Written By Sylvia Campbell, NFWM board representative from Alliance of Baptists
On Thursday, Sept. 1, I had the opportunity to represent the National Farm Worker Ministry at the Hall of Honor Induction Ceremony at the US Department of Labor. The Labor Department’s Hall of Honor was established in 1988 to honor those whose distinctive contributions in the field of labor have elevated working conditions, wages, and overall quality of life of America’s working families. It is the highest honor bestowed by the department.
Details of the event had not been made publicly available, so I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t even sure if farm workers, the often forgotten and invisible workers who pick the fruits and vegetables we eat each day, were going to be among those named as essential workers during the pandemic. However, I was determined to be there to offer farm worker support on behalf of NFWM.
I am happy to say it was a wonderful event — Celebrating the courage, creativity, and sacrifice of essential workers during the pandemic as they cared for, connected with, and went the extra mile for others.
Both the Deputy Secretary and the Secretary of the DOL spoke and offered words of gratitude to the remarkable workforce deemed essential workers of the pandemic. There was also an excellent video tribute that highlighted the everyday realities of several essential workers as they worked to provide services to their community during the pandemic.
For me, the best and most meaningful part of the ceremony was the sharing of stories (storytelling) by four honored guests selected to represent the broad workforce of essential workers who were being commemorated. There was a truck driver from Illinois, a produce manager from NY, a Special education paraprofessional from OH, and (imagine my surprise and joy) a farm worker from Delano CA. Each of the representative workers shared remarks and personal stories from their experiences during the pandemic. Each of their personal stories was compelling — a testament to each person’s humanity, commitment, and resilience during the difficult times of the pandemic.
Carolina Sanchez, the farm worker from Delano, CA, shared a deeply personal story and detailed the harsh realities of her day-to-day work in the grape and blueberry fields of CA. She shared her despair at the lack of protection and respect she received as a worker, and her bewilderment that a country with so much would have so little for her. She also spoke lovingly and with hope for the future of her seven children and told the audience the story of her friend whom she was carrying for, a friend whose consistent overexposure to pesticides had caused him to go blind. Her story was beautiful and poignant and powerful. When she finished, the entire audience rose to their feet and gave Carolina a standing ovation.
Based upon conversations and comments during the reception that followed, many in the audience had limited understanding of the harsh conditions, daily risks, lack of protections, personal challenges, and the courage and grace with which farm workers face them. For many, if not most, the DOL event may have been the first time they had heard a farm worker’s story. And what a story it was. A farm worker story that raised awareness, altered perspectives, and changed minds. A farm worker story that brought an audience to its feet to express gratitude for the labor in the fields. An audience’s response to a farm worker story that brought a glimpse of hope that justice in the fields is indeed possible.
The 2022 Department of Labor Honor Hall Induction of Essential Workers of the Coronavirus Pandemic was a “Si se puede” moment for our farm worker partners. National recognition of the essential work that farm workers provide on a daily basis. A farm worker selected to be 1 of 4 individuals and professions to represent the broad workforce of essential workers of the pandemic who were being commemorated. A farm worker provided the opportunity to share her story, the story of the everyday life of a farm worker in our country. An audience was brought to its feet in appreciation of the farm workers who provide the food for our tables.
Gracias to Carolina Sanchez for representing farm workers during this 2022 Labor Day event in which the farm workers were honored and commemorated as essential workers. Si se puede!