Let’s talk about the border- Part V

This is Part V of a series about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about the H-2A law and worker exploitation.

The Migrant Labor System

Estimates of the percentages of farmworkers who labor without documentation range from 50-70 percent. In past legislative debates, agricultural companies have actually worked against immigration policies that would facilitate workers being hired with documentation- because it would regulate the way that they would treat their workers and drive up their own production costs. Claims of their own financial difficulties are undercut by the statistic that “Between 1997 and 2007, the agriculture industry enjoyed a nearly 80 percent average annual increase in corporate profits…Over the same period, the average real wage of a farm worker remained stagnant.”

The H-2A program has been some of the most influential agricultural immigration policy over the last few decades.  It is extremely common for employers to knowingly hire workers without documentation; however, the H-2A program is another, more officially “legal” route to a cheap labor pool.

The process begins in the home communities of the workers. The employers send H-2A recruiters, who promise hard work but high wages and a better life. Coupled with the popular perception of the United States as the “land of opportunity,” their promises can be hard to resist. However, these promises are not free- the workers must pay significant costs to obtain this passage to a new country, including paying for a visa, costs of transportation, and for the employment itself. Already, before they have begun earning any money, they owe money to the people who hire them.

When these workers arrive in the United States, they are greeted with low (or stolen) wages. They even can be subjected to forced labor- or, the real and ugly word, slavery. This system of “debt bondage” that H-2A promotes facilitates their captivity. When the workers arrive, they generally live in “housing” (I use that term loosely) provided by their employers, for which they are charged. According to antislavery.org, “Deductions are made from their wages for transport, accommodation, food, work equipment, and supposed tax and social security payments. Weekly wages are sporadic and in many instances workers are left with no pay.” So they build up more and more debt over time, which they are forced to try to continue to work off.

H-2A workers themselves are in a very unique legal situation. They can only work for a limited time with the employer who brought them to the United States. At any moment, the employer may choose to terminate their employment, resulting in their deportation. As one of the provisions of the H-2A law, the employers are not required to pay Social Security or unemployment taxes for H-2A workers.

H-2A workers are preferred over legal permanent residents because of the exploitation that employers are able to perpetrate. There have been cases in which legal permanent residents have been fired for the explicit reason that they must legally be paid higher wages, as well as the prohibition from forcing them to work such extensive hours.

The system also leaves room for exploitation in the requirement for employers to reimburse the workers for transportation costs from their home countries after they have worked for half of a season. However, the employers often choose to fire the workers just before this point, so they do not have to pay. This leaves workers not only without the cost of their travels, but without jobs as well.

The treatment of the workers themselves can betray slavery- conditions as well. They may be compelled to work in the hot sun, and around dangerous chemicals (especially pesticides), for 10-12 hours at a time. Exposure to these toxic chemicals can also include nicotine absorbed through the skin- and many of the people exposed to this are children. Workers often suffer dizziness, rashes, and headaches, or vomiting— or cancer, neurological disorders, birth defects, and death as a result. There have even been accounts of workers being sprayed down directly with DDT. Housing conditions can include trailers, barracks, dilapidated homes, or any combination of the above. Their common feature is overcrowding and lack of sanitation. Workers can be watched by armed guards to prevent escape, and told that if they attempt to advocate for themselves, either they or their families will suffer the consequences. Workers may be physically tortured with techniques such as whipping, and many women suffer sexual assault.

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In the last portion of this series, Part VI, I’ll offer some of my final thoughts and some of the ways that you can choose to become involved.

Let’s talk about the border- Part IV

This is Part IV of a series about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about some of the historical roots of the system through the Bracero Program.

The Bracero Program

So what role does the United States play in motivating people to come? I’ve touched on some of the factors, such as the economic role of NAFTA. But there are deep historical roots for the today’s migration patterns. One of the strongest historical precedents is the Bracero Program. Although by no means the only avenue for migrants when they come to the United States, because of this historical precendent, farm work is a very common one.

As World War II began, the United States lost the labor force of the able bodied young men who went to war. Many of them would otherwise have served as farm labor, and in 1942, to ensure that there would be more enough workers, the United States and Mexican governments created the Bracero program. Years of war coupled with poor harvests made the program more attractive to the campesinos. The United States found the prospect of a labor force that they would not be required to pay high wages to appealing.

However, because of an earlier failed attempt at a Bracero Program from 1917 to 1921, in which the migrants encountered excessive discrimination and low wages, the Mexican government pushed for certain provisions in the program, including that the United States would pay for the journey to and from Mexico, and that the workers would be required to have the same pay as United States workers.

Around 1947, farmers began to see ways to acquire labor cheaply. They began to recruit workers without documentation, and this way were able to avoid the costs of both transportation and standardized wages. Initially, the United States government was friendlier to workers in this situation- if they were discovered, they would be taken to the border and issued documents to legally initiate them into the Bracero program. However, the Bracero program was far from equitable- for example, many workers had portions of their wages held and never returned to them.

However, around 1951, the government began to see more and more farmers working around the law to cut costs. Initially, the plan was to place the burden of guilt on employers, so as to stem the exploitation. However, because of the strong lobbying power of the farmers, a different future took shape. The resulting bill that Congress passed was called PL-78, or the Mexican Farm Labor Program. This bill called for a strong penalty for “harboring” individuals without documentation, including deeming it a felony, and punishment with $2,000 fines and 5 year prison sentences. However, it was still completely permissible to employ an individual without documentation.

The influx of workers without documentation continued into the early 1950s. Some of the military- like nature of Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) practices that can be seen today may be partially due to the early appointment of a former general as its director. He implemented “Operation Wetback” in 1954, in which over a million Mexicans were deported. To try to save the flailing Bracero program, the US Department of labor decreased the requirements for fair treatment for workers. However, this did not work, and only served to worsen conditions for workers.

So these events put the pieces in place for the system we have today. Although the Bracero Program officially ended in 1964, employers had long before become dependent on the steady and cheaper labor force that it ultimately enabled. In reality, the PL-78 bill, by effectively legalizing the lack of regulation in employment practices for farmers, decreased any pressure to pay workers fair wages and contributed strongly to the demise of any semblance of fair treatment for workers.

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This was Part IV of the article, and next time I’ll talk about the H-2A law and the exploitation of workers.

Chandra Chea- Keeping People First

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

Senior Chandra Chea definitely knows what it is to serve. With leadership roles in organizations such as Students Helping Honduras and the Williamsburg Engagement Head Start Program, among others, she what is to innovate. However, she never loses sight of people, who are at the heart of engagement for her.  Here, she shares her reflections on some of her experiences, and what connecting with others means to her.

At William and Mary, I am currently involved with the Office of Community Engagement and have had the opportunity to lead a group of students to Williamsburg Head Start weekly to volunteer with the children over this past year. Head Start teachers work diligently with parents to make sure their students do not fall behind before they start their education as kindergartners. In a packed classroom of students ranging from three to five, the teacher and teacher assistant are unable to provide individualized attention to each child. Through the collaborative program with William and Mary, volunteers offer extra assistance, helping to create a more productive classroom. The work that William and Mary students do in the classrooms helps to fill the gaps by giving support to the teachers.

I also promote community engagement through my involvement as a trip leader with the organization Students Helping Honduras (SHH), which focuses on combating the rampant gang violence in Honduras through providing children with access to education. Each year, students travel to El Progreso, Honduras to help build schools and learn about the culture. While in Honduras, students work alongside people in the community and learn the importance of sweat equity.  On campus, we raise funds for schools in various communities across Honduras and increase awareness about the link between poverty, violence, and education while also stressing the importance of global collaboration and service. Spending time with Head Start and SHH has given me a greater understanding of what it means to be an active citizen. To me, active citizenship means taking these opportunities to experience a different side of life and using them to inspire you to ask questions and make a change for the better.

 

During my time with SHH, I was able to spend time with Shin Fujiyama, the founder of the organization, during my trip and I was exposed to importance of cultural literacy and the struggles of international aid and fundraising. What I learned during my trip has inspired me to raise awareness and get other students involved in the issues that plague Honduras. My work with Head Start pushed me to question the education system in the United States, and has given me a glimpse of the effects of poverty on childhood education. These organizations have sparked my interest in education and given me a chance to explore passions outside of my major. By collaborating with other William and Mary students, I saw the strength in working with people who are passionate about the same issues.

Moving forward after graduation, I hope to surround myself with individuals that display the same qualities I saw in my peers at William and Mary and spend my life working in a field that is filled with passion and enthusiasm for creating change. My time traveling and serving communities have been filled with amazing experiences that have changed me and given me memories that I will cherish. The most memorable moment for me happened recently in a Head Start classroom. I was sitting with a young boy working on an art project for Mother’s Day and he was told to sign his name at the bottom. He whispered to me that he did not know how to write his name and asked me to write it for him. Instead, I worked on each letter with him until he was able to write it himself. After a few tries he wrote his name fully on his artwork and a look of joy spread across his face. He turned to me and asked if he had done it correctly, and when I nodded he screamed with excitement. He ran to his teacher and told her the good news and smiled wide as she put a sticker on him. While a seemingly small accomplishment, he had learned how to do something that he had given up on. Service, to me, is about these small moments.

 

Anna Wong- Humility and Compassion

OCE Student Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

With her infectious smile and upbeat personality, it’s obvious when you meet Anna Wong that she is a kind person. However, when you get to know her, you begin to understand this junior’s deep compassion for others and how many ways she seeks to engage with them.  Her efforts include working with Campus Kitchens, the Center for Veterans Engagement, H.O.P.E, and Literacy for Life, among others.  She was kind enough to answer some questions for us about what community engagement means to her.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Anna Wong: I first got involved in W&M community engagement through the Campus Kitchen, initially as a volunteer and later as the Public Relations Chair on the exec board. I also have volunteered for the Center for Veterans Engagement. I am currently a tutor at Literacy for Life, which is located at the School of Education. I have participated in two study-abroad programs in the business school, in which I studied social entrepreneurship (grassroots community organization) and conducted community assessments in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

AW: My work with the Campus Kitchen addressed food insecurity and food waste in Williamsburg. With the Center for Veterans Engagement, I helped further their mission of offering creative arts opportunities platforms to veterans in the community. At Literacy for Life, I help with their mission of improving lives by teaching adults literacy skills necessary for self-sufficiency, better health, and meaningful participation in society. The social entrepreneurship programs I participated in gave me a powerful new perspective to approaching community change, and during the trips, my classmates and I formed professional relationships with social change-makers in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

AW: To me, active citizenship means understanding/seeking an understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that a community faces, and then applying our innate gifts or learned skills to make a positive difference. Active citizenship means both appreciating the freedoms and privileges we may have in society and also recognizing injustices and inequalities that exist. Active citizenship is not so much a log of volunteer hours, but rather an attitude—an attitude comprised of humility, determination, and responsibility.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

My experience working in the community has affected my educational path at William & Mary pretty significantly. I delved into learning more about food insecurity when I was Public Relations chair for the Campus Kitchen. The more I read about food insecurity, the more I understood how inextricable it is from socioeconomic inequality in the U.S. There are many approaches to fighting socioeconomic inequalities in America, but in my reading, there is one “sweet spot” that confronts both food insecurity and its underlying causes: that sweet spot occurs in schools. In a nutshell, that’s how I realized I wanted to become a teacher. My experiences in community engagement had also helped me realize that I prefer work on a micro-scale; for instance, I feel that my skills-set helps individuals share their stories (e.g. through the Center for Veterans Engagement). I was so excited when my volunteer work culminated in a Eureka moment, which has led me to choose an English major and Psychology minor. With my education, I hope to work in an urban school, make a meaningful connection with my students, and fight the education gap in this country.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

AW: Beyond William & Mary, I plan to bring the attitude I’ve learned as an engaged citizen to all my future students (provided that my dream of being a high school/middle school English teacher comes true). This attitude encompasses a sense of humility and determination. The humility comes from realizing that you don’t go into community engagement to change or help people—you go into it to help people help themselves. The humility also comes from realizing that you don’t know a lot—you have to keep an open mind and learn to empathize with people, if you want to be a positive change in the community. The determination comes from realizing that nobody can take your good will away from you. The determination comes from embracing who you are and what you have to offer the world, because it’s not a competition to be the best or the most special—it’s a team game, and as long as you’re trying hard, you’ll always be a part.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

AW: I can’t choose! I’m going to cheat and name several… One of the most memorable moments I experienced during my engagement work was the Center for Veterans Engagement showcase this past spring. I met Sam Pressler, the president of the Center, before he was the president of the Center—before the Center even existed. He was giving a presentation about the Veterans Writing Project, which he had just brought to William & Mary, at the Active Citizens Conference in 2014. A year later, he had invited me to help plan the Center for Veterans Engagement Annual Showcase. It was an extremely moving experience to hear what the veterans brought to life in writing, music, and comedy. Furthermore, it was striking to have met Sam through William & Mary community engagement: he’s one of the most hardworking, intense, and good-hearted people I know, and his leadership has inspired me profoundly.

Let’s talk about the border- Part III

This is Part III of a series I’m doing about the challenges that Latino immigrants can face. In this post, I talk about border patrol and Operation Streamline.

Border Patrol

The United States Border Patrol has strategies for breaking down migrants both physically and mentally. Migrants are often captured through a process called “dusting” in which border patrol finds migrants traveling in a group and uses a helicopter to raise dust to impair their ability to see. They then scatter the group and select a few members to catch, leaving the rest alone, which makes them more likely to die lost in the desert. Border patrol also often vandalizes food and water that relief organizations may provide on the migrant trails.

When they take them to their facilities, the migrants routinely suffer from overcrowding- for example, children may be lined up head to foot in sleeping quarters, and given only a blanket. Border patrol agents often subject the migrants to temperatures of extreme hot or cold.  They play migracorridos,  songs about dying in the desert, loudly for continuous extended periods. They also are notorious for denying necessary medical care.  Migrants may be forced to stay awake for extended periods. They routinely confiscate and often do not return migrants belongings, which can include anything from food to money important legal documentation, such as birth certificates. They deny migrants food and water, and statistically children are more likely to be denied water than adults, even when they are dehydrated.

Children are especially vulnerable to abuse. For example, there was a report of an eleven year old girl whose nose and throat began to bleed in custody, and when she requested medical treatment, the agents slammed the metal door in her face. The children may be called terms such as “dogs” or “whores.” There have been many reports of physical abuse, such as waking up child migrants in the night and kicking them over and over.

When the migrants are deported, it is common practice to separate families, through a practice called “lateral repatriation.” Migrants are often repatriated without any sort of food, money, or identification to a place distant from where they came from, without any way of returning home. Women and children are often dropped off in these places at night, placing them at higher risk of being harmed by criminals.

Operation Streamline

Begun in 2005 under the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, this is a legal practice in which illegal entry and illegal re-entry into the United States is treated as a criminal offense.  People are tried for it in court in large groups of up to 80 at a time, and are typically appointed a public defender who also may be also representing a dozen other people at once. It is common practice for defendants to be chained during these proceedings. They are instructed to answer “sí” that they understand their charges, and then are given a waiver to sign stating that they accept the lack of trial and converting their charge “from a misdemeanor to a felony.” The majority of those captured under operation streamline are housed in private jails during their sentences, which can be very profitable. This can raise concerns about potential the potential financial motivations for this system.

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In the next section of this series, I’ll cover some about the bracero program and how it laid the ground work for the system today.

Akshay Deverakonda: Growing Environmental Sustainability

by Jessica Edington

Deverakonda_Akshay (1)

This biology and environmental science and policy major has had his feet firmly planted in work for environmental sustainability and justice since he came to W&M. His leadership has grown along with his involvement, as he involves others in service and research about the environment, working little by little for a healthier planet and people who are more connected to nature.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Akshay Deverakonda: So through [the] Sharpe [Scholars’ Program], I heard about Branch Out, William & Mary’s Alternative Breaks organization. I went on a national trip to Lynchburg during my Spring Break freshman year, and afterward, I really liked the experience and that inspired me to keep being involved in Branch Out, and since then I’ve been a regional site leader.

Aside from that I’m also in I-Faith, which is an inter-faith club at William and Mary. We’re trying to foster an inter-faith culture and build connections between people of different religious backgrounds, or lack thereof, on campus.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?
AD: I think that, with my work with Branch Out, I like to focus on environmental alternative break opportunities, to allow people to contribute in an hands-on way to the environment and the community at the same time. I think it definitely fulfills a community need, because it’s one thing to hear a piece of information in class– like it’s one thing to hear in a class about how littering is bad– but it’s quite another thing entirely to actually be out there in the field picking up trash for a day. It helps you definitely learn in a way that classroom instruction can sort of do. But I think it compliments instruction in the class. I think the action and education parts of being an active citizen definitely go together because of that.

And with I-Faith, I would say we fulfill a community need, because prior it its establishment– it’s a relatively new group, I think it was only founded in 2010 or 2009– but prior to its establishment, there was no sustained student involvement to bring people of different backgrounds and faiths and views together on campus. And we’ve seen a big change in that respect in the past couple years. We’ve organized our own service trips that are actually based off of Branch Out’s model. And we’ve had people of different backgrounds participate, and some great conversations and great service resulting from that. We’ve also been organizing a campus-wide conference just to bring in outside experts. That’s really our main outreach at the end of the year. But it definitely opens a conversations space for people in the community.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?
AD: For me, I think, it’s helped me be a bit more mindful in my conduct every day. Certainly, after being involved with some issues on specific trips, I like to think that I’ve hopefully benefited from that by treating the issue more respectfully the next time I come across it. For example, Grace [Fernandez] led a trip to the Special Olympics in Norfolk our freshman year. Since then, I’ve definitely been careful to say “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people,” and definitely have had to take a stand several times and call people out when they use “retarded” in the wrong sense of the word.
But also, with other trips, for example after the Lynchburg Grows trip– that was the national trip I mentioned earlier– I’ve been more mindful to look for organic options whenever I got to the supermarket. I just try to eat more green and more local when possible. So it’s like these one time events have helped me to be more active in hopefully every waking second. I like to think that I’m more mindful and I treat these issues more respectfully when I can.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?
AD: It turned everything upside down for me, but in a good way. You know, when I came to William & Mary, I wanted to major in neuroscience and then go to law school. The reason I signed up for Dr. Taylor’s class in Sharpe was because, from my point of view, that was the only science related Sharpe seminar. But that ended up changing everything. Especially the work I did at South of the Ferry, a farm in Surry, through Sharpe, in conjunction with going to the organic farm in Lynchburg later freshman year, helped me realize that “Hey, this environmental science thing is pretty fun!” I was still a bit iffy about switching majors after freshman year, but those two experiences lead me to do the William & Mary in DC program, where I worked for the EPA during the semester. That was another amazing experience that definitely helped me. I think it really confirmed for me that I wanted to do this.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?
AD: In the long term, I really like the local and national active citizenship opportunities that I’ve been very fortunate to get here at William & Mary, and I’m hoping that I can pursue those through Peace Corps after graduation, because I want to experience it on an international level as well. Beyond that, graduate school and some kind of environmental science or conservation field, I’m not exactly sure what yet. But after that I definitely hope to go into government, because I definitely like the idea of public service. And I guess it ties back into the idea of active citizenship. And I definitely want to use my scientific background to give back to the community in that way.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?
AD: Probably during the reflection session that I had on my most recent regional trip last fall semester. We were at Environmental Studies on the Piedmont, which is an environmental advocacy/outreach organization in Warrenton. So, long story short, we were helping them remove invasives and other species management work during the weekend. But the reflection was particularly striking because our community partner, who was with us during that reflection, he really did a good job. He helped us realize the bigger picture part of our work. I think on one hand, it is definitely easy to think that “Okay, well, we pulled weeds in only a small part of a several acre property for a weekend. Does that really make a big difference?” But Doctor Wood, our community partner, he definitely put it in perspective for us, and he said that it was this type of engagement that really helped us build or rebuild our connection to our natural surroundings that we’ve lost over the years. He encouraged us to continue to be involved in this kind of service work, with conservation and the outdoors matters and so on. I think that’s striking for me just because it definitely helps me remember that what I do matters. Even if, admittedly, it only helps for a little bit, that still makes a little difference. And going back to what I said earlier, it definitely helps me be an active citizen every moment when I can.

Cathey Sadowski: Doing What We Can

by Jessica Edington

Cathey Sadowski is a board member with FISH, Inc, a local organization that provides food, clothing, and transportation to community members in need. She took some time to speak with the Office of Community Engagement about her work with FISH, the community, and William & Mary volunteers.

Office of Community Engagement: Tell us about your role in the community.

Cathey: FISH has helped persons in need in the Williamsburg area with food, clothing and transportation to medical appointments since 1975. It is the oldest of such organizations in the area and is supported entirely by contributions from the community, both financial and in-kind. FISH was founded on the philosophy of “neighbor helping neighbor” so we have no paid staff, take no tax money, nor do we seek grants from outside the Williamsburg community.

During 2013, FISH provided food equivalent to 158,220 meals; 10,287 outfits of clothing; and housewares to 568 homes. Overall, our volunteers served 5,051 requests for assistance, an increase of 6% over requests in 2012 (when requests were 14% higher than in 2011). Unfortunately, 2014 service numbers indicate that FISH is needed more than ever this year.

OCE: What role do William & Mary students play at FISH? What benefits does your organization derive from working with William & Mary students?

Cathey: William & Mary students are generous donors of both food and clothing to FISH. Many campus organizations and athletic teams sponsor food and clothing drives, significantly enhancing the services FISH can provide clients. Student support of the annual W&M Costume Sale before Halloween is important to the FISH budget. Direct volunteering at FISH is not feasible for most students, but there have been occasions when W&M students have given of their time in the FISH facility; the regular volunteers, most of whom are retired, always enjoy the young presence.

OCE: How do you see the students benefiting from their work?

Cathey: Through their efforts to help community members in need, students can gain awareness of the difficulties faced by many individuals and families, including some who work for the College in lower-paid positions.

OCE: How do you see the community benefiting from your work and the work of William & Mary students?

Cathey: There is less hunger in Williamsburg and more persons have useful clothing because students help FISH. The community may not know that students are important contributors to this effort, but FISH is pleased to pass the word whenever possible.

OCE: How are does your organization help educate student volunteers about community needs?

Cathey: FISH is happy to work with the Office of Community Engagement to help W&M students understand the way FISH serves the community – and the ways in which that support is limited to short-term assistance.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean to you?

Cathey: Active citizenship means giving time, talent and monetary support to helping members of the community, as well as the world, with basic human needs.  Food, clothing and transportation, are only a few of those basic needs; we are not able to solve systemic injustices; and, we can only help the persons of our local community. But in this case, active citizenship means doing what we can with what we have to share.

Beyond Bricks: A William And Mary Experience

by Jessica Edington

When they told me I could write a blog post, like any good William & Mary student, I did my research. There were no guidelines, just “write whatever you want!” with a mutual unspoken understanding that “whatever you want” meant “whatever you want that has something to do with either W&M or community service or both. Don’t write about your love for making pickles or your opinion on bad drivers.”

So I went and read some of the lovely posts written by other W&M bloggers. And as I read, I noticed something: almost every one of the bloggers was writing about experiences outside the classroom. That’s interesting, I thought, that W&M chooses to feature experiences outside of class when so much of what we do here is take classes. This person is interning in Washington, DC, this person is studying abroad, that person is working with Admissions, that person is volunteering… the list goes on.

I thought at first it was because these experiences make the most interesting stories. Everyone knows what it’s like to take classes. But then it occurred to me that I had personally had many of these experiences– the community service, the summer job, the DC internship, the virtual internship, the summer job on campus, studying abroad. And when I did the math, I realized that while I have spent about 20 months on-campus taking classes since I arrived in August 2011, I’ve spent (collectively) 16 months doing all these other things. That’s almost half my time here at W&M.

And I wondered, how many other students have spent almost half of their time at W&M doing other things? From the looks of these blogs, it’s quite a few. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the reason so many of the blogs about W&M experiences aren’t about taking classes because all these other things, the things that too often get lumped as things that “look good on the resume,” are half of the W&M experience. It’s not all about taking classes in old buildings and lounging on the Sunken Gardens on warm spring afternoons and cramming in Swem during finals week and shenanigans with your freshman hall. (Don’t get me wrong, though, it is also a lot about those things.)

When you come to W&M, you’re signing up for a lot more than some of the most rigorous classes in the nation– you’re signing up for an endless buffet of opportunities. They hide in the listserv emails and the bulletin board flyers, the professor’s office hours you keep telling yourself you should go to and the casual conversations with the person next to you in class. They might not always be obvious, but trust me, they’re there.

For me, it was the opportunity to work with people in the Williamsburg community, learning as much from the children I tutored as they (might have) learned from me. It was the opportunity to intern at the Library of Congress. It was the opportunity to go to Iceland, hike to the top of a volcano and work in an organic bakery. It was the opportunity to work on a sustainable farm, to get my hands dirty and find what it was I cared about. It was the opportunity to return to the office where it all started (when I became a Sharpe Scholar as a freshman) as an employee. For so many other students, the opportunities are the same, but what they choose to do with them is different.

As I get ready for my final year at W&M, with all the anxiety about the future that it necessarily brings, I’m reassured by remembering all the opportunities W&M has provided me in the past. I know that these will continue through my senior year and beyond, because after all, W&M doesn’t start and end with the classes I take. It includes all the things I do beyond the bricks, when I wear my W&M sweatshirt with pride and beam when someone recognizes it, shrug when they don’t. The opportunities will be there, if sometimes hiding; it’s just up to me to seek them out and make them my own.

Active Citizens Celebration Student Speaker

by Erin Faltermeier

April 2014

When I was in high school, I volunteered. There were afternoons spent picking weeds out of community gardens, tutoring young kids. I did so because I wanted to be a good person, I wanted to help out, I wanted to get into college. Looking back now I can see that I approached these experiences with a limited perspective and therefore produced only limited outcomes. Through my subconscious act of oversimplifying and labeling myself as the “helper” and those that I served as needing of my help, I unknowingly created a wall between myself and those that I sought to serve, shielding myself from feeling the empathy truly needed for successful community engagement. Now I don’t look back reproachfully at my former self, far from it. I chose my actions out of good intentions, and I optimistically believe that there were some good deeds accomplished. Still, I see now how my approach lacked nuance, my understandings lacked context, my attitude lacked humility. When you only skim the surface you see what is beneath through a distorted lens. I never asked the hard questions, so I never had to confront the difficult answers. I helped, but I didn’t understand. I wasn’t an active citizen.

I had no concept of what constitutes social justice until I came to college. Through the BranchOut Program, both as a participant and a leader, I have been granted incredible opportunities to serve and to learn in my community, to take what I learned in the classroom and contextualize it in my surroundings. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of why this service is necessary, and how much there remains to be accomplished. The beauty of social justice is that this realization leads to inspiration rather than frustration,an eagerness to address structural inequality and systematic injustice, and the abiity to recognize our own privilege.

From these experiences with Branchout I learned that service is a continuous process rather than a single act, one that must be approached with care and intention. I learned the importance of education, of subverting subconscious stereotypes and granting context, without which we walk into service blind. I learned the importance of reorientation, the critical understanding and drive necessary to transfer newly gained perspectives, to bring home your message and to pursue similar action in your own community. I know now that social justice is not just one battle but a war, one from which we can never really wash our hands and say that we are finished. Above all I learned the importance of attitude in service. I first read the following words, born out of a Social Justice movement in Australia, on the office door of the ever lovely Melody Porter when I first went to interview for the position of BON site leader, but I didn’t truly understand their power until I had experienced my own trip. The saying goes “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote speaks to me because it beautifully expresses the humility necessary for successful community engagement. I saw this at work on the BranchOut trip that I led over Spring Break, working with students at a charter school in rural NC. On our trip we were called interns rather than volunteers, and our presence was explained to the students as visitors coming to learn and experience rather than just volunteers coming to help. This nomenclature was more than just a change of labels, it was a paradigm shift that recognized the situation for what it truly was: two communities of people coming together to learn from each other, to work collaboratively, to jointly identify problems, work towards solutions, and to together further the tides of social justice. This experience both humbled and inspired me to carry the fight for social justice into my own community, and to every community that I am fortunate enough to visit.

Now I fight for social justice because I see the equality of potential in the people around me, and I see that potential wasted. We wonder why our environment is degraded, our students are failing, our neighbors are underfed and underserved, but it can hardly come as a surprise when we squander our most precious resource, human potential, by marginalizing entire segments of our society, denying opportunity, denying people their voice.

I fight for social justice because I have felt my oppression, but I have also seen my privilege, and I now know that although privilege may make me better off relatively, in absolute terms we are all worse off for our inequalities.

I fight for social justice because I have now seen that regular people are in the best position to identify the problems facing their own communities rather than me telling them what they need, and that when empowered with the ability to connect and collaborate with others people can best generate creative solutions to address their problems.

I fight for social justice because I now see the beauty in my position not as a savior, or even simply a helper, but as a humble yet boldly active citizen working tirelessly to further the causes of social justice in my community. Thank you.

Katie Mitchell: Considering the Context

OCE Profile Series
By Daniela Sainz ‘15 | Nov 6, 2013

Katie Mitchell for blog 2

Katie Mitchell’s service extends both on-campus and beyond. She is dedicated to improving the welfare of animals looking for a home in addition to improving the general welfare of students through her volunteer work. Although she is passionate about all of the causes she works towards, she has a special spot in her heart for the Heritage Humane Society, which works to find permanent homes for stray cats and dogs.

Office of Community Engagement: How are you involved in community engagement at William & Mary?

Katie Mitchell: It all started before freshman year, when I went on the inaugural 7 Generations pre-orientation trip, volunteering at a sustainable farm in Lynchburg. Freshman year I was a Sharpe scholar, and helped design teaching tools for local elementary school special education programs. Sophomore year I joined Circle K International, and I’m now Executive Vice President.

CKI has at least two large-scale service projects each year—a food-packaging event in the Fall, and Strike Out ALS! in the Spring—as well as many other wonderful service opportunities. I am very active with our large-scale projects and dabble in organizations such as Campus Kitchens, but my main focus is volunteering at Heritage Humane Society, which I do approximately 10 hours a week. I am also an active member of the William & Mary branch of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy organization.

OCE: How has this work contributed to community needs?

KM: Circle K International is an amazing organization that offers so many ways to help the community, and I am honored to help run the behind-the-scenes work to support our members. The two issues I am currently most passionate about are animal welfare and mental health. Volunteering at Heritage Humane Society has been an amazing experience; the shelter is extremely well-maintained and organized, and this is largely due to the amazing staff and the dedicated team of volunteers. Recently I have been helping out mostly with negotiating adoptions, and it is a truly rewarding feeling to see these amazing, loving animals go to a forever home.

My work on Mental Health is mainly through Active Minds, and we work very hard to decrease the stigma of mental illnesses on campus, and provide access to resources to students. Last year we had our first Debunking the Myths panel discussion, where students and faculty shared their experiences with mental illness and information about the resources available on campus. We also do lots of smaller campaigns such as tabling and handing out motivational and educational materials. As a relatively new club, our presence is still growing, but I can already notice a snowball effect as members feel more comfortable discussing mental health, which encourages their friends and family to feel more comfortable discussing it as well.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean for you?

KM: To me, active citizenship means always considering the context in which your actions are occurring. It means not making jokes that stigmatize mental illness or disability or marginalize any group of people. It means pointing out problematic aspects of media, even if it is also media that you enjoy. It means being aware of political issues and taking a stand for issues that matter to you. It means always being open-minded, empathetic, and humble enough to really listen to those with different life circumstances and needs, and adjusting your actions accordingly. It means always being willing to help.

OCE: How has your experience working in the community affected your educational career at William & Mary?

KM: I am still trying to figure out what I want to do after college (which is coming up much sooner than I want to consider!), but my community engagement work has definitely helped me to come up with some ideas of potential paths to take. Working at Heritage Humane Society has really fueled my passion for working with and understanding animals, and I have considered pursuing graduate school to research animal communication or the human-animal bond.

These days it looks like that might not be the path that I follow, but it is still a topic that fascinates me and has led me to take some really interesting psychology and linguistics classes. Now I’m thinking more about how I enjoy the leadership and logistical aspects of planning service events and Circle K meetings, and I’m considering pursuing a career in non-profit management, particularly non-profits focusing on animal welfare or mental health.

OCE: How do you plan to use what you’ve learned as an engaged citizen beyond William & Mary?

KM: I know that wherever I end up, I will not feel fulfilled if I am not engaging with my community, nor do I think I can simply stop being an active citizen. As a friend of mine eloquently put it, I’ve now “tuned into the background noise of my life,” and it’s almost impossible to tune it back out. I’ll always notice the inequalities and injustices that surround me now, and I just hope that I will have the strength to not give up on the fight. Luckily, I have so many amazing, service-minded friends, and I know we will always give each other strength.

OCE: What is the most memorable or striking moment you experienced during your engagement work?

KM: Two years ago I attended Relay for Life with several other Circle K members. The remembrance ceremony and silent lap hit me incredibly hard. One of the speakers had just read the poem, “The Dash”, which talks about making the years in the “dash” between your birth and your death count. During that silent lap, this was all I could think about. About how I want to make the most of my dash, about how amazed I am by the courage of those who struggle with cancer and other chronic conditions, about how many people one life can touch, and about how lucky I am—about how so many people don’t have the same opportunities to make the most of their “dash” as I do, and how unfair that is. I want to make the most of my life and touch as many lives as I can, and I want to help empower others to reach that same goal.