NFWM Heads to Washington DC!

As a huge snowstorm moved across the east coast, National Farm Worker Ministry staff and board members gathered in Washington DC. For three days at the end of January we reflected on the history of the farmworker movement and NFWM, set out a vision for the coming year, and visited the hall’s of our nation’s capital to push lawmakers on farmworker rights.

On Friday we met with a variety of leaders from both the NGO-world and the Obama Administration at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. After walking through the cold and snowy (but beautiful) downtown Washington DC we were excited to see the sign in front of the UMB reading “Have you eaten today? Thank a farmworker!” Later on in the day Congressional staffers mentioned to a board member that the sign received a good deal of attention.

Among those who came to speak with us were:

  • Christine Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s granddaughter and the current Farmworker Coordinator at the US Department of Agriculture, spoke about her work in this brand new position to set up an infrastructure capable of bringing farmworkers voices into the USDA.
  • Oscar Gonzales, the Deputy Director Intergovernmental Affairs at U.S. Department of Agriculture and Christine’s husband, described the legislative environment our movement faces as President Obama heads into the second-half of his first term.
  • Max Finberg, the Director of the USDA’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships discussed the federal programs available to farmworkers whether or not they have immigration documents.
  • Phil Tom, Max’s counterpart at the Department of Labor’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, talked about trying to balance the strong focus on immigration law enforcement with the need for greater enforcement of worker’s rights laws.

The Board and staff pushed the speakers on the disparity of enforcement between the US’s increasingly incoherent system of immigration laws and the work-place safety laws related to farmworkers. All of us were heartened though to hear from excellent public servants committed to bringing the issues farmworkers face into the government agencies and departments where they work. The Obama Administration includes more farmworker advocates than any other administration has; and they actively seek to build new partnerships with organizations such as NFWM.

Afterwards the staff and board members broke up into smaller groups to visit the offices of Senators and Representatives including those from Florida, Kentucky, California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and many others. Most met with legislative aids and reported good, productive exchanges. In the coming weeks our staff and board members will follow up on those meetings with printed information and direct communications.

Starting early on Saturday morning the board met to hear reports from the staff, review 2011’s budget, discuss NFWM’s involvement in national campaigns, and celebrate the induction of Executive Committee members.

The staff in California, Florida, North Carolina, and the national office in St. Louis continue to do important work building connections between faith communities and farmworkers. In Florida, the Youth and Young Adult Network (YAYA) is engaging young people in solidarity work with farmworkers and building the next generation of activists and leaders in the movement. NFWM is also engaged in support work for FLOC’s national campaign against Chase Bank’s financial support of Reynold’s Tobacco, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food campaign, as well as others.

As the meeting ended, Rev. Bob Sandman led us in a ceremony of reflection that ended with the induction of the Executive Committee. Bob celebrates his 60th year working in the farmworker movement, having begun as an organizer with the Illinois Migrant Ministry, one of the state migrant ministries that eventually came together to form the National Farm Worker Ministry.

Throughout the weekend Alexandria Jones, NFWM’s North Carolina organizer, photographed staff, board members and other guests holding signs expressing their statements of solidarity with farmworkers.

As the weekend came to an end and everyone started to head home to continue this work in their communities, we all felt a renewed sense of purpose, energy, and excitement for what is on the horizon in 2011!

The gathering was hosted at the beautiful Washington Theological Union in Tacoma Park, Maryland. The staff there deserve an award for going above and beyond in making our stay comfortable under difficult weather-related circumstances. We could not have asked for better accommodations and look forward to returning in the future!

Thank you to NFWM Board member John Hill of the UMC, General Board of Church & Society, and his staff and interns for hosting us on Friday at the United Methodist Building, seeing to the “Thank a Farmworker” sign, and providing a wonderful lunch.

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