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April 2000 Volume 6 Number 2
Collaborative Efforts and Conflict Resolution -- Agencies Serving Migrant Farm Workers in New York State -- Kay Embrey
By Kay Embrey, Senior Extension Associate
Department of Human Development, Cornell University
Best Practices for Migrant Workers Conference
April 26 – 28, University of California, Davis
This paper will trace the conflict resolution process engaged in by a group of agencies serving migrant farmworkers in the twenty county area of western New York. The transformation from a history of competition and animosity to an effective collaboration (later extended to include eastern New York) has radically changed the way services are delivered to migrant workers and hieghtened awareness of New Yorkers about the public policy issues and discrimination faced by migrant workers.
We used to hate each other! Indeed, that was the feeling agency directors voiced two years after the formation in 1988 of the Working Together Group, a coalition of nineteen agencies serving farm workers in western New York. Yet in 1991 the group won a "National Model of Farmworker Coordination Award" from the National Conference on Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers.
Prior to 1988, a long history of animosity and competition for funding had existed among the agencies. Even as staff turned-over, this legacy was quickly passed down to new hires. It was reported that within some agencies staff were instructed to not talk to the staff in another agency. It actually took many years for the relationships between the agencies to arrive at this point, with the failure of a major collaborative effort contributing to the animosities. However, this also resulted from a variety of factors from which we can draw lessons for other groups forming collaborative efforts.
Competition for Funding
First are the problems that are inherent in the competitive process for funding. Many programs have fairly secure funding streams through the four established federal programs (migrant education, employment and training, head start, and migrant health), and as a result have fairly well–defined "boundaries" of service delivery. The competition usually develops when funding is available for programs which overlap: occupational health, domestic violence, substance abuse, pre-school services, services to out of school youth. When more than one agency applies for funding of this type, the feeling expressed is "How could they dare go after our funding?"
a. Inadequate Funding
The competitive funding process pits agency against agency over fairly small amounts of money, yet this money can help the agencies to survive. These human service agencies are always under-funded, under-staffed, and trying to serve a population with almost endless needs. Little funding is available to serve workers without vaild immigration documents – with estimates that they may constitute over 50% of the harvest labor force. Funding for some needs - workers injured off the job, emergency trips home for funerals, or funerals themselves, money for transportation to look for work in the next state- are almost non-existent.
b. Inadequate Staffing
While some observers may believe the funding for farm worker programs is adequate, those doing direct service are often unable to make the budgets stretch far enough to address the needs they see. During the harvest season, staff often works long hours at comparatively low pay and the stream of workers asking for help seems endless. It is only human for the "poor me" feeling to set in. However, rather than extending this to "poor us", the lack of trust among agencies leads to a feeling that, "we are working harder /longer/ better than they are." Rather than examining the institutional and political structures, which result in under-funding for human services, the frustration is turned against each other.
The definitions for "migrant farmworkers" vary from program to program. For some crossing a state line is critical, for others crossing a school district line, and for others the number of days performing farm work determines eligibility. Programs funded through religious organizations have varying eligibility. Special projects funded through state or local dollars may be targeted to rural poor or rural Latinos, without regard to employment. Staff found it difficult to keep track of these distinctions and quickly became frustrated at what they perceived as the denial of services to someone they saw as being in need.
Lack of Communication
Eventually the communication, which is so important to making a referral successful, stopped. If a client was referred to another agency and later he/she returned saying they had not received services, the assumption was made that the agency was not "doing its job". Few people ever called to find out what the problem had been, but just assumed the staff at the other agency were incompetent, lazy, or even unwilling to serve a client because of their race or ethnicity. "You can refer them to XYZ agency, but they probably won’t help them." And finally, the referrals almost stopped.
With little or no communication occurring, agencies were not aware when the services some agencies were delivering had changed, or when funding had ended for a particular service. Clients were being referred to an agency for services that were not even provided anymore.
The concerns about client’s race grew out of the diversity of the labor force in New York State. While it is now majority Mexican, the labor force also includes African Americans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Caucasians, and other Central Americans. Staff in some agencies remained majority white, while others had made concerted efforts to diversify their staff. Some offices had a reputation for serving Latinos, another for serving African Americans, and only two had Creole-speaking staff.
During the 1980s, the Cornell Migrant Program had sponsored a series of conferences on topics related to the farm labor force in New York State. After a provocative conference on the dynamic race plays in the construction of, and perpetuation of, the agricultural labor system, a small group voiced interest in continuing the dialogue. The group realized that racism was an over-riding issue affecting all of their clients and that racism issues also affected all of the agencies. All of the agencies needed to improve their staff’s cultural competency and none had been successful in adequately diversifying their staff through all levels of their organizations. This provided a common goal which no one agency had the resources or expertise to address. The members of the small group possessed some key beliefs: they were committed to addressing racism issues; they questioned the status quo; they believed the situation could be changed; two were fairly new to migrant farmworker programs; and they recognized that agency directors would not get involved in addressing racism jointly until the distrust and feuding had been resolved.
The small group then planned and sponsored an initial retreat-style meeting for the larger group of fifteen agency directors. The joint ownership by the group made it harder for others to reject the idea, and each member of the larger group had some connection to a member of the smaller group, eliciting some minimum level of trust.
During the planning process, it was recognized that an outside facilitator would be needed - some made reference to a referee to prevent the spilling of blood. In searching for the right facilitator, much advice was given:
that this was a very sensitive undertaking that could very well fail and cause more problems as a result.
that racism issues within the group needed to be addressed.
the facilitator needed to be experienced with the process of agency conflict resolution.
The first meeting was facilitated by an African American man and a Latino woman, which was key to developing trust among group members. It was held in a neutral location, all agencies shared in the cost, and all those in attendance had to commit to attending the full day. Every person came. Not all wanted to be there but they were afraid not to be. "What will they all say about me if I am not there?" was the impetus for some.
The first meeting was very tense. It began with detailed introductions and clarifications of each agency’s services, mandates, and limitations. This turned out to be very lengthy (eight hours over two meetings) with very pointed questions being asked. It was crucial to clearing up the misunderstandings and old assumptions under which people were operating. One agency was referring clients to another agency for alcohol counseling, a service that had not been provided in three years.
The facilitators took the group through several exercises: clarifying each one’s authority to make decisions for their agency and defining what was needed in order to work collaboratively – even identifying a specific person or agency and the change desired. "Rules of engagement " were agreed upon which included making a commitment to attend, to tell the truth, to cooperate, and to discuss problems with another individual before sharing them with others. At the second and third meetings, a mission statement, common goals, and membership guidelines were developed. One member referred to the initial meetings as our "rubber room" meetings – they were difficult ones for many people.
Out of this was born the Working Together Group (WTG). The group’s vision, mission and goals follow.
Vision: Farmworkers will be active, respected, full participants in the community.
Mission: To be effective allies to farmworkers by fostering cooperation and understanding among agencies which serve farmworkers.
Coordinate services and identify resources to address gaps in services.
Improve living and working conditions for farmworkers and their families through delivery of direct services and changes in public policy.
Eliminate oppressions facing farmworkers, both in agencies and in the community.
Membership is limited to non-regulatory, non- governmental agencies. All members are private non-profits, religious organizations or educational institutions. Members are also to be staff members with the ability to make a decision on behalf of the agency; however this loosened somewhat as new members were added. Also, it is required that the program serves farmworkers as a core function and is a regional program serving at least two counties.
Major Outcome: Joint Projects and Joint Proposals
The facilitator pointed out that the best way to work together was to start doing it. He recommended a low-risk project that would involve all group members. The group chose to sponsor a very successful all-day festival for farmworkers and their families. The informality of agency directors serving meals in the food line and scrubbing pots together did build personal relationships in a new way, and everyone pitched in to help when the crowd was many more than expected. It also allowed the group to build trust, and to see that others did follow through on their commitments.
After the success of the festival, possibilities for other joint projects were identified and work groups formed to develop plans of action. The process used initially was to define:
who might be able to cooperate on this project?
how might it be funded?
what obstacles to cooperation can be foreseen?
what are some strategies for overcoming the obstacles?
As a result many collaborative projects have received funding. Millions of dollars have been brought in to New York State to serve farmworkers which otherwise most likely would not have been secured. In order to compete successfully for funding, it is usually crucial that joint or cooperative applications be submitted. Experience shows that when two or more applications are submitted from competing agencies, or from within the same state for federal funding, usually no one is awarded funding or hard feelings result between the agency that won and the agency that lost. By partnering, duplication of services can be avoided and resources can be pooled to address the needs of this particular population. The lead agency varies from project to project depending upon the expertise, interest, and resources available within each agency
Funded projects include domestic violence, adult literacy, after-school and pre-school programs, performing and visual arts, occupational health, leadership development, public policy, and anti-racism work. A one million-dollar demonstration project on substance abuse included four Working Together agencies and two treatment centers which wanted to reach out to farmworkers. Cross-training of staffs, with treatment providers learning about farm workers and farm worker agency staff learning about substance abuse, changed dramatically the services available to farmworkers. Out of that have grown new initiatives on other mental health services.
Needless to say, but worth pointing out, is that farmworkers now get referred for services. Within the need to respect client confidentiality, agencies try to assure services are provided. When problems arise, members try to first assume that staff is doing their best and that perhaps more follow-up on referrals is needed. For the most part, people no longer "sit around and complain" about each other.
Other outcomes include:
jointly sponsored, annual staff training for outreach workers.
joint actions to address the racism and classism faced by workers in the communities, schools, and from police. This may include lawsuits, community demonstrations, "witnessing" by members of the religious community, and meetings with the offending parties.
The collaboration has improved access for migrants to legal services, including expanded immigration legal services.
increased recruitment, hiring and retention of people-of-color and former farm workers in staff positions.
an innovative apprenticeship program for staff to become diversity trainers.
revitilized county and regional coalitions across the state, which include the regulatory agencies, to cooperate on delivery of direct services. These include
The Western Monroe/Orleans/ Genesee coalition; the Wayne County Coalition, the Onondaga Coalition, the Oswego Coalition, the Hudson Valley Interagency Committee, and a group on Long Island,
an increasing commitment by the group to addressing public policy issues and the institutional barriers which prevent farmworkers from becoming full members of our communities.
farm workers gaining three legislative victories in the state legislature: water in the fields, toilets in the fields and an increase in the minimum wage.
a new relationship with the Immigration Coalition in New York City, is just beginning – the first effort to work closely with urban immigrant communities.
Broadening the Coalition
With the encouragement of the Working Together Group another collaborative effort, the Farmworker Advocacy Coalition (FAC), was formed in the Hudson Valley in eastern New York two years later. Members of the WTG initially met with these agencies to share experiences and benefits of forming such a coalition and facilitated the first discussions. This group did not have the history of animosity to overcome, possibly due to the fact that many of these were field offices of larger agencies whose headquarters were located in western New York. In fact, many directors just told their staff in the Hudson Valley to join.
A major difference between the two groups was the member organizations. FAC included the Independent Farmworker Center, a worker membership organization focused on organizing workers ,and Rural and Migrant Ministry, a faith-based advocacy project. FAC decided at the outset to focus primarily on public policy initiatives, support the workers in their quest for equal rights , and began by sponsoring an Albany Day to educate legislators about farm worker issues
New York State’s Exclusion of Migrant Workers
The issues drawing the most attention have been the labor law exclusions. Both at the federal and state level agricultural workers have been excluded from many of the labor laws that protect other workers. In essence the state has sanctioned discrimintion against agricultural workers by excluding them from coverage. In New York State this includes a day of rest, overtime pay, disability insurance, and collective bargaining. Many workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance because of a payroll threshold that is much higher than for employers in other industries. Children working on farms are covered by fewer restrictions that those working in other sites. Farm workers are covered by fewer occupational health protections than other workers.. Until recently only workers covered by federal laws had water and toilets in the fields. Farm workers also were covered by a separate, and lower minimum wage.
In 1994, State Senator Olga Mendez through the Senate – Assembly Hispanic Task Force sponsored hearings on farm worker issues and in 1996 won passage of a bill providing water in the fields to all farmworkers – even those on smaller farms.
As a result of cooperating on the hearings and the resulting publicity, in 1996 the first annual, joint meeting of the FAC and the WTG occurred. The group decided to work cooperatively on public policy issues and to heighten awareness of the needs of farmworkers in the state. Albany Day became an annual event, and grew to where almost 1,000 people attended in 1999.
In 1998, a law providing access to toilets for all workers, even on small farms, became law as a result of support from a coalition of labor and people of faith, including a statewide fast for farm workers sponsored by the New York State labor-Religion Coalition. This momentum led to some members of the FAC and the WTG joining with members of the religious community and organized labor to form the Justice for Farmworker Campaign.
In 1999, the annual meeting of the FAC and WTG coincided with a statewide Farm-worker Assembly sponsored by Justice for Farmworkers. The Assembly developed recommendations for changes in state public policies.
Heightened publicity about the exclusion of farm workers from many of New York’s labor laws and a strong personal commitment from Denis Hughes, President of the New York State AFL-CIO, led to a series of over fifteen editorials in the New York Daily News on the working and living conditions of farmworkers. As a result, during a special legislative session in December 1999, farm workers were given a minimum wage equal to that of all other workers in the state, with promises made by legislators that more is to come. In addition, the Daily News, the newspaper with the largest circulation in New York State, has been awarded the Polk Award, the first time in twenty years that a Polk Award has been given out for editorials
Occasionally the group repeats the initial retreat experience, with the same facilitator, to take stock of what is occurring within the group and set renewed goals. Some members jokingly say that this feels almost like family counseling. It is true that coalitions experience many of the same dynamics that any group/family does. A statement made by the facilitator, which is a favorite of the group, is, "the system of competing for funding is crazy, but not the people in it – what they experience is a normal response to the craziness". The group members find it helpful just to hear that the tensions "are normal" and will, most likely, never be fully resolved.
Ongoing tension occurs around the following issues:
varying level of commitment to, and participation in, the group. Some agencies work together very closely and others are much more peripheral.
involvement in public policy issues. Questions arise around the level of resources which should be devoted to this work, and some agencies face restrictions on their ability to participate in certain aspects of public policy.
how decisions are made in the group and who has voting rights.
the ability of the group to "speak" on behalf of the member agencies.
funding proposals. People not notified of a joint proposal being written and/ or not included.
Several procedural practices, members believe, have been keys to both the continuation of the Working Together Group and the successes it has achieved. First, the group is loosely structured. The autonomy of each agency is recognized and the group does not act as a funding conduit or clearinghouse for proposals. Facilitation of meetings rotates and there is no president. The Cornell Migrant Program (CMP) provides staff support to the group. CMP staff provides assistance to subcommittees and work groups, identifies areas of need that the member agencies might address, facilitates communications between members of the Working Together Coalition and the Farmworker Advocacy Coalition, and acts as secretary to the group. This "caretaking" role is seen by the group to be a necessary one.
The ability of group members to resolve years-long conflicts and begin to work together has resulted in increased funding for all of the agencies serving migrant workers; improved services to migrant workers; less duplication of services and more efficient use of funding; new collaborative projects to address unmet needs; and public policy initiatives which have supported workers’ efforts to gain the same rights as other workers in the state. It is clear that advocates for farm workers and those providing services to them often do the workers a great disservice. By bickering amongst themselves, energy and resources are wasted which can better be used to address larger problems, strengthen efforts to protect migrant workers’ rights, and improve working and living conditions for migrant workers.
April 2000 Volume 6 Number 2
April 2000 Volume 6 Number 2