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An Advocate for Migrant Workers

Ask Katia Chapman ’12 what she does on a typical day as a staff member at Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM) and she’ll tell you there’s no such thing.

Katia Chapman ’12, far left, with Vassar interns Ruth Campbell ’14, Sarah Slichter ’15, and Arisa Gereda ’16, working in a vineyard in Western New York over Spring Break

Chapman’s official job title is “Youth Empowerment Assistant Coordinator and Intern Coordinator,” and even all that verbiage doesn’t describe her duties, she says. “We’re involved in so many different projects, from educating young people to advocating for legislative reform—there’s no one umbrella that describes all of it.”

The not-for-profit interfaith agency provides cultural and educational programs and advocacy and support for migrant workers and their families throughout New York State. Chapman’s principal duties include working with other staff to develop and oversee tutoring and English classes and other arts and educational programs. She also plans activities for summer camps and leadership conferences for migrant farm workers’ children.

Chapman says the skills she acquired to help run youth programs were forged in education courses she took at Vassar. “The mission of the Education Department is to think progressively about what it means to be an ally to young people, not just a teacher, to encourage them to think and act radically, and that’s what RMM is doing,” she says.

One of her most recent tasks was hosting college interns and other interested students, including nine from Vassar, at a series of workshops and seminars over the students’ Spring Break at RMM’s facility outside of Rochester. The students also visited some nearby vineyards and orchards, where they pruned vines and trees and spoke to some of the workers. 

Chapman says it was “somewhat surreal” to be organizing and hosting these events only a few months after she was an intern herself, “but that’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to RMM. They trust you to take your own initiatives, to really take hold of a project and make it your own.”

Rural and Migrant Ministry youth protesting in Albany

One Vassar intern, Kelsey Morales ’13, says she had been interested in the rights of farm workers since her childhood in San Diego but didn’t join RMM until her final semester, through the college’s Field Work Office. Morales’ principal duties are acting as a liaison between the agency and the college and helping to organize lobbying for the passage of the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill that would enhance farm workers’ rights in New York.

Morales says most of her work has been done in the RMM office in Poughkeepsie, translating documents into Spanish and making lists of key state legislators who will be contacted by RMM lobbyists. Later this spring, she’ll help organize a social media campaign advocating passage of the farm workers bill. She calls her work for RMM “empowering.”

“Growing up in California, I learned about [farm labor leader] Cesar Chavez in elementary school, and now I’m working with people who have real passion for the cause. It feels great being able to help in such a tangible way,” she says.

Morales, a Hispanic Studies major from San Diego, Calif., will enroll at Northeastern University School of Law in the fall and says her experience volunteering for RMM has helped her focus on what she wants to do with her legal career. “I want to work for an organization that’s involved in social change, working for my community and improving it.”

Chapman says getting to know many migrant workers’ families has spurred her to work for the adoption of the Fair Labor Practices bill. If passed, the law would upgrade sanitary codes for labor camps, make injured farm workers eligible for workers’ compensation benefits, and give them the right to bargain collectively.

“What you learn talking to the workers is not that the farmers are breaking the law—they’re largely following a law that’s antiquated and does not afford basic rights to workers,” she says.

Chapman calls her job “challenging, sometimes stressful and frustrating, but an amazing learning experience.” She says she was attracted to the job because it afforded her an opportunity to work with young people. “But it’s become much more than that,” Chapman says. “It’s given me the chance to see up close what a long-term struggle looks like.”

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, April 2, 2013