(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
I recently reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the first book published in the C.S. Lewis’s legendary Chronicles of Narnia. As the story begins, we find young Lucy playing hide-and-seek with her siblings and climbing into a wardrobe. In it, she finds a row of fur coats, and then- as she walks deeper into the wardrobe- an entirely new world: the land of Narnia, full of friendly fawns, talking otters, and a majestic, all-powerful lion.
Although I have yet to discover any magical wardrobes this summer, I have been exposed to a completely new world within central North Carolina, where I have lived for 21 years. I have learned about the agriculture that powers our state’s economy and gotten to know the men who work in these fields. More broadly, I have been able to consider how global systems of migration, economics, and legislation interact to impact the lives of so many people living right here in my backyard.
This summer, DukeEngage funding has provided me with the opportunity to work with health outreach team at Moncure Community Health Center. We provide health education and health screenings to the migrant farmworkers in the region. Each day, we enjoy driving around rural counties while the sun sets over expansive tobacco fields, where we meet the farmworkers after their long workday (often 11 or 12 hours) is done. It has been rewarding to work with a program whose mission it is to ensure that the local health system accommodates these workers- despite barriers which include language differences, geographic remoteness, long work hours, and economic hardships.
The migrant farmworkers that we reach out to typically come from Mexico on the H-2A visa, which allows them to provide temporary agricultural labor. Some are baby-faced 18-year-olds; some are weathered older men; all of them have floored with me the gratitude, respect, and generosity that they have shown us. While I have constantly enjoyed spending time with this incredibly hardworking and humble population, it has been eye-opening to learn about the wide variety of health barriers they face daily. Pesticide exposure, heat illness, lack of health insurance, and mental health challenges are just some examples of issues that disproportionately affect migrant farmworkers. Despite the backbreaking work and the immense challenge of living apart from their families, neighbors, and culture for much of the year, these men demonstrate resilience and grace in their work.
Though my work this summer hasn’t taken me far from where I grew up, my worldview has been expanded greatly. It has been rewarding to learn the stories of these men, to share laughs, and to establish friendships with them. Migrant labor is often overlooked, but I can now personally attest to its importance to our communities: it is not an exaggeration to say that without them, our food systems and economy could not function. This experience has given me a passion to make our nation a place that appreciates and fairly treats the men who work our fields.