Lake Apopka

Storytelling to Confront Injustice

By Dale Slongwhite

I first heard the term “environmental justice” in October 2009 when my daughter Karen invited me to attend the first annual Environmental Justice Summit at Barry University’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando, an event she was helping to organize. I did not even know what the term “environmental justice” meant. I attended the conference as a show of support for her efforts to make a positive change in the world.

But something happened halfway through the day that converted me from a supportive mother to an individual willingly drawn into the middle of the fray.

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Click to Hear Linda Lee’s Story

An African American woman, a former farmworker on the many now-closed Lake Apopka farms, spoke about her experience crawling on her knees in the scorching Florida sun, down seemingly endless rows hacking at lettuce with a machete for twelve hours a day, six days a week, for decades. She spoke about women gathering their skirts around another woman as a make-shift bathroom since there were none in the field; about gobbling down a sandwich after hauling a crate of corn to the truck; about crop duster planes dropping pesticides without asking workers to leave the fields; about high incidences in her neighborhood of lupus, eczema, and cancer. And about 18 funerals in one weekend.

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Farmworkers pack vegetables on a large vehicle called a mule train.

She started working summers and weekends at the age of seven, standing atop the mule train twelve feet off the ground pushing crates down the chute for other women to pack vegetables. She was the same age as me — I pictured my summer days at age seven — lounging on the beach in Connecticut, riding my bike around the block, engrossed in Writer magazine dreaming of becoming a published author.

The stories of these women, these farmworkers, haunted me until I could no longer sit on the sidelines. But what could I do for a whole community ten minutes from my house whose residents now suffered life-threatening illnesses? I’m not a lawyer, so I couldn’t fight a legal battle. I’m not a doctor, so I couldn’t offer healthcare. I’m not a scientist, environmentalist, or lobbyist. I’m just a writer.

Just a writer! I could craft stories about the harmful effects of pesticide exposure, about heat stroke, and about labor laws we all take for granted that do not apply to farmworkers. I could write so that others who live in their own worlds away from environmental injustices could be made aware of what it takes to harvest our food.

 

Click to Hear Mary Ann Robinson's Story

Click to Hear Mary Ann Robinson’s Story

I interviewed 11 African American former farmworkers, who told stories of pregnant women bending over in the fields harvesting or planting right up until the time of delivery. Many of these babies were born with low birth weights, physical or mental disabilities, or stillborn. I heard stories of snakes in the fields and trees. I heard stories of indebtedness.

I learned that these same individuals went home to neighborhoods that housed toxic dumps trucked in from other parts of the country; that race is the biggest factor when it comes to the location of municipal landfills and incinerators, abandoned toxic waste dumps, and Superfund sites.

Click to Hear Mary Tinsley's Story

Click to Hear Mary Tinsley’s Story

I could tell people about Mary who sees all sorts of doctors for her lupus, which she believes was caused by exposure to chemicals and pesticides in the fields. She has sympathy for people working in the fields.

I hope these stories move you. When you sit down tonight for your evening meal and experience the crunch of a carrot, the succulence of an orange, or the sweetness of a raspberry, remember the farmworkers who brought you that bountiful blessing.

We all have different talents, but we also have the same obligation to confront injustices, wherever we encounter them. Hopefully you will spread the message, and maybe there are even some who can do more than just tell stories. Maybe you can take action — before more farmworkers unnecessarily suffer another day just so that we all can eat.

About the Author: Dale Slongwhite is a professional writer and has been coaching writers for over 10 years. Her recent book, Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food, dives deeper into many of the issues surrounding Lake Apopka.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Quilting to Give a Community a Voice

“We would like to dedicate this blog in memory of the four Lake Apopka farmworkers, community leaders, and long-time Farmworker Association of Florida members – strong and dedicated women leaders and agricultural workers – who we lost in 2013.  In memory of Angela Tanner, Willie Mae Williams, Betty Woods, and Louise Seay.  With gratitude and remembrance from the community.  We will miss you.”

By Jeannie Economos

When I first started working for the Farmworker Association of Florida in 1996, they told me part of my job was to work on the issue of Lake Apopka.  Little did I know at the time that Lake Apopka would become my life’s work for the next 17 years. And, it would become personal…as I came to know and love the community of people I worked with – the farmworkers who fed America for generations.

Untitled-2Lake Apopka is Florida’s most contaminated large lake.  On the north shore, 20,000 acres of farmland were carved out of what was once the bottom of Lake Apopka.  Farmworkers farmed that land – they call it muck –for decades beginning in the 1940s during World War II until the farms were bought out by the state and shut down in 1998 for the purpose of trying to restore the lake’s natural wetlands.

Alligator studies in the 1980s and the tragic death of over 1,000 aquatic birds on Lake Apopka in 1998-99 were linked to toxic organochlorine pesticides that had been used on the farms prior to their being banned in the 1970s. Farmworkers were exposed to these same chemicals, but nobody was looking at their health problems from chronic occupational pesticide exposure on the farmlands. Millions were spent to study alligators, and later the birds, and to try to restore the ‘dead’ lake. But no money was ever spent to address the health concerns of the farmworkers, who were acutely exposed to these pesticides for years.

The community would not accept this, especially when they saw their friends and family members getting sick and even dying.  Thus, was born the idea of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt Project.  With a lot of hard work and commitment from former Lake Apopka farmworkers from Apopka and Indiantown, it has become a reality. The quilts were created to honor the lives of the farmworkers who have been exposed to the pesticides and to keep alive their history. The artwork of each individual square weaves the personal stories, tragedies, and small victories together to speak about the environmental injustices at Lake Apopka. The Lake Apopka farmworker leaders continue to use the quilts to both raise awareness among student and church groups about environmental justice and their community, and as a tool to press their case with state and local decision makers to address the health and environmental problems facing their community members.

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2013 MLK Day Parade in Florida

Today, the quilts have been viewed by thousands of Floridians and exhibited all across the state, including in Orlando City Hall, the Orange County Public Library, the Alachua County Public Library and the African American Museum of Art. This has helped spread awareness of the injustices the farmworkers face, and has helped build attention from the state legislature, which has been working to propose legislation which would provide long-term health care services for the affected residents surrounding the lake.

Is there still a need to address health care for the farmworkers on Lake Apopka?  Yes, but the creation of the quilts has given the community a voice and a message that they didn’t have before.  And, it has been a way for members to turn their pain into folk art that memorializes the ones they love.  Validation is what the community wants.  The quilts are one way to validate their lives and their contributions to our society.  

About the author: Jeannie has worked for over 20 years on issues of the environment, environmental justice, indigenous and immigrants’ rights, labor, peace, and social justice. From 1996-2001, she worked for the Farmworker Association of Florida as the Lake Apopka Project Coordinator, addressing the issues of job loss, displacement, and health problems of the farmworkers who worked on the farm lands on Lake Apopka prior to the closing of the farms in 1998. After the bird mortality in 1998-99, her focus turned to the pesticide-related health problems of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers, who were exposed to the same damaging organochlorine pesticides that were implicated in the bird deaths.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.