Taking Justice to the Community
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's Just Works Program
by Kimberly French
Lyle Whiteman hadn't expected to spend his summer tramping through desert brush in hundred-degree heat with groups of Unitarian Universalist teenagers, tracking down migrant farmworkers.
In 1999 Whiteman had just retired as the administrator in charge of special education and migrant education in a rural school district outside Yakima, Washington. Three months later, with no plan to take on a new job, he happened on a newspaper ad placed by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Yakima, where he occasionally attended services. The job was to direct summer work camps for young people to learn about the social injustices faced by farmworkers and to design service projects in their communities. He had heard there were migrant farm- workers camping by the Columbia River in central Washington State. But nothing could have prepared him for what he and the teens saw.
At the Columbia River the teens found about two thousand Mexican immigrants, men and women, children and elderly, living close together, with no services of any kind no clean water, no bathrooms, no garbage removal, no medical care. Migrant families, most of them in the country illegally, had been hiding out for years in the remote spot owned by the county public utilities district. The only water was the river itself, contaminated with runoff pesticides and parasites, or polluted irrigation ditches. Farmworkers were going door-to-door with milk jugs begging for drinking water.
"The minute we got the teenagers out there, up close, to see the conditions the farmworkers were living under, it really moved them," says the Rev. Josť Ballester, who from 1996 to 2001 directed the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's Just Works program which helped fund and organize the work camps. "They were asking, 'What can we do?'"
The first problem was that no one including no one in any government or social service agency knew where and how migrant farmworkers lived. So the first summer, work campers interviewed farmworkers, landowners, and community officials and wrote a twenty-page report. "We probably knew more about migrant farmworker conditions than anyone in the state," Whiteman says.
"The smell of sewage is present long before approaching the trailer," the work campers wrote about visiting a temporary-housing site where trailers rent for about $700 a month. "Sewer systems and septic tanks break, and landlords do little to alleviate the situation. Venturing into the homes reveals greater problems. While unidentifiable food decays in the corner, the drone of flies competes with the mumbling of an ancient radio. Typically, fly screens are either broken or nonexistent. Refrigerators are not provided. . . . The thick heat seems to swallow the residents. . . . The inhabitants forget ordinary duties such as preparing dinner or cleaning the home in their search for relief from the sweltering mid-July temperatures."
The teens delivered the report to Gov. Gary Locke, who announced regulations for improved housing in migrant farmworker communities the following year.
The teenagers also pointed out the numerous Catch-22s inflicted on the farmworkers. For example, the state health department was giving out medicine to cure parasites contracted by drinking contaminated water, but provided no clean water to take the medicine.
In the summer of 2000, the work campers' focus turned to Mattawa, a town sandwiched between the Hanford nuclear-waste storage facility and a U.S. military firing range. The town's population of 1,000 swells to 25,000 during cherry-picking season. There, they discovered open trenches for sewer lines bridged by wooden planks, and children were falling in. The town said the landlord was responsible. The landlord said he couldn't afford improvements. So the work campers said they would be back with shovels and the press. But when they returned, a backhoe was already filling in the trenches.
In the center of Mattawa is a park with a drinking fountain and faucet. When the migrant farmworkers came to town, the town shut off the water. The heavy use had flooded the drain and created a health-code violation, town officials said. The work campers researched health regulations and dug a pit filled with gravel called a french drain, built a bench and a shed to cover the new water station, and painted murals. When the farmworkers saw what the teens were doing, they brought their shovels and pitched in to speed up the work. Before long, one of the city employees who said he'd never spoken to a Hispanic person before was playing with the Mexican children in the park.
And that, work camp organizers say, is the real fruit of the projects: creating community where none was before, creating human connections that could not have happened any other way, and creating a new generation motivated and equipped to take on social injustice by going to where it lives, looking it directly in the face, and working together with the people they meet.
"Our generation has been very agenda-focused and not terribly successful," says the Rev. Chip Wright, minister of the Yakima church and a licensed carpenter who oversaw the work camp construction projects. "We came at justice issues in a confrontational way, without a whole understanding of the big picture. Educating our youth from the ground up I think that's where it's all at. Then when they're making the decisions, they'll do better than we did."
The idea of work camps sending young people on volunteer projects during the summer dates back to the 1940s for both Unitarians and Universalists. Some of the early work campers went to Europe to help rebuild after World War II. Others volunteered in hospitals, farms, and communities built for displaced wartime factory workers in this country. Some of the projects continued through the 1960s.
In 1996 Josť Ballester revived the work camp concept as the UUSC's Just Works program, with a couple of twists: Recent projects have all addressed social injustice, in addition to providing service opportunities. Most important, the projects give church members a chance to meet the victims and conditions of social injustice face-to-face, and figure out how they will respond. To date, more than 2,500 people have volunteered.
"Many people in the church were dedicated to social justice but had no firsthand experience of the problems," says Ballester, who is now serving as interim minister of the First Parish (Universalist) in Malden, Massachusetts, where he is working on a model for building multicultural urban congregations. "The UUSC was looking for ways to engage people in direct social justice work."
Just such an opportunity clearly presented itself during the winter of 1995-96. Across the South, numerous African-American churches had burned to the ground. Racially motivated arson was strongly suspected. In tiny Boligee, Alabama, where a white segregationist mayor had been in office for twenty-seven years, three African-American churches were burned within ten days.
"The burnings were very much in the news," remembers the UUSC's Dick Campbell, who worked closely with Ballester in starting the Just Works program. "Since our beginnings, combating racism has been one of our major efforts and goes through all of our programs. Our UU constituents let us know they wanted to do something."
That summer, the UUSC joined with the Washington Quaker Work Camps to rebuild the Boligee churches and one in Greensboro, Alabama. Over the next four years, 1,800 volunteers from ages thirteen to eighty-one gave 62,000 hours to rebuild fourteen churches in Alabama and South Carolina. Each church took about six months to rebuild, with a new team of volunteers arriving every week. Volunteers stayed in trailers that slept up to twenty-five or right on the construction site.
The next year, the UUSC expanded the work camps to native American reservations. Volunteers lived in tents and worked on construction, youth activities, and tutoring in the Lakota reservations of Standing Rock, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud, South Dakota. From 1997 to 2000, 250 volunteers served in thirteen work camps.
In the spring of 1997, flooding devastated Grand Forks, Fargo, and other towns in the Dakotas, which were declared federal disaster areas and given substantial federal aid. But the Standing Rock reservation got barely enough aid to reopen its roads. The UUSC learned that the school in the town of Wakpala had been under water for a month, and that the community, with no money to clean up, had continued to use the badly damaged building for a year after the flood subsided. In response, the Just Works program undertook an intensive two-week project in 1998 to repair and renovate the school.
Then in 1999, Ballester was asked to speak to Unitarian Universalist youth at the Pacific Northwest District's annual youth conference. The young people said they wanted to organize a work camp to improve migrant farmworker conditions in Washington state. The three-year project began to take shape right at the conference. During that week Ballester reconnected with an old friend, Yakima minister Chip Wright, and Wright's church agreed to take charge of the organizing. For the next three years, the UUs in Yakima sponsored the work camps with migrant farm-workers, using funding provided by the UUSC.
This summer Just Works volunteers worked on health education in a migrant farmworker community near Greenville, North Carolina, a project initiated by the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham.
The UUSC also organizes urban/suburban camps that bring UU youth together with inner-city young people. Service projects have included rebuilding the home of an elderly African-American couple in Maryland and surveying homelessness and urban environmental hazards in Oakland, California, and reporting the results to county officials.
"Knowing somebody firsthand whose name you know, whose home you shared, whose food you shared that drives home what oppression is," Ballester says. "I always tell people, this is going to be the hardest one to two weeks you're ever going to spend, but by the end you're going to appreciate it. We all need a larger perspective: How does what we've seen inform our faith, and what does our faith tell us to do?"
To Get Involved
To learn more about Just Works work camps, to apply to to be a volunteer, or to submit a proposal for a work camp in your community, visit the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's Web site. You may also contact the UUSC by phone at (800) 388-3920 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Participants must be sixteen or older. Work camps are scheduled during the summer and during college spring-break weeks. The cost is $275 for one week, $250 for subsequent weeks, which covers housing, food, and transportation during the program. Volunteers provide their own transportation to the site. Some scholarships are available.
The UUSC is also looking for proposals from congregations interested in organizing work camps in their communities. The UUSC will help fund, organize, and recruit volunteers for the proposals it selects.
Kimberly French is a writer based in Middleborough, Massachusetts, and a regular contributor to UU World. Her essays have appeared in Tikkun, Utne Reader, Salon, and other magazines.