Andrea Cruz, Southeast Georgia Communities Project, Lyons, GA
Although immigrant farmworkers are a resource to the economy and culture, too often they are seen as a burden to society. In Southeast Georgia, as in other parts of the country, migrant farmworkers are targeted for hate crimes and discrimination. “Several states that had relatively few illegal immigrants in 1990 experienced rapid growth in that population during the past decade, particularly states in the South and Southeast,” the Houston Chronicle reported in June 2003. “Georgia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee saw exponential growth in the number of illegal immigrants living there. And the stories of death and abuse are unabated…” Day-to-day needs are also an issue. Although health care and English-language training are priority needs, school boards are not always committed to quality education for transient farmworkers’ children.
Seeds of commitment
Andrea Cruz was one of ten children born into a poor migrant family. As a farmworker, Cruz witnessed and experienced firsthand the poor treatment that migrants often receive. They and resident seasonal farmworkers fall victim to exploitation and such unscrupulous offers as false immigration documents and illegal drivers’ licenses. “Because they seek to have a better lifestyle, they are vulnerable to all these injustices and are later caught up in scandals, and in most cases incarcerated,” says Cruz. “This places them in danger of deportation and in danger for their lives when they attempt to return to this country. In reality, community acceptance is the key for social change in these communities.”
For nearly a decade, Andrea Cruz and the Southeast Georgia Communities Project (SGCP) she directs have been building bridges among migrant farmworkers, farmers, local citizens, service providers and legal advocates. In addition to identifying the acute problems Latino migrant farmworkers face, Cruz and her associates have developed an impressive list of responses.
They’ve created a network of interpreters for medical visits; recruited VISTA volunteers to conduct cultural sensitivity workshops for local health department and hospital staff nurses; established a prenatal education program with follow-up home visits for new migrant farmworker mothers; helped create an H.I.V. education and prevention program; developed a legal assistance program through the Georgia Legal Services Project; established an annual farmworker health fair attended by over 1,500 farmworkers every year; and produced a radio program on health and education issues targeted to migrant workers.
Her Leadership style
As a former farmworker, Cruz brings authenticity and personal experience to her role as director. “Understanding the target population is a crucial component in leadership,” she says. She also finds that serving as a board member of several other community organizations gives SGCP visibility and a greater opportunity to participate in community decisions and activities. “Success can only be obtained when you put yourself in the position of others and learn how to change your style to fit your audience. Positive community response enhances your ability to succeed, which is a very important form of medicine that nurtures you in your role as community leader,” she says.
SGCP strives to be financially self-sustaining and sets an example of self-reliance for the clientele and the communities it serves. Services are not free, for example, because the organization does not encourage dependency. However, no one is turned away due to lack of funds. The SGCP board, composed of farmworkers and local community members, has become a powerful forum for understanding and acceptance of migrant workers—not as a transient population, but as an integral part of the community. Cruz also serves on Mexican President Vicente Fox’s Consejo Nacional para las Comunidades en el Exterior (National Council for Mexican Communities Abroad).
Andrea Cruz envisions her future role as becoming an even stronger advocate for the community she serves. She says she hopes to expand SGCP into areas with high concentrations of farmworkers, to obtain funding for program continuation and staff retention, and to build a larger office. She is also helping to foster greater understanding between blacks and Hispanics in Southeast Georgia. The objective, she says, is to replace the existing fear and suspicion between the two groups with awareness of the challenges they share.
More about Andrea Cruz and the Southeast Georgia Communities Project
“One doesn’t improve the health of the community by telling them to eat more vegetables. The community itself needs to be able to move forward…Andrea is that rare person who can turn an idealistic theory into reality. She is of and in the community and, given a small amount of resources, has been able to parlay them into strategies for the community to be able to do for itself, and to build her own organizations. [This] is happening with this very disadvantaged group with so many tough problems, because of Andrea.”
- Daniel Blumenthal, M.D., Chairman, Morehouse School of Medicine Department of Community Health
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