The Persistance of Hope

An Open Letter to President Obama about Children in the Fields from the founder and President of Orchids Partner Media Voices for Children; Mr. Len Morris, this years recipient of the Iqbal Masih Award from the U.S. Department of Labor

Mr. President,

Like millions of Americans, I was touched by your comments on election eve and again during your acceptance speech in Chicago, especially when you spoke of the future you envision for our children. You said

“All those kids in inner cities, small farm towns — kids dreaming of becoming scientists or doctors, engineers or entrepreneurs, diplomats or even a President — they need a champion in Washington, because the future will never have as many lobbyists as the status quo — children don’t have lobbyists the way oil companies or banks do. But it’s the dreams of those children that will be our saving grace.”

Mr. President, today across our country, over 400,000 children work in the fields picking the food we eat. They do this to help their families make a living at the very bottom of the American economy. They do it at the expense of their educations. More than 60% will never complete high school due to the pressures of migrating annually and missing classes. They do this at the expense of their health, in their exposure to hundreds of pesticides and accidents that result in death and serious injury. And they do this without the minimum protections of federal law that would ensure their safety and extend to them the same rights and dignity our own children enjoy.

For over ten years, legislation to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to remove these kids from the worst forms of child labor, The Care Act, has been stalled in Congress. Just a few months ago, your own Department of Labor withdrew proposed regulations to protect child farm workers in spite of nearly two years of work and consultation with The Child Labor Coalition the endorsement of 108 organizations.

Claims from the right that the proposed rules would hurt family farms were simply wrong on the facts, family farms are specifically exempted. But as we’ve seen from the Presidential campaign that just ended, words don’t have to be accurate to be repeated over and over and take their toll. In this case, farm worker children paid the price.

So, Mr. President, these children need you to be their champion and protect their dreams of finishing high school and going to college. At this point, after a decade of delays and limited action, it’s going to take your support for the CARE Act, to see it through Congress, there are 80 co-sponsors willing to follow your lead.

While the slow work of passing legislation continues, it’s going to take your personal involvement to get the Department of Labor moving forward once again with a clear agenda to enforce and improve rules to protect underage farm workers. In particular, we need to address the dangers posed via pesticide exposure and workplace accidents.

It’s been fifty years since Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame first brought the plight of migrant workers to the attention of the American public. Since then, millions of migrant children have worked in America’s fields performing jobs that violate ILO convention 182 which outlaws the worst forms of child labor. It’s ironic that the country that leads the world in funding and programs to combat child labor continues to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in our own backyard.

So I would like to extend an invitation to you meet some of the children in need of your help. On November 24th, as we celebrate the bounty of Thanksgiving, Media Voices for Children is screening a new documentary, THE HARVEST, the story of children who pick America’s food. You’ll recognize the film’s Executive Producer, Eva Longoria – she was the co-chair of your re-election campaign.

“I’ve been an activist for migrant farm workers for over 10 years. When I learned about this film I knew I had to be involved.” Executive Producer, Eva Longoria

The filmmaker, U.Roberto Romano, is a colleague and founding board member of Media Voices for Children. He spent years crisscrossing the country to tell the stories of three migrant families. You’ll meet Zulema, age twelve, whose young life has been spent picking strawberries and who says she doesn’t have time to dream about her future. You’ll travel with Perla, age 14, and her family and see the toll leaving school early takes on her dream of becoming a lawyer. And you’ll meet Victor, age 16, who picks tomatoes so that his younger sisters will be spared the same fate.

These children aren’t complainers. They’ve worked for everything they have and that’s not much in material terms. They keep their hopes and dreams to themselves. They work hard and play by the rules yet the fields they work in are a far cry from the level playing field you’ve so often passionately invoked in reminding us all that America is one nation, one family.

Will their dreams become, as you’ve said, our saving grace? How much human talent are we wasting using children to do adult work at the expense of their educations and childhoods? What are the costs to our economy of consigning generation after generation of children to a permanently poor underclass.

At the turn of the century, America had children in mines, picking cotton and living in squalor until a young photographer Lewis Hines began to show us their faces and the hopelessness of their circumstances. Americans could see for themselves that these abuses needed to be eliminated and over time the law was changed and children disappeared from coal mines and other unsafe workplaces better suited to grown adults. Instead, they went to school and prepared for their futures.

THE HARVEST is not a grim film to watch, but it is shocking that these conditions still exist in the wealthiest country on earth. Watching Zulema, Perla and Victor work to help their families and to keep up with their studies teaches us much about human resilience and the power of their hope.

You put it best yourself on election eve:

“I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”

THE HARVEST will be shown at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center (located at the Tisbury Marketplace) on Saturday, November 24th at 4pm to benefit Media Voices for Children.


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