On March 28, 2014, Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), under the leadership of Melinda Wiggins, organized an outing to South Point Cinemas in Durham, North Carolina. As part of Farmworker Awareness Week, a national campaign to honor the critical contributions that farmworkers make to our communities, they were going to see Cesar Chavez, a new film released by Pantelion Films.
The film tells the story of the famous civil rights leader and labor organizer, Cesar Chavez, who committed his life to securing a living wage for farm workers across the country. I was lucky enough to be able to join SAF and Wiggins that evening, building community around a belief that all workers deserve dignity, safe working conditions, and a right to fair treatment under the law. Although Chavez was fighting for workers rights throughout the 1960s and 70s, organizations like Student Action with Farmworkers are working to confront many of the same challenges today.
A month prior to the release of this film, SAF’s Executive Director, Melinda Wiggins, sat down with Christine Delp and Amy Trey, two Duke students currently working on Social Activism in North Carolina, a new oral history project that is part of Bruce Orenstein’s Videos for Social Change class at the Center for Documentary Studies. Together, they talked about Wiggins’ work and life as a social advocate. This is a little bit of what they learned.
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta to a family of working-class parents and sharecropping grandparents, Wiggins left the Delta to attend Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Later, she came to Durham, North Carolina, enrolling in the Duke Divinity School. During her education at Duke and thereafter, Melinda fostered her commitment to social advocacy, initially finding inspiration working to resolve homelessness. These experiences encouraged Wiggins to think critically about systematic change and the ways she could garner her knowledge as a social advocate to move beyond Band-Aid fixes for social challenges and instead, focus on long-term prevention.
Following her work with homeless communities, Wiggins would eventually learn about the challenges farm workers face by taking part in Student Action with Farmworkers’ summer internship program. Seeing a flyer on Duke’s campus about the Into the Fields Internship, Wiggins applied, was accepted, and was placed with the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Newton Grove, North Carolina. This first experience with farm workers set the stage for Wiggins to eventually become SAF’s Executive Director. Today, Melinda mentors countless college students and recent graduates to be advocates for social justice.
Christine Delp and Amy Trey have both been positively impacted by this experience. Delp, herself the granddaughter of tobacco farmers from Eastern North Carolina, was moved by the way Wiggins connected her personal history growing up in the Mississippi Delta with the farmworker advocacy she does today. “She spoke not only of her work, but how this work has been shaped both by the hardships of her family and an awareness of her privileges.” Delp also learned that it is challenging to find a balance between the personal and the political when speaking about social justice advocacy. However, Wiggins’ connection to her past and present is a perfect example of the personal and political working together to promote social change.
Meanwhile, Amy Trey noted that it was “rewarding to meet someone who is familiar with the perspectives of farmworkers and who is also representing these individuals in a range of collaborations and advocacy work.” She also expressed how powerful it was to get a glimpse of the ways in which Wiggins works through complex social structures to advocate for equality, justice, and an inclusive society.
Delp and Trey’s interview with Melinda Wiggins is only one piece of a series of interviews students in Bruce Orenstein’s Videos for Social Change course have completed over the semester. Together, we are learning that the struggles for social justice we confront today are intimately connected to the battles fought by labor organizers, lawyers, and advocates decades ago.
In the coming weeks, check back for short student-created video vignettes detailing the motivations of eight of North Carolina’s notable social advocates. In addition, full-length interviews will be archived at the Duke Human Rights Archive.
Written by Hanes Motsinger, Videos for Social Change Teaching Assistant