March 07, 2013

Share My Lesson: Activists unite for farmworkers

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
share my lesson
Caption: On hand in Albany to celebrate Share My Lesson and the rights of farmworkers (l-r): Senator Adriano Espaillat, RFK Center President Kerry Kennedy, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, activist Librada Paz, eighth-grade social studies teacher Drew Beiter, student activist Isabelle Hooker, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and AFT President Randi Weingarten. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Sharing a lesson can now be akin to sharing a meal. Today, union leaders, lawmakers and social justice advocates showed how teaming up to create lesson plans to educate teachers and students about farmworker injustices is revealing to thousands of people the "ugly" story behind the laborers who harvest the food that is set on their tables.

It's also creating action in the state Legislature.

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, D-Queens, chair of the Education Committee, said at a press conference today in Albany she feels "the goal is in sight" for the longstanding effort to pass a Farmworker Fair Labor Act, which would expand basic worker rights to New York's farm laborers.

A longtime champion of the act, Nolan said the work of educators in sharing lessons on farmworkers is inspiring lawmakers.

"The most important place to be is at the crossroads of social justice and education," said Dick Iannuzzi, president of NYSUT and a 34-year teaching veteran.

Farmworkers are not entitled to even one day off a week, have inadequate housing, poor sanitary conditions and often work until dark, among many violations of basic health and safety rights. They have a high rate of health problems from exposure to pesticides and herbicides; women and children are often plagued by assault and abuse. They are not entitled to overtime pay. Their adolescent children as young as 12 often go to work for $3 an hour.

As former farmworker and award-winning human rights defender Librada Paz said today, "There is no excuse."

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which has worked with NYSUT to develop lesson plans for teachers about human rights defenders through a program called Speak Truth to Power, has created a comprehensive lesson about the struggle of farmworkers in the United States. Today, it was announced that this lesson is being incorporated into the fast-growing virtual classroom developed by the American Federation of Teachers, Share My Lesson.com. AFT is one of NYSUT's national affiliates.

"What you have here this morning is a full virtuous circle," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member AFT. These educational resources, she said, reflect the mantra that the character of a nation is dependent on how it deals with its most vulnerable.

The Speak Truth to Power lesson plan features Paz, whose work focuses on defending the dignity of farmworkers in the United States, who are usually too intimidated to speak out. Now on Share My Lesson, it tells the story of Paz, who left Mexico at age 15 with her sister to move to America to live with her brother and find work and an education.

"I cried so much when I left," Paz recalled. She didn't want to leave Mexico, but her parents could not afford to send her to school. She became a farmworker, picking apples, oranges, cucumbers, squash and strawberries, working bent over in the sun without rest. She finished high school and went on to college. Now a council member for Rural and Migrant Ministries, she helped get laws passed mandating that farmworkers be provided with drinking water and restrooms. Last year, she received the RFK Human Rights Award.

By using Speak Truth to Power lesson plans such as the one about Paz, RFK Center President Kerry Kennedy said students "don't just learn about a hero, they learn how to be hero; how to find that courage within." Lessons include activities and action plans or students to carry out.

Being carried by Share My Lesson will provide more exposure to the problems and working conditions of farmworkers.

"To have such lessons two clicks away is a game-changer," said Drew Beiter, eighth-grade social studies teacher and member of the Springville Faculty Association.

Sen. Adriano Espaillat, D-New York, said people often think of farmworkers as laborers in climates such as California, but there are many "right here at home." He called their working conditions an "ugly problem."

A lead supporter of the Farmworker Act, he said "In the process of advocating for something, you become a part of it. Once you believe in something, you develop ownership."

Espaillat said he is seeing a lot of energy in the Legislature right now on this issue "and Share My Lesson could be the engine to get it across the finish line."

Share My Lesson has registered 175,000 teachers, Weingarten said, since it was launched in June. It has collected more than 300,000 educational resources, teaching tools and professional development materials, which she said are always the first lost to budget cuts.