March 15, 2005

Coalition Holds 'Funeral' For C.U. Migrant Program

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The Farmworker Advocacy Coalition (FAC) held a mock funeral for the Cornell Migrant Program (CMP) last night in Anabel Taylor Chapel with over 100 people in attendance, after orchestrating a procession through the Agriculture Quad and Ho Plaza. FAC invited several CMP staffers, farmworkers and former administrators who were involved in the program to speak about CMP’s past achievements as well as about how to continue to further the mission of CMP.

Since last May, FAC has been protesting the move of CMP from the College of Human Ecology to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Members of FAC argued that this decision to move between colleges, made by Susan Henry, the dean of CALS, would make it virtually impossible for the program to achieve its mission, which includes the education of farmworkers and their children. Housing a farmworker program within CALS, they say, creates an “inherent conflict of interest” between “agri-business” and farmworkers. They held the funeral last night to mark the passing of CMP as a successful program, according to members of FAC.

“We are gathered here today to mourn the passing of the [CMP] and also to celebrate it. … Why a funeral? We’re having a funeral because the [CMP] was people, people who worked for years upon years to staff it … the people who were a part of the program, the people that benefited from the program, and those of us who were inspired by the program,” said Rev. Robert Witt, executive director of Rural and Migrant Ministry, a self-proclaimed “sister organization” of CMP.

“That program has been taken away from us. Those people have been denied their opportunity to continue to live into … their calling … to better our community,” he said.

Kathy Castania, who worked at CMP for 23 years, spoke at the funeral with tears in her eyes. She recalled how the program was to some a racial action program, to others a place to learn English, a place to get healthcare, or legal help for immigration issues, or a place to help fight “racism, classism and other forms of discrimination.”

“What did [CMP] mean to Cornell University? It meant the opportunity to be a national leader, the visionary … the courageous and fair … [the opportunity] to educate the next generation and continue to create an ethical and just society,” Castania said.

Much of the tone of the funeral was somber, but the attendees came in solidarity to continue working toward “social justice,” as Jerome Ziegler, former dean of CHE and professor emeritus of policy analysis and management, called the mission of the program. “There [was] opposition to what [CMP] was trying to achieve for social justice, for fairness … for mobility, for decent housing and education,” Ziegler said. “We can revive the passion for social justice for farmworkers in this state.”

“I was blessed…to run into folks such as Kathy [Castania]…who wanted to know more about me, wanted me to share my story…as a farmworker. And from that, I feel like I was able to blossom as a result of the information that they…gave me. They helped me to see myself…in a capacity to be able to assist and work with other farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions,” said Wilson Augustave, a former farmworker, at the funeral.

FAC also brought in Jim Schmidt from the Farmworker Legal Services, who spoke about the history behind CMP and the continued struggle that farmworkers face.

“[CMP] was born because Cornell students exposed the University when it ran one of the worst labor camps in the state. And because Cornell was caught with its pants down, it had to appease the community, so it created [CMP]. So why now did they decide to terminate this program, shift it back to the school of agriculture? Because it’s about money. It’s about power. It’s about the power of farmworkers who seek social justice against agri-business which seeks to build a huge profit on the back of the worker,” Schmidt said.

According to Schmidt, this shift is in part due to a local grower by the name of Chris Pawelski. Tony Marks-Block ’07 said that Pawelski is an influential member of the New York State Farm Bureau, an organization that has financial ties with CALS.

“Chris Pawelski does not like the fact that there is an organized farmworker movement in New York State,” Schmidt added. “He was able to pressure the University. He drew a line in the sand and said to the University, ‘Which side are you on? Are you on the side of oppressed people speaking out against their oppressor, or are you on the side of agri-business?’ Cornell moved over to agri-business.”

A number of Cornell students, most of whom were members of FAC, also spoke at the funeral about furthering the mission of the program through strong student activism.

“We won’t be silenced. We will still do public campaigning, we will still protest, we will still pamphlet, we will still meet with Dean Henry on whatever terms we can get,” said Jason Lee ’05.

Rosa Rivera, executive director of Centro Independiente Trabajadores Agricolas, was the last speaker at the funeral, calling for solidarity in the movement for farmworkers’ rights.

“These are tears of courage for the program,” Rivera said, translating her message for Spanish-speakers in the audience. “Solidarity is all we need.”

Pawelski could not be contacted in time for publication.