A place at the table - BlueStone Press
November 20, 2017

A place at the table

Creating strong, inclusive communities

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Before he was 12 years old, Richard Witt knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“For some reason, I reached the decision by fifth grade that I wanted to be in the ministry and that I wanted to be involved in a community ministry,” said Witt, executive director of Rural & Migrant Ministry and longtime Accord resident. “Everything from that point on was about exploring that, developing that, and feeding into that. All of my studies were around issues of economics, sociology, politics, and how to have a strong community-based ministry.”

The path that led him to the Hudson Valley was long and spanned nations. It all started in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where Witt noted that he “grew up in a really wonderful congregation, and what made it wonderful was that it was a community of very caring people who were committed to nurturing young people.” That experience, to being a part of “a really cool body of people, to have it as a home combined with witnessing outreach ministry that was working with youth in urban areas, started me on my path,” he said. “How can one be involved in creating community and in reaching out to people who are marginalized or excluded and help to create community with them?”

These questions would come to define a lifetime of work. Witt’s studies led him to Boston and London before he attended Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Along the way, Witt worked for a number of not-for-profits and ran a small foundation in eastern Massachusetts until one day he got a call to be the chaplain at Vassar College. As part of that post, Witt was in charge of community outreach at Christ Church in Poughkeepsie. Christ Church was the home base for an innovative organization just getting its legs at the time: Rural & Migrant Ministry. Here, Witt found the important work he had always wanted to do and the community that was so essential to that early vision. In 1991, Rural & Migrant Ministry offered Witt the position of executive director, and, just like that, “Mr. Urban became Mr. Rural.”

Rural & Migrant Ministry started small but with a big mission statement:

“We act to overcome the prejudices and poverty that degrade and debilitate people within rural New York by building communities that celebrate diversity, achieve true mutuality, and fight for dignity and opportunity to all.

“We work with rural leaders, both young and older, who are committed to equality and cooperative opportunity, especially within agricultural systems. We also support people in faith, labor, and university communities who seek to stand with rural leaders as allies.”

Rural & Migrant Ministry’s mission efforts include youth empowerment programs, coordination of the statewide Justice for Farmworkers Legislative Campaign, and education, including three education centers – in Wayne County, Sullivan County and eastern Long Island. Out of each education center flows a number of different leadership groups: youth leadership, woman’s leadership, farm worker and rural food systems leadership, and an ally leadership program. The commitment is simple but deep: Nurture leaders for rural justice.

Each program seeks to develop skills and understanding that empower individuals across the economic, educational and racial spectrum to be, as Witt describes it, “at the table.” Whether it’s the policy-making table, the altar table, or the dinner table, the organization seeks to empower the systematically disempowered and both assist and support them as they tackle the avenues necessary that lead to equal rights. Witt is quick to point out that he and the organization are not trying to push anyone out of the table – just trying to make a larger, more inclusive table that is more reflective of the world we live in, a world that is not almost exclusively white and affluent.

The organization’s direction is community-led and is careful not to simply dictate what Rural & Migrant Ministry thinks is needed. For example, up in Sullivan County, RRM held a series of town hall-style meetings, and the young people talked about the lack of economic opportunity in the area. Rural & Migrant Ministry assisted in the set-up a youth economic group and a worker cooperative called Bags for Justice, a socially conscious screen-printing business. The students are involved in all the decisions about what they are producing. A few years ago they focused on fracking; they’ve also focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and equality for farm workers. The project has led to generating income and developing transferable skills such as economics, marketing, public speaking for when the kids enter into the world and the workplace.

Another shining example is the Youth Arts Group, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. One of the projects is a short film entitled “The Dreamers Among Us.” Working with Ilene Cutler, the film featured stories about young DACA students throughout the Hudson Valley. The film was named best picture at the Hudson Valley Film Festival and best documentary at a film fest in Washington, D.C. These students go on to become assets to their community as well. One such student went so far as to become deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration.

For those folks not familiar, DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. There is no clear path to citizenship or even a green card for those in the DACA program as they were brought to this country illegally and involuntarily as children. One may not have a criminal record to have DACA status (all recipients must pass a background check), nor may one collect welfare, Medicaid, Obamacare or food stamps. The great majority of those people eligible for DACA pay income taxes and pay into Social Security (even though current policy does not make them eligible to collect Social Security). All this being said, DACA is at the center of political storm at the moment.

“They are watching their futures disappear in front of them and are worried about their family,” said Witt. “These young people are doing phenomenal work, and yet they are struggling immensely against this barrier, and it has the potential of keeping them from benefiting our community.”

While the majority of the legislative exclusions have remained in place throughout Rural & Migrant Ministry’s lifespan (for example, farm workers are not entitled to many of the basic rights that all other workers are afforded, such as a one day of rest a week, overtime, or protection when negotiating wages as a group), Witt said that the whole discussion around immigration on the national level of late has had a tremendous impact on people in our community. Witt explained that, back some 10 years ago, New York state used the border with Canada as justification to adopt all the special regulations and practices of states that share the U.S. southern border with Mexico – including granting the ability to deport people within 100 miles of the border.

New York, which historically had enjoyed a peaceful and warm relationship with the immigrant community, shifted, and suddenly there was a major uptick in arrests, and folks started to get deported in terrible ways. One example Witt offered was of a border control car that followed a Rural & Migrant Ministry Head Start bus (the organization has run a Head Start/child care program since their inception) as it dropped kids back home at the end of the day. The border control waited until the kids went to the program the next day and then raided the homes it had noted, leaving those same children to come home to empty houses. Witt emphasized, “To live in constant fear has deep implications for families and communities. It has kept children from being able to be children, people of faith from being able to worship, and driven hard-working people away from our farms."

In these unprecedented times, Rural & Migrant Ministry is focusing on two things. Firstly, they are doing what they’ve always done – helping young people prepare to be present in this world, to be hopeful and to be creative and effective in moving forward.  The organization is also participating in caucus rallies, coalitions and working to get faith leaders to show up and be present.  The ministry has also created a guide – “The Menu of Hope” – as “a resource guide for individuals, congregations, and other institutions that are looking for ways to stand with our immigrant brothers and sisters.”

The “Menu” is available for download or print order. Visit

http://ruralmigrantministry.org and/or http://bagsforjustice.com for more information.

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