In the book, “The Story of Kennett: Shaping Our Future One Child at a Time” authored by Bob George and Joan Holliday, a chapter is devoted to looking at a path forward with ideas that came out of the many interviews related to the people of the town. One of the areas that interviewees agreed needed to be addressed is a willingness to promote social justice.
Kennett Square from its beginning has become home for many immigrants. The mushroom industry, the heart of our local economy, has put out the welcome mat and has attracted a diverse agricultural population as a labor force. Around 100 years ago, it started with the Italian immigrant, who eventually became owners of mushroom farms and recruited both poor southern whites and African-Americans as their employees. In the 1950s’ this changed to the Puerto Ricans and in the 1970s’, the Mexican migrant who comprises the majority of the agricultural workforce today.
Beyond our Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos celebrations, which recognize and celebrate the large Mexican population, who are residents, as well as citizens in the area, we also need to come to grips with supporting a national immigration policy that accepts the fact that many undocumented workers staff our country. We need to address the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room and recognize the current state of affairs. It was addressed decades ago, when Ronald Reagan was President, but we didn’t get to root causes. We need to address social justice as a nation; our political systems and immigration policies are not living up to our American ideals and principles.
In Kennett, the lack of an immigration policy manifests itself in so many ways. There are three big ones that we recognize through our interviews. First, the children of undocumented workers can’t get the loans they need to go beyond high school. Even though their migrant parents only have a sixth grade education, they have dreams for their children, and the current situation limits how far their child can go in their education. Think of the interview with Christian Cordova, who was born three months after his family came to the United States, and is currently at Harvard. Just a few months separates him from one of the best educations in the world and the real possibility that he might not have even finished high school. These kids who aren’t citizens, through no fault of their own, don’t have that opportunity. A number of them receive awards at graduation for outstanding performance, but don’t get to spend them because they don’t have access to Pell grants to cover the total cost of higher education. That’s not including all the other federal and state programs that encourage an educated electorate. The parents of these children have it even worse. Second, the families live in fear of deportation, even though they are supporting our town’s economy. We tend to recognize this in the background, but not in the pervasive way it is presenting itself. These families may have lived here for ten years and the kids only know the United States as home. They also have children who were born here and are citizens, so, if they’re deported, they face the decision of breaking up their family and leaving them with relatives so that they can still have a better future. We are deporting a half million people a year and some are clamoring to throw 11 million out. The last and most appalling problem involves health care coverage and workman’s compensation. During the time of writing this book, there were two examples of a breadwinner of a family working in a mushroom house being injured on the job. The results were uniform and swift. The individuals were fired. They had no workman’s compensation and no health care. The hospital bills pile up, the families lost their cash flow and within a short time they had to deal with the threat of being out on the street. Who is going to help them?
It is time to get beyond politics and fix this problem. we believe if it wasn’t for 9/11 George Bush would have dealt with it 15 years ago, but we don’t have that excuse today. Make sure your congressional representatives know that they are part of the solution or part of the problem, and you are watching. Instead of being content to turn our heads while enjoying all the benefits of the Mexican worker’s contributions, we can welcome our Mexican residents and inform them of their rights, even as undocumented residents of our community. Several Kennett Square grassroots groups have been taking on the role of educating the undocumented residents of their rights, while living in the United States, if they are illegally arrested.
Another group that has dealt with stereotypes and injustices since the start of our country is the black community. Even though we have come a long way, we need to go further. Recognizing that Kennett was a haven for the Underground Railroad, a regeneration of that spirit was started in 2001 by Mabel Thompson, a Kennett resident who knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally. She formed the initial MLK CommUNITY Breakfast Committee, a committee which continues to meet to this day, along with the MLK Advocates. Their mission is to revitalize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of peace and harmony among all people. The annual breakfast draws a cross-section of the community, filling the Red Clay Room with over three hundred in attendance. A social justice message is given by a speaker who challenges the community to address issues that may be preventing the black community and minority groups from reaching their inalienable rights both nationally and locally.
In both the case of the migrant worker and the black community, we are learning that we are a microcosm of what is happening nationally; sadly, social injustice still abides. The American way has always been one of drawing on immigrants as an energizing and spiritualizing source. We can be part of the solution by fueling this vision and becoming activists towards this end.
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