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Taking Class to the Central Valley

Taking Class to the Central Valley

centralvalleyThe California Central Valley — the “fruit basket of the world” — is not the typical spring vacation destination. But 12 LMU students chose to spend their March break in a region of the state famous for both its agriculture industry and its role in the history of farm workers’ rights.

For eight days, 12 undergraduates traveled across the valley, toured farms, attended community hearings, met with local politicians and heard first-hand about the life of California’s farm laborers. They also stayed with host families, making the trip a 24/7 immersion experience.

“Alternative Breaks are about learning and making connections with people,” explains Joanne Majewski, Alternative Break program coordinator in LMU’s Center for Service and Action. The CSA offered students a choice of 15 trips this past spring, including programs in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, as well as El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. “The trips are about cultural immersion, living in solidarity and building friendships that put a face to the issues.”

The use of pesticides, the students learned, is one of the greatest concerns of people living in the Central Valley.

“We heard from women who were victims of the effects of pesticide sprays,” said Jay Thrasher, a senior on his first Alternative Spring Break trip. “They were hosed down with fire truck hoses not only against their will, but were forced to strip naked in front of their families and wandering eyes of the community. The humiliation and pain from this detox process made it appear to be a concentration camp.”

Students also discovered that using pesticides on crop fields near homes and schools is a significant health concern. “The crops go right up to the homes. … Where is the morality of farmers who just care about profits?” asked Thrasher. Fumes cause vomiting, nausea and eye irritation and over the years have created a high rise in asthma cases, he added.

The trip was coordinated with The Dolores Huerta Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Bakersfield that works for fair and equal access to healthcare, education, housing and jobs for disadvantaged people in the Central Valley. Dolores Huerta, a longtime activist in the Central Valley, did everything from organizing pickers to negotiating contracts. Together with Cesar Chavez, she founded the National Farm Workers Association later known as the United Farm Workers Union. The students met with Huerta during their stay, and foundation staff members gave the group an in-depth look at the history of the area and the dynamics of community organizing.

Senior Melissa Daugherty was one of two student leaders on the trip. She realized, she said, that although much has changed since the time of Cesar Chavez in regards to union contracts, the situation for farm workers is still far from being perfect. “As a political science major, I felt the experience showed me the negative effects of creating policies that only benefit those on top,” Daugherty said.

“I felt like the experience was a training in a way,” explained Thrasher, “The concepts of empowering people and the importance of ground-up community organizing we will be able to apply to our own lives.”

[Photo: Dolores Huerta (center in first row) poses with LMU students.]