave us a first image of slavery. Observing those faces and bodies, we began a tour of lynching and contextualized racial terror through texts, narrations, monuments, sculptures, art and design.

It was really really hot. From afar we observed 800 monuments that were shining with sunlight in a memorial square. These monuments symbolize thousands of victims of lynching, of racial terror; the names of lynching victims are engraved in the columns, as well as the counties and states where this terrorism took place.

"The monument is more than a static monument", there is a space of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national monument will serve as a report on which parts of the country have faced the truth of this terror and which have not.

Lynchings of racial terror were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people across the country and were widely tolerated by state and federal officials. Lynchings were the center of a systematic campaign of perpetual terror to promote an unjust social order. They were not isolated hate crimes; lynchings were terrorism. 

EJI documented more than 4,400 lynchings of black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

A sculpture by Dana King dedicated to all women who sustained the boycott of Montgomery buses, took us to the era of civil rights. And writings by Toni Morrison, Ida B. Wells and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took us deep into a history of racial injustice, resistance and resilience.

EJI, through the Community Remembrance Project, is inviting counties across the country to reclaim their monuments and recognize lynching victims, collecting land from sites where they occurred. Eventually, this process will change the built environment of the Deep South and beyond to more honestly reflect our history.

In 1860, Montgomery was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama, one of the two largest slave states in America.

The Legacy Museum is located where once enslaved people were imprisoned, close to the Alabama dock and train station where tens of thousands of black people were trafficked during the 19th century.

We couldn't take pictures inside the museum, and as Luckner said,”you need to come and see the museum to understand the experience”. But we were there and it was very real. The space used technology to dramatize slavery, the evolution of lynching of racial terror, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in the United States. The materials explore the history of racial inequality, but also its relationship with contemporary issues, such as mass incarceration and police violence.

Back again with mixed feelings, Cheyenne reflected the importance of processing this information that seems hidden; information that is not told to us in the schools or in the media. It is clear that very little has been done to recognize the legacy of slavery, lynching and racial segregation, and that’s why people of color are disproportionately marginalized and disadvantaged in the present.

Ana, mentioned how in the same way, the true story of the genocide that was committed on native communities since the colonization and the oppressions in which these communities live to this day, is never told.

In a system dominated by white supremacy and its capitalist models of extraction and gentrification, it was very powerful to see Linda Lee, Mary Ann, Luckner, Leonor and Maria, organizers of the black and brown Apopka community, walking on a memorial that claims the voices of victims of a war of racial terror that has not ended yet.

In the midst of the structural racism that is impregnated as a virus in our communities, it was very powerful to listen and exalt the fighting voices of black communities, who through our new generations such as Cheyanne, Cinnamon, Ana, Pootie, Duke and Squirt, keep demanding justice and reparation today.

It is our duty to understand the history of racial injustice in America so we don’t perpetuate racism in our communities and in our social work.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Victoria Burello's Project on the History of Lake Apopka

University of Central Florida graduating senior, Victoria Burello, completed her class project on the history of Lake Apopka, to raise awareness about the issue.  As she writes:

" In my freshman year, my Women's Studies course taught me about the local history of Apopka, and of the complicated history of the farmworkers' suffering.  Now in my senior year, I am tasked with making small documentary shorts about the Central Florida community, and how these local issues have large scale implications."

Lake Apopka today is the most polluted large lake in the state. But the region had a long history before this land became what is now called Florida.  The lake and the vast lands surrounding it once served the Timucua and Seminole Indian tribes, where fish and game could be found in abundance.

In the days of colonial expansion, Lake Apopka became an excellent fishing spot for not only the tribes, but also for the white settlers who had come and occupied the territories, displacing the indigenous peoples.

Moving to more recent times, in the 1960s, what had once been  a flourishing lake known worldwide for its magnificent bass fishing, started a long decline that led to the Lake Apopka eventually becoming a "dead lake." The fertilizer and pesticide run-off from the muck farms caused massive algae blooms that led to a collapse of the lake's ecosystem.  

Exacerbating the environmental contamination of the lake was the toxic chemical spill by the Tower Chemical Company, which had improperly disposed of the harmful pesticide, DDE (Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene). This harmful chemical is not only a pesticide but an endocrine disrupting chemical- that has been linked to cancer, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.

Victoria recounts her experience with learning about Lake Apopka.  You can watch her video and visit her website to learn more about the history of Lake Apopka and the farmworkers who worked the vegetable farms on the lake. 
To visit Victoria's website and learn more about Lake Apopka, click here to check out the website, and click here to watch a video.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Southern Black Women & Agricultural Labor: A Round Table Discussion

Former farmworker and community organizer, Geraldean Matthews (deceased) and Betty Dubois, courtesy of FWAF 

When we hear the word "farmworker," we often picture a person fleeing their war filled Central or South American country. We picture an undocumented person, facing wage theft and poor working conditions but too afraid to stand against their employer for fear of termination and deportation. But an article in Activist History, posits that we often confuse that U.S. history with the U.S. history of the original agriculturalists- the black farmworkers and their descendants. Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Florida, Diedre Houchen and Executive Director of the Black/Land Project, Mistinguette Smith illustrate the painful and harsh reality of seven former Lake Apopka farmworker women. Houchen and Smith state that, 

"In 1941, the Florida legislature subsidized drainage and dikes to open nineteen thousand acres of rich lake-bottom land, known as muck, to local farmers. “Almost overnight”, those farms began shipping fruits and vegetables across the county. In the 1970s, the EPA noted phosphorus contamination of the lake and the surrounding farms. By the 1990s it was revealed that the muck farms, and the agricultural workers who tended them, had been exposed to persistent organic pollutants, including aerial sprays of DDT and Difocol."

Studies and restoration efforts of the health of wildlife were conducted but not one penny was provided to the 2,500 farmworkers and their families whose health was affected by the harmful pesticide residue.  But, in her article, Dr. Houchen exposes a different side of the lives of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers. She uplifts the joy, agency, comraderie, sense of self and sense of strength, independence and pride in their work that the women described. The women recounted their 50 years of experience; the skills and quickness they needed in order to cultivate and harvest crops for their per-box payment. Linda Lee (photo on right), one of the women at the round table at the Farmworker Association where Professor Houchen listened to and recorded their stories, spoke of her finesse when plucking chickens; making sure she removed every single feather. The former farmworkers also recounted that in Lake Apopka, land ownership was far less important than obtaining the  extensive knowledge of how to cultivate, tend and harvest crops. When retelling the narrative of Black women in the agricultural environment, it is told by everyone but the Black women themselves. During the Jim Crow era, Black women's physical strength was viewed, as the article describes it, "mule-like; unskilled but persistent." But Black women saw the strength of women's bodies as a "source of power, pleasure and joy." To read the full article, click here.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Honored Guest, Linda Lee, visits Rollins College for Presentation on Motherhood & Social Justice!

Gabbie Buendia (second from right) researched the role of mothers in the American environmental justice movement. Buendia interviewed five women from Florida to Michigan. Here she is with Linda Lee (third from left), an Apopka farmworker, Lee’s grandchildren, and Luwanna Gelzer (third from right), a Parramore resident. (Photo by Curtis Shaffer)

This past Tuesday former farmworker and community advocate, Linda Lee visited Rollins College as an honored guest for a presentation by senior environmental studies student, Gabbie Buendia. Gabbie is studying both Environmental Studies and Women's Studies. She presented the findings of her senior thesis project, which focused on the 'Impact of Mothers on the American Environmental Justice Movement.' By looking both at historical examples and current case studies, the thesis project highlighted how vital the skills and experiences of motherhood are to recognizing environmental inequality and fighting for better conditions. Linda was one of five women interviewed for the project and the stories she shared about herself, her fellow farmworkers, and the Lake Apopka Memorial Quilt are the central focus of one of the chapters. Gabbie feels honored to be able to include Ms. Lee's story and work in the project. She also wanted to emphasize how important it is that stories of environmental injustice be passed along through generations, just as Linda has promoted through the Memorial Quilt. To read the full article of Gabbie's presentation, please click here.