The AFF workforce consists of those earning their livelihood in the AFF sector and is diverse in race, ethnicity, language, culture, class, and social norms. The bulk of the workforce is made up of hired workers, and many are employed only on a seasonal basis. Large portions of AFF hired and contract workers are low-literacy, non-English speaking immigrants, many of whom are not authorized to work in the United States: in fisheries, increasing numbers are of West African or East Asian origin; in agriculture, the vast majority are from Mexico or Central America. Language barriers are becoming greater as more and more hired and contract workers speak languages lesser known in the United States, such as Triqui, Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, Purépecha, and Quechua; at least a dozen languages are spoken daily on U.S. farms, and most do not have a written form. Efforts to engage these populations must overcome barriers of language, culture, race, ethnicity, and class.
Underlying the challenges of engaging AFF workers is the deep-seated division between those who seek immediate practical solutions to their problems and those in the research community who prefer to engage in contemplation or laboratory experimentation. The historical foundation of that divide in our society has been well described by Hofstadter in Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963). Compounding the barrier is the low level of scientific literacy among workers that the AFF Program seeks to engage. One might say that the reverse is also true: that the schism between the intellectuals and the workforce is perpetuated by a failure of the intellectuals to communicate effectively on workers’ terms, taking into account different work circumstances and cultural attitudes. Finding common ground or even a meeting space comfortable for all parties may be difficult.
The following pages describe four instances in which efforts to overcome barriers were successful to the benefit of all parties. The examples illustrate approaches, not recipes, that AFF projects could adopt or adapt.
In 1988, the Ford Foundation challenged the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) to undertake research in the subject of farm labor and rural poverty in California. The challenge included a requirement that academics, laborers, and community leaders meet and develop a collaborative agenda. A meeting place had to be found in which all parties would be comfortable. The bias of the CIRS staff in selecting a meeting space was that a university or college setting would probably be inappropriate because relatively few farm laborers had ever attended college or felt comfortable among highly articulate experts. In the end, a modest motel with suitable meeting rooms near downtown Fresno was selected. That choice was made because Fresno is in the center of the San Joaquin Valley, the most productive agri-