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Workplace education center helps low-wage workers in rural New York develop needed skills and savvy

September 13, 2010

For such a small town, the number was big and the implications disturbing.


Eighty. That’s how many vacant storefronts the teen-agers counted in the village of Monticello, in rural Sullivan County, one of the poorest counties in New York, and one of the northernmost counties of Appalachia. And in those still open for business, the teens found shopkeepers that were by turns angry, fearful and altogether disheartened and feeling powerless about the roadway construction that has diverted traffic, blocked entrances and ruined parking.


“This is a big issue,” said 14-year-old Autumn Mason, who had spent the afternoon talking to local businesspeople. “People are scared to speak up, but I’m tired of it. If someone doesn’t say something, then officials might not be aware of how the people feel. Even if they don’t do anything, at least you said something.”


The Rev. Richard Witt is pleased to hear Autumn expressing that attitude. It’s a feistiness he’s trying to implant throughout the community – a sense of empowerment that will encourage the people of Sullivan County to stand up for their rights.


“It’s a little radical,” acknowledges Witt, associate priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church of Monticello and executive director of Rural & Migrant Ministry, a Jubilee Ministry sponsored by the Episcopal dioceses of New York and Rochester. “In our Youth Empowerment Program we’ve partnered with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to have union members come do workshops about what a union is, how union campaigns work. We’re doing that because those basic skills are helpful whether one has anything to do with unions or not. How do you bring people together to change power structures? How do you strategize around solving a problem?”


Much of the work of Rural & Migrant Ministry in Sullivan County is centered around the Workplace Education Center, which is housed in the St. John’s vicarage. Since opening a year ago, the center has been a place where low-wage workers – especially farm workers – can come to develop the skills and savvy they need to improve their working and living conditions.


“We’re trying to be a place that brings people together, not just to avoid conflict or have a false peace, but to have true justice,” said Witt. “Some of the workshops and organizing efforts at the center are geared to improving people’s awareness of their rights in the workplace, planting seeds for organizing campaigns, bringing people together to overcome their fear and ignorance of one another.”


One of four Jubilee Ministries in the nation to receive a $15,000 Jubilee Ministry grant last year, the center has used the funding to help with staffing and operating costs, especially transportation costs. “Part of the thing with trying to do rural ministry is that the people are really isolated and widespread geographically,” said Witt. “Getting people to things often involves our driving them because they don’t have cars and there’s no public transportation. Part of what makes doing rural ministry so hard is finding money to pay for gas and insurance. It’s hard to find donors who want to pay for those kinds of basic operating costs. So it was a tremendous blessing that Jubilee is willing to invest in us, to partner with us in a county that has only one charitable foundation and no United Way.”


Witt said successes in the community are hard to measure, but he sees progress in the changing attitudes of the community. “I think people are starting to see that there is a place dedicated to them that they can call their own,” Witt said. “It has to do with a sense of affirmation. People are used to not having anything happen around here, to being ignored, to being trivialized. Now there are these programs that are happening, emerging, developing. That’s hopeful.”


But he acknowledges that funding remains an issue. “We’re really doing all this on a shoestring,” he says. “We’re not about having a lot of resources to do this.”


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