University of Miami: Librarians to launch study on Florida’s farmworker populations

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The Florida Department of Health estimates that between 150,000 to 200,000 farmworkers pick crops in Florida fields annually.

Very little academic research has been carried out to document the lives and needs of these workers. Now, a $136,126 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to the University of Miami Libraries and the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries could make a difference.

Partnering with the Farmworker Association of Florida and the Rural Women’s Health Project, the libraries will design, plan, and document methodologies and collaborative practices to document the experiences of farmworker communities.

“This work is important because farmworkers are a vulnerable population, but they are also an essential population because of the type of work that they carry out for our state,” said Beatrice Skokan, head of manuscripts and archives management for University Libraries. She will serve as co-investigator of the study along with Margarita Vargas-Betancourt and John Nemmers, from the University of Florida (UF).

The manuscripts and archives management department at University Libraries coordinates the arrangement and descriptions of distinctive collections materials and makes them available to students, faculty, researchers, and surrounding communities.

This work entails objective descriptions balanced by an awareness of missing voices from the cultural record, said Skokan. The project with farmworkers continues the libraries’ engagement with both historical and current issues of migration, climate change, and agricultural labor as the public looks to libraries and universities for relevant educational materials.

Farmworkers in Florida are at the heart of the agricultural industry in the state, picking crops ranging from tomatoes and strawberries to sugar cane, according to experts.

Although the majority of Florida’s farmworkers are originally from countries in South and Central America—and many of those are from Mexico—there are other ethnicities represented as well, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than 35 percent of farmworkers are of Haitian or Caribbean descent, and many African Americans work the fields.

As part of the study, members of both the University and UF libraries will conduct community forums in Apopka, Florida, and Homestead, Florida, areas with a large number of farmworkers. “We will listen to their needs and proceed from there,” said Skokan.

The librarians will rely on the guidance of the grassroots organizations, which are their partners, in assessing the needs of the workers.

“The methodology would not be coming from us. But we would partner with local grassroots organizations that work with these groups, because they have an expertise,” Skokan pointed out.

The project participants plan to collect oral histories of the farmworkers, as well as community participant surveys, and organize one symposium with the participation of national and local advisors, she noted.

The researchers hope to compile a comprehensive archive on the lives and needs of the farmworker community that could be used to develop strategies to empower them, as well as cultivate a blueprint with the type of services they need, Skokan explained.

Issues such as a vulnerable immigration status, housing insecurity, lack of access to health care, and education may come up during the community forums, Skokan indicated. The researchers also partnered with the Rural Women’s Health Project, anticipating that many female farmworkers are among the most vulnerable in the population.

“Women, in many cases, are more vulnerable in the fields through abuse. And they are the ones caring for children, so they have other needs,” said Skokan.

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