Thursday, June 28, 2007

moving forward, part II

I think I'm most excited about the idea Nolan uncovered of connecting area seniors who are retired doctors with people in need of health care-- what a great program, especially since there are a lot of retirees in this area. But I'm also encouraged by how enthusiastic many of my colleagues at Rollins College are. If we were all focusing on Apopka's problems in our classes and creating sustainable partnerships with the Farmworkers' Association, think of how much we could accomplish...

Already professors in the areas of anthropology, environmental studies, history, and chemistry have expressed an interest in helping out... so getting this to translate into some form of action is the next goal. Jeannie also said she would arrange a meeting with the community to see how they felt about the next steps for proceeding. I've been in touch with some of the people from the EPA whom we met at the conference last week, who have been very positive about the availability of grants and the possibility of a larger collaboration there.

Community problem solving... a concept some anthropologists would be skeptical of (since it often involves collaboration among parties anthropologists normally are critical of-- such as industry or government), but let's see what we come up with.

Discussing How to Move Forward with Jeannie Economos

In our most recent meeting with Jeannie Economos we discussed ways to move forward with the research. Now looking for ways to benefit the community of Apopka, we must first decide how to approach the situation. There are a great deal of issues to tackle, and it may be best to approach them each individually, or attempt to create a comprehensive program like the ReGenesis Project in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Two communities of Spartanburg, the neighborhoods of Arkwright and Forest Park, faced problems similar to Apopka including environmental issues, substandard housing, poor access to health care, etc. By establishing a collaborative relationship with community partners and the government, the ReGenesis project collected several grants to help revitalize the communities through Brownfield redevelopment and replacing inadequate housing.

Although there are many problems in Apopka, we are still dedicated to helping the former farmworkers find health care. One exciting health care program in North Carolina matches senior or retired healthcare staff with free clinics to volunteer their services. The organization, Tap-in, is not in Florida, but would be a great way to start a free healthcare program for the farmworkers. Jeannie had also mentioned Geraldean’s idea of contacting Orange County about unused portable classroom trailers at a local school. These trailers could be used for after school programs for children, and if possible, we could implement the Tap-in idea with retired teachers and childcare professionals to volunteer for the programs. The trailers could even possibly function as temporary health services if we found retired doctors willing to donate their time. The myriad possibilities are very exciting.

Another idea Jeannie had was the community center’s lack of exercise equipment. She felt a place for adults to exercise would be a good addition to the community center, so at this point finding used or donated exercise equipment seems like another contribution we can make. Overall there is a multitude of ways to approach some of the issues surrounding the lives of the forgotten farmworkers of Apopka, but it is difficult narrowing down the best way to start progressive change.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

EPA Environmental Justice Conference

This is Geraldean Matthew, our main informant and community activist for the farmworkers of Apopka. Along with Farmworkers' Association representative Jeannie Economos and anthropologist Ron Habin, she addressed the audience at the EPA environmental justice conference we attended on Tuesday. Geraldean is a tireless activist and has the trust of her community. She is also an amazing speaker and a charismatic woman who has a lot of interesting stories to tell. She told us of storing her daughters' hair barrettes in a container that had once contained pesticides and always wondering why her daughter's hair would fall out. In the past when workers didn't know the dangers of contamination, they used the containers to store flour, clothes, and other household items. She also spoke of many of the pressing social issues facing south Apopka-- drugs, crime, a lack of economic opportunities and insufficient parental involvement.

One idea from the conference came from a session I attended on a community in Spartanburg, South Carolina (my home state), where residents lived for years near a chemical plant that once manufactured pesticides. A man named Harold Mitchell (who is now a state representative) began to wonder why people were getting sick and started to take action. He found that the former chemical plant hadn't disposed properly of its pesticides, but like Apopka, there were other issues at play as well. Through over ten years of work in applying for EPA grants, HUD grants, and doing other grassroots organizing, the community now has affordable housing, green space, and a multimillion dollar health center. You can read more about how this all happened here. Inspiring, nonetheless, to envision a large-scale transformation like this in Apopka.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

EPA Community Involvement Training Conference

Today marked the first day of sessions for the 2007 EPA Community Training Conference. Jeannie and Geraldine, the former farmworker we had made contact with months earlier, presented at the conference and were kind enough to let us join them. Also joining them was local Anthropologist Ron Habin, who has been very involved in collecting data about the farmworkers and their health concerns. You can view the conference booklet and the abstract for their session here.

It was nice to see so many government employees dedicated to improving local communities and providing funding for meaningful projects. One particular program, Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE), provides funding for non-profits to partner with various community organizations to reduce pollution in a community. CARE has funded projects such as Safe Shops in Boston and the Health Nail Salon Initiative in Washington State. Safe Shops works with government agencies, vocational schools, and other non-profits to reduce the occupational hazards associated with auto shops, and reduce pollution caused by such businesses. The Health Nail Salon Initiative strives for similar results, given that nail polish is a toxic substance, especially when surrounded by it for up to ten hours a day.

Overall a lot of great ideas were bouncing around and could potentially relate to a brighter future for Apopka. With a CARE grant it would be possible to realize an idea we had been discussing; removing trash from empty land in Apopka and creating green space for its citizens, particularly for children and young men. Many citizens of Apopka feel there should be more activities for children, in part to keep them from selling drugs and off the streets at night.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Information about Lake Apopka

As the photographs show, Lake Apopka is an expansive body of water, but was once much larger than it is today. Formally known as bass fishing paradise, Lake Apopka has drastically changed since the 1940s. Much of the lake was drained in the 1940s to allow for farming and aid in the war effort. When farmers flooded their land to control weed growth, phosphorus and pesticides drained into the lake, contributing to the existing contamination of orange pulp from the citrus industry and sewage from the City of Winter Garden. While the clean air and water of act of the 1970s prevented sewage and orange pulp from entering the lake, by the 1980s farmers averaged 5 million gallons of waste a day. In 1998 the state of Florida spent nearly $100 million to buy 14,000 acres of farmland and restore it to the lake. Rather than draining the fields as farmers had done in the past, the state allowed water to stand, attracting a large number of birds to the area. Within weeks over 1,000 birds died, including white pelicans, wood storks, and bald eagles. 
Above: A bird stands near the shore of Lake Apopka in Winter Garden. Right: Lake Apopka boat ramp access from Magnolia Park, Apopka.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Meeting with Jeannie Economos

We had our second meeting today with Jeannie at the Farmworkers Association. Although we've been doing preliminary research for a couple months now, it wasn't until our first meeting with Jeannie that we began to get a clear idea of the shape our project would take. Our original intentions were to focus on healthcare access among Hispanic immigrants, particularly migrant workers. A few months ago, we helped a former farmworker-turned-activist named Geraldine Matthews conduct surveys in South Apopka about the needs of the local community-- mostly African-American former farmworkers who lost their jobs in the mid 1990s when the farms around Lake Apopka were finally shut down.

Our foray into that community was sobering-- social clubs in tin shacks swarmed by mosquitoes, dirt floors, dirt roads, people who did not look like they were in good health. We continued to think our project would focus on Hispanics, but in our first official meeting with Jeannie it became clear the need was elsewhere. Although the situation is still not ideal for the people farming now (average yearly wages of $7,500-10,000, exposure to pesticides, illegal status, etc), there are a number of projects focused on them, while the African-American farmworkers have been forgotten. They've been, in Jeannie's words, "surveyed to death," and what they need now is action. An article about the issues they face, which features Geraldine Matthews herself, can be found on this Oxfam site. Years of exposure to pesticides have led to high rates of health problems like lupus, diabetes, infertility, birth defects, arthritis, and cancers. They have little access to specialists treating these disorders. Our goal, in addition to conducting an ethnography of this community and exploring the issues it faces, will be to start some sort of healthcare program that might address at least one of these issues.

Some pesticides are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, meaning that they mimic the effect of hormones in the body, sending mixed messages that can particuarly be harmful during prenatal development. See this website if you want to know more about how it works. While the effect on an end consumer of an apple might be minor, it can be debilitating for those who have to work around these chemicals on a regular basis.