Driving Towards Human Rights in Vermont
SEE THE STORY TOLD THROUGH PICTURES HERE: http://www.flickr.com//photos/migrantjustice/sets/72157632709096043/show/
2/12/13--Our Vermont State Legislature is in session during the winter months, so sunlight slides straight in through the cafeteria mid-day as state senators and representatives meet with folks from around Vermont. The sunshine lights the tops of people’s heads as if to provide additional brainpower through solar gain.
Migrant Justice planned an Action Day in that cafeteria Tuesday, February 5, 2013, a time to discuss providing equal access to a driver's license for every adult living and working in Vermont. A dozen farm workers, in for a couple of hours between shifts on some of Vermont’s largest dairy farms in Chittenden, Addison, and Franklin counties, were joined by volunteer translators, Migrant Justice staff members, and allies from around the state who have followed this human rights issue for over a year. Specifically, we all arrived in honor of S. 38, a Senate bill now in the Transportation Committee, which is based on recommendations coming out of a study committee that met over the last several months. S.38 calls for “expanding eligibility for driving and identification privileges in Vermont”; in other words, allowing all adult residents living in Vermont to apply for a drivers license if they so choose.
Cafeteria tables - the round, the square and the large rectangle-were humming with questions and answers traded between farm workers and legislators. Farm workers speaking their stories, asking their questions, educating our elected officials about the need for all adult Vermont residents to have the opportunity to apply for a driver’s license. We are changing the culture of the statehouse. Legislators and Spanish speaking farm workers look each other in the eyes, listen intently, and wait for the translator to finish before they respond. The conversations are about getting to understand lifestyles, opportunities, needs, and the ins and outs of passing bills that will become Vermont law.
Over Lopez wore the hats of worker, translator, and volunteer organizer. At 21, Over has worked in Vermont for five years, arriving here in 2007 from his home in Chiapas, México via México City and Florida. Over’s employer appreciates his hard work on the job and supports his advocacy in the legislature. We listen on admiring Over’s friendly leadership skills, always eager to hear his next insight or well-timed question to a senator.
On February 5 conversations ranged from hearty support to adamantly expressed skepticism, with both farm workers and senators willing to listen, challenge, and reflect back to each other. Here are some live points I captured as Over and his comrade Danilo Lopez spoke to their needs for a license, allowing them to exercise a fundamental human right to mobility as competent adults residing in Vermont to a senator who wants to support them, but says she’s waiting for a federal directive first.
“Put yourself in our community's shoes. We work hard and at the end of the day we can’t go anywhere. . . . The milk moves freely, but people can’t. “
Referring to the lack of mobility: “This ability (to limit workers mobility) ...tips the scale and it shifts the power to the farmer.”
“I want to point out – you want us to be equal. You value my work, but not my person.”
“My problem is now. My need is to move now. It’s a kind of abuse of my needs. I hope you understand. We are equal.”
After the conversations wrapped up, legislators returned to their committee work and workers were driven to their next shifts on the farm by our team of solidarity drivers. Several volunteers spent hours in the days before arranging for volunteer drivers, some making double round trips to bring workers in from the farms as far away as the Canadian border, and then return them home in time for the next work shift.
My husband, Peter Lackowski and I walked out to our car with workers Arnulfo and Eli for the long trip back to their farms in Franklin County. It was also an opportunity to stock up on snacks at a general store and for them to shop for new barn boots, socks, and a jazzy water bottle at Lenny’s. Next we head up to Exit 19 at St. Albans, then drive northeast alongside the Missisquoi River to their farms. Late afternoon lights the hills and tops of the trees, and we notice our young friends have fallen asleep in the back seat. Working two out of three shifts on these huge dairy farms, you learn to catch sleep when you can. Arnulfo and Eli wake up as we turn onto the dirt roads and see the barns emerging on the hillsides up ahead. Good-bys and appreciations follow until next time, when they will climb into a back seat again to get ride after ride that you and I so easily take for granted.
Imagine having to ask for a lift every time you need to get food, clothing, or would like a chance to meet your friends for a little social time away from the farm. For these workers, every day in so many ways, their life style itself proclaims: you have fewer rights than most people living in Vermont.
Together we can change that. Please write your Senator today and remind them how important it is to you that Vermont respect the dignity and rights of all our communities! It will take all of us to pass S-38.
By Sharyl Green
February 8, 2013