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Student fights for migrant farmworkers’ rights

Jennie Wilburn paused as she considered the numerous challenges that North Carolina migrant workers often face while toiling in rural farm fields or along the assembly lines of poultry processing plants.

“There are so many problems, I don’t even know where to start,” she prefaced.

Finally, one by one, she ticked off a list:

  • Exposure to unsafe chemicals and pesticides
  • Low-wage pay for long laborious hours
  • Inadequate safety education to prevent occupational injuries
  • Cramped, unsanitary and unsafe housing
  • Lack of workers’ compensation or overtime

“Child labor is another thing that most people don’t think about,” added Wilburn, a dual degree student studying social work at UNC and divinity at Duke University. “Currently, children can work in the fields as young as 12, and they can work for many more hours. These are just a few of the many things that farmworkers face on a daily basis.”

For Wilburn, a third-year student in the MSW/MDiv program, educating others about the living and working conditions of migrant farmworkers has become a full-time passion and nearly a full-time job. Thanks to an internship that developed from her field education at Duke, Wilburn is helping to bring attention to injustices in the agriculture industry through work with two North Carolina organizations: Farmworker Advocacy Network (FAN), and Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).

Through FAN, Wilburn works closely with the group’s communications team, writing blog pieces for the nonprofit’s website as well as letters to the editor for mainstream print publications. She has shined a light on a variety of topics, including human trafficking, the labor intensive work of growing Christmas trees, and the low wages earned for harvesting crops such as sweet potatoes and blueberries.

At SAF, Wilburn participates in a leadership program designed to help farmworker youth build self-esteem and motivation to stay in school.

Both field experiences, she said, have taught her about a group of people she knew very little about and opened her eyes to a new professional path.

“It really has changed my mind,” she said. “I always knew that I wanted to work with Latino populations, but this has made me more interested in staying in North Carolina and possibly staying and working with farm worker justice.”

Wilburn, who will graduate in 2014, largely credits her parents for helping her to see the value in assisting others in need and for guiding her—perhaps subtly—toward social work practice. Her father, an ordained minister, served as a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital. Her mother taught Spanish and worked as a school counselor, including in a rural community where she used her bilingual skills to work with Hispanic students and families.

She was only 14 at the time, but Wilburn said a 2001 mission trip to assist a local church community in Cuba ultimately sparked a curiosity for how she might merge her Christian faith with a profession that focused on social good. She arrived with her family and others with, among other necessities, medicines and supplies.

“I just remember that they were so excited just to have us there, not only for all of the things that we were bringing to them and the money that we were investing, but also just for the contact with people outside of their country,” she said.

Wilburn was surprised to learn that those she and mission participants were sent to help were just as eager to return the generosity, despite having very little to spare.

“This was the first time that I had seen people living in serious poverty and yet, they were willing to give everything they had, even though they literally had next to nothing,” she recalled. “They gave us the mattresses we slept on, and they prepared meals for us that were probably their whole month’s rations. Just at such a young age, seeing people being willing to do that really had a huge impact on me.”

A few years later and with a new purpose in mind, Wilburn pursued degrees in Spanish and sociology; she graduated from Rice University in Houston in 2009. Although she briefly considered teaching, and even moved to Spain for one year to teach English, the pull of social justice work was just too great, she said. In 2010, she enrolled in Carolina’s MSW/MDiv program.

Wilburn’s interests in farmworker rights have fit well with the discipline’s mission and purpose, said Amelia Roberts-Lewis, program coordinator and an associate professor at the School of Social Work. After all, one primary goal, she said, is to help students explore social justice issues from both a theological and social work perspective.

“Social work and the Christian theology—when seen from a loving lens—cross over into serving the same groups: the disenfranchised, poor, immigrants and other powerless groups,” Roberts-Lewis added.

For Wilburn, the program has helped broaden her sense of what social work is, including the value of creating change through community organizing. At the same time, her own faith and beliefs have been challenged, and she’s gained a greater appreciation for the beliefs of others.

“I’ve met so many congregations and people of faith and what I’ve learned is when you listen to them and then tell your side of the story, you can see the transformative power of faith and social justice,” she said. “The fact is that people are at the core of just about everything.”