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How Funders Can Support Immigrant Communities in Today’s Environment: A Conversation with Farmworker Justice and Vista Community Clinic

In the months since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the well-being of immigrant populations is a growing concern for city and state governments, civil society organizations, and private foundations. In February, over 200 foundation leaders signed a statement condemning the immigration restrictions put in place by the new administration. Organizations like the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund and Open Society Foundations have doubled down on their support for organizations serving immigrants in these uncertain times. These foundations are taking on a larger role in persevering and advancing the economic vitality, livelihood, health, and safety of immigrant communities.

As funders consider how to support immigrants, there are important lessons from a long legacy of work in and by migrant farmworker communities. One organization that has been on the frontlines of this work for decades is Farmworker Justice.

Over the past year, Farmworker Justice has launched Unidos—a new initiative that aims to improve access to cancer screening and treatment for immigrant farmworkers and their families. Farmworkers are at high-risk for cancer—especially skin cancer—but rarely have the ability to access high-quality, timely care. The Unidos program aims to change that by establishing a network of community health workers and strengthening collaboration within local healthcare systems in farmworker communities. Building on FSG’s research with the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to identify barriers to care in the U.S., we’ve had the opportunity to support Farmworker Justice in identifying opportunities to engage funders.      

We spoke with Rebecca Young from Farmworker Justice and Rosa Flores and Herminia Ledesma from their partners, Vista Community Clinic in San Diego, to discuss how all funders can get more involved in supporting immigrant communities. 

Read highlights from our conversation, as well as their key advice for funders interested in supporting immigrant communities, below.

Key Insights:

  • Empower existing and emerging leadership within the community. The most sustainable change will arise from strengthening local leaders. Funders should incorporate local capacity building into programmatic activity. In Unidos, community leadersoften former farmworkers themselvesrun the programs.
  • Follow the energy in the system. Given the current environment, funders will need to support emerging prioritieseven if they weren’t part of the original plan. In Unidos, allowing Local Steering Committee meetings and outreach activities to be flexible to address pressing concerns about immigration allowed the program, which is primarily health-focused, to leverage its infrastructure to address an immediate need and built energy and trust within the partnership.
  • Know the community. From language to the realities of daily life, developing a deep understanding of the immigrant communities you hope to support is critical to supporting and developing effective programs.

How does Farmworker Justice impact farmworker’s lives?

In farming communities in California and Arizona, Farmworker Justice is partnering with Vista Community Clinic and Campesinos Sin Fronteras to mobilize communities to address the range barriers our farmworkers face in accessing health, particularly specialty care. With the generous support of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, we provide skin cancer screening, care navigation, and access to treatment.

At the national level, we support our community partners to drive their work forward and we also look at information and stories across communities to identify trends and best practices. We have a unique role to play in using that information to support other communities and to guide our national-level advocacy work.  

What has been effective with Unidos so far?

In other communities, we see funders who act as if “we build it and they will come.” Our experience working in several farmworker communities shows that doesn’t work—it’s not that people don’t want to access the services, but often they don’t know that they exist. Unidos is successful because we’ve empowered local leaders to meet our community where they are. Our partners can meet farmworkers in the fields, connect them to a range of resources in safe settings, and address the worries on their mind.

One of the most common ways our partners interact with community members is being an all-hours access point. For example, Maricela [a Unidos health care worker] is on call for the farmworkers in her community and they call her when they need a clinic appointment. They trust her and the conversation is not just about the appointment but about the transportation and all the uncomfortable conversations that would otherwise serve as barriers to accessing the health resources they need. They usually think that if they go to the doctor it will be a never-ending process, but someone like Maricela can get them to engage in each step of that journey.

In today’s political context, fear of deportation has stopped people from accessing health and other services. Outreach from people they know and trust is more important now than ever.

How had Unidos had to adapt in the current environment?

One of the biggest challenges we had was the issuance of executive orders on immigration. They put in place a stronger focus on enforcement, with local police acting as immigration officers. We’ve already seen fewer people coming to our outreach events and presentations.

Again, we needed to keep our community in mind and acknowledge the hierarchy of needs that people are facing today. Healthcare in our communities is often a luxury. When people have immediate needs like concern over deportation that keep them preoccupied, health just isn’t a priority.  

Recognizing that this issue is top of mind for farmworker communities, we integrated a “know your rights” awareness training component with our health outreach programming. We needed to mobilize our resources to help farmworkers across their range of needs so that they know we are a community asset they can count onand then they are more receptive to talking to you about health care.  

What considerations are important when working with farmworker communities?

This is a long-term effort. A lot of times our work is to plant the seeds in the community so that they see us as resource center when a need arises. Oftentimes organizations want to work with immigrant communities when it is convenient for them, but it’s important to be reliable and constant.

It’s also critical to know the community. Sometimes it’s about big things like language—we assume everyone will speak Spanish or English, but we need to find people who speak native dialects to reach those who are doubly marginalized. Other times, it’s about small things. We realized that offering gift cards as incentives for farmworkers to participate in preventative health screenings wouldn’t work because the stores were too far away, so we switched to small cash incentives. The biggest factor is just being out there as much as you can. 

Learn more about FSG's U.S. Health services >

Neeraja Bhavaraju

Director

Daniela Uribe

Consultant