Like any new job, the first week involved a lot of learning. One of the first bits of advice afforded to me by new boss was, if I didn’t know something, I ought to ask. This is probably not the most groundbreaking advice when taken out of context, but, at RMM, the sort of things I didn’t know were of a greater magnitude than a more typical desk job. Certainly, there were more banal things I didn’t know, like which key corresponds to which vehicle?, or why doesn’t the scanner work? At first, these were the kinds of things I thought he was talking about. But, now, a full month into the position, I’ve come to look at this small, seemingly inconsequential bit of advice as a defining motif of the job.
I considered myself to be fairly attuned with the discourses surrounding inequality, systematized or otherwise. A lot of my coursework in college, and, indeed, a lot of my spare time,1 was spent trying to understand issues of inequality and, its twin brother, privilege. I wasn’t completely thorough, by any means (I majored in creative writing, after all), but I thought of myself as being aware of these issues, or at least awake to them. All of this is said to preface the following:
I had no idea there was an impoverished, exploited class of people living and working about forty minutes from where I grew up.
Now, my “not knowing” could mean many things. It could speak to my ignorance. I’d like to think I’m not ignorant, and that I choose to live with eyes open, but that doesn’t mean I’m not ignorant. That doesn’t mean that, in my studies, I was merely playing at social enlightenment, confined to books and pages, not people and places. But, even if that were the case, that can’t be the whole of the story. As I moved along in my first week, and talked about what I had seen with my family and the people of my hometown parish, it became apparent that I wasn’t the only one in the dark. And I believe that these people, too, considered themselves to be attuned to systems of inequality, and dedicated to working to address them. And, while I’m no statistician (again, creative writing major, here), it strikes me that it can’t be simple coincidence that so many savvy folks haven’t heard much about the farmworkers’ fight for justice in western New York.
What we have, I believe, is a problem of invisibility. It isn’t so much that the issue is easy to ignore (spoiler: it isn’t), but that it’s hard to see. My ignorance was quickly disposed of in the first few days as I toured the area, seeing the camps and fields for myself, first-hand. As I met with workers, shared meals with them, and listened to their frustrations, I began to get it. Their words I only understood in translation. But their passion, their expressions of sorrowful indignity, and, yet, at the same time, fervent hope, needed no interpretation. What I didn’t know quickly became what I did know. What I was ignorant of quickly became what I could no longer ignore.
There’s still a lot I don’t know, and, every day, I learn a little more. But, while it’s easy to get caught up in the things I’ve learned which pain me, the injustice and the mistreatment, not all is destitution and squalor. There’s one more thing I didn’t know:
I had no idea there are people, farmworkers and allies alike, who are working toward changing things, bettering things through hard work and perseverance.
And that’s something I’m glad to know; something I didn’t know before.