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NYC Kids Speak Up for Migrant Farmers

By Jeannie Russell

Teaching is an experiential art form, probably closer to being a writer/director/performer in a play than to any other discipline, so teaching a new curriculum can be compared to getting a new play ready for Broadway: lots of tweaking of content, shifting of timing and experimenting with styles of performance.

I recently completed co-teaching a program for HEART that is new to me. The course focuses on ‘taking action for others’, always a significant component of HEART programming, in a new way for upper elementary students. The  school was new to me, a really great, high-performing school whose prior exposure to important issues affecting people, animals, and the environment was already enhanced in comparison to many of the schools we reach. This made them an ideal target audience for our new curriculum, as it required quite a bit of critical analysis, and a more basic understanding of the ways in which issues of injustice might intersect than our introductory humane education lessons.

The curriculum is structured around a set of three strategies for change — spreading the word, lobbying, and boycotting – and uses examples of problems affecting people, animals and the environment to teach and practice these ways of making change. The challenge of taking a script and making it come alive to really engage and inspire the students was part of each week’s lesson, but one of them stood out for me as particularly successful.

The three-lesson unit focusing on lobbying (really on direct contact with legislators) targeted the on-going injustice of our laws covering farm laborers, and the especially negative consequences of this on the children of migrant farm workers who so frequently must work alongside their parents in order to even come close to supporting the family. This really is news to most students – they simply are not taught that slave labor conditions are exponentially more common now around the world than during the period we associate with slavery in this country, and that wage slavery of the sort that farm workers are  exposed to is in many ways no different in its effects.

The point in this class that I felt was most truly transformative was when we were able to meaningfully communicate the reality of the cycle of grinding poverty that the artificially low wages and horrible work conditions endured by migrant farm workers creates: chronic illness, inability to sustain educational goals, lack of exposure to wider possibilities to nurture those goals. Our students really saw how their peers who were living in these conditions had very little chance of ever breaking free from the oppressive conditions of migrant farm work. That’s an important insight that is critical to effective strategies for change, because so many of the narratives that rationalize these kinds of injustice place the cause of the problems on the ‘character’ or on the ‘work ethic’ of individuals within chronically poor communities, and leave the wheels of the vicious cycle that entraps them untouched.

This unit was also especially successful because we have legislation pending in our state to address many of the unfair practices that farm labor is subject to, and so the students were able to write letters to their state senator urging support and advocacy for a real piece of legislation, that would dramatically improve the lives of children who actually contribute to providing the food that our students eat. It was a very powerful and, I hope, enduring experience of the kind of critical analysis and meaningful action that social change requires.

Photo Credit: Bread for the World/Flickr

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