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Documenting an Important Encounter: Fostering Sustainable Intercultural Exchange

By Rebecca (Becky) Kennerly, Ph.D., Tyson Davis, M.A.,
and Lyndell Nelson, B.S. (student)Georgia State

Rebecca (Becky) Kennerly, Ph.D., Tyson Davis, M.A., and Lyndell Nelson, and their student are from Georgia Southern University Statesboro, Georgia. Versions of this essay have been presented at the Georgia Communication Association Conference, February 2009, Carrollton, Georgia and at the SoTL Commons: International Conference on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, March 2009, Statesboro, Georgia.

Chatterton (2008) advocates a collaborative process that 1) gives voice to the dreams and desires of real people struggling for justice and equality, 2) provokes productive discussion by bringing our community work into the classroom, into our scholarship, and into the public, and 3) that brings our students out to engage in the world(s) we study.  In the Spring of 2008 two professors at Georgia Southern University (GSU) stepped up to Chatterton’s call by planning and executing a collaborative service learning opportunity with students in Intercultural Communication and Advanced Video Production courses, and the Southeast Georgia Communities Project (SECGP).  SEGCP is a non-profit organization serving needy families and migrant/seasonal farm workers in the area.  Students produced a ten minute video documenting their service-learning experience with SEGCP and their conversations with Mexican migrant workers.  The video is used as an educational and fund raising tool by SEGCP and GSU faculty.  The entire project became a step toward a sustainable working relationship between the university and Latino/a community in the region. In this essay, the authors discuss how they came to be involved in the project, their preparation for the field trip, and their field/service experience. They conclude with a discussion of outcomes, including other community-based learning opportunities that the project set in motion. 

Video Part1
Video Part 2

Georgia StateDocumenting an Important Encounter: Fostering
Sustainable Intercultural Exchange
Chatterton (2008) encourages scholars to spend as much time as possible working outside of the university with/in communities in need of support.  The author also extols universities as “amazing places of encounter, conflict, diversity and debate (not to mention resources), and it is crucial that we find ways to defend and expand these and open them up to others” (p.421).  To bring these worlds together Chatterton (2008) advocates a collaborative process that 1) gives voice to the dreams and desires of real people struggling for justice and equality, 2) provokes productive discussion by bringing our community work into the classroom, into our scholarship, and into the public, and 3) that brings our students out to engage in the world(s) we study.  In his conclusion, he exhorts us to “[p]ush the boundaries, kick up a fuss, organize with friends” (2008, p.426).  The authors of this essay stepped up to Chatterton’s call not only in terms of the project in which they participated, but in the writing of this essay as well.

In the Spring of 2008 two professors planned and executed a collaborative service learning opportunity with twenty two students in an Intercultural Communication course, sixteen students in an Advanced Video Production course, and the Southeast Georgia Communities Project (SECGP).  The courses are taught in the Communication Arts Department at Georgia Southern University (GSU). The department offers four-year programs in Communication Studies, Public Relations, Journalism, Broadcasting, and Theatre, the university is a Carnegie Doctoral Research Institution.  SEGCP, established in 1995, is an award-winning non-profit community-based organization serving needy communities and migrant/seasonal farm workers and their families in the Lyons, Georgia area.  The service area is about 45 miles southwest of campus and is renowned for sweet and juicy Vidalia Onions - picked largely by migrant/seasonal workers from Mexico.  The organization, awarded for exemplary service in 2003 by the Leadership for a Changing World Program and the Advocacy Institute/Ford Foundation, is funded by federal and state grants, and citizen donations of money, goods, and services (Southeast Georgia Communities, 2008). Andrea Hinojosa, the Co-founder, Executive Director, and Program Coordinator of SEGCP reported that in 2007 the organization served over 2,500 clients and that the client load was increasing while funding was diminishing: the recently enacted Georgia law SB 529 carries stringent consequences for being in the country illegally, and this has given rise to negative attitudes toward Hispanic people in general and migrant workers in particular.  Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports, “Latinos routinely are cheated out of wages, are denied basic health protection and fall victim to racial profiling” (Brice, 2009, np). SPLC President Richard Cohen told CNN reporter Arthur Brice, "We're talking about a matter of basic human rights here …we’re creating an underclass of people who are invisible to justice [while] undermining our country's fundamental ideals" (2009, np).


Georgia StateNear the end of the Spring 2008 semester, faculty and students of both classes traveled to the headquarters of SEGCP for an orientation, visited a migrant worker camp to participate in a short service-learning activity, and then toured an onion processing plant. Several positive outcomes resulted from this activity.  Students produced a ten minute video documenting the trip, showed the video to project collaborators, and wrote reflective papers about the experience. 

The video is now used as an educational and fund raising tool by SEGCP and GSU faculty.  The entire project has become a step toward a sustainable working relationship between the university and Latino/a community in the region.  Drawing from Sitzia (2003) who notes that “many products are possible from one [collaborative] project” (np), this essay is yet another product or outcome of our collaborative service learning project.

In this essay, we discuss from the instructors’ and student perspectives how we came to be involved in this collaborative service learning project, our preparation for the field trip, and our field/service experience. We conclude with a discussion of outcomes of this project, including other community-based learning opportunities that the project set in motion. 

Organizing with Friends

Becky’s Story

I am a performance studies scholar interested in oral history performance and what Sharrow (2004) would call historical ethnography: my research into the historiographical and everyday-life performance of memorialization led me to investigate roadside shrines built people to honor loved ones killed in auto-related incidents, some of whom are Mexican migrant workers (see Kennerly 2003; 2008; 2009).  Looking for an academic community with similar interests, I found and am fortunate to be working with the Committee for Tolerance and Community Collaboration (CTCC), an ad hoc committee at GSU whose primary interest is promoting education about, communication with, and advocating for services and justice for Latino/a people in Southeast Georgia.  CTCC members share resources and educational processes and projects, and represent a broad range of disciplines including but not limited to political science, history, nursing, communication arts, geography, and Hispanic studies.  CTCC partners include the Multicultural Student Center, the Hispanic Student Association, SEGCP, Magnolia Coastlands Area Health Education Center, Voces Unidas, and local churches (Sabia, 2008).  It is largely due to CTCC founder Debra Sabia and Andrea Hinojosa, who have worked together for many years and who I am now privileged to call colleagues and friends, who made the project in discussion possible.

Georgia StateEvery spring for the past several years during the onion harvest, SEGCP invites GSU faculty and students to witness the back-breaking work of picking and processing the onions--always an educational and often shocking experience for students in particular.  In the spring of 2007 at a CTCC benefit dinner for SEGCP, I posed this question to Andrea: “It is clear to us how our students benefit from our field trips to Lyons, but how do the workers feel about that?”  Andrea replied that some of the workers said they felt bad, like they were a tourist attraction. She then quickly reassured us of how appreciative she is for our help.  Thus began the quest to find a project that might foster dialogic engagement between all individuals and within communities.  This quest is guided by an ethic that acknowledges that we are responsible for the culture(s) in which we live by the work(s) in which we participate: fostering the tourist gaze which can objectify others is anathema to our perspective.  We wanted to help make something, set something in motion, which fostered genuine exchange.

In the spring of 2008 I asked Tyson Davis to collaborate in documenting our field trip to Lyons in the hopes that together we could increase student education and service experience while creating a product that both organizations could use for community education and fund raising.  Tyson’s professional video expertise and previous experience with the migrant population was an important element in coordinating the project.

Tyson’s Story:             

Prior to my employment at GSU, I was a Services Specialist III with the Georgia Department of Labor for seven years, and was regularly exposed to the extreme difficulties faced by migrant seasonal farm workers.  I routinely helped these workers with placements at agricultural co-ops throughout the state. I saw firsthand the implied discrimination against migrant workers and the sad journey of men and women desperate to become more than onion pickers, but restricted by the government and the people who would employ them to work in the hot Georgia fields, reduced to little more than a Serf class whose language barriers keep them unemployable in the traditional workforce.

During my employment with the Labor Department I also produced and hosted community-related television programming on a quarterly basis for the PAX affiliate in Brunswick, Georgia.  On numerous occasions I produced multi-cultural programming for the entire community, and was assisted by a translator when news pertained to the Hispanic population.  My media experience influenced my decision to return to the university as an instructor and my excitement about working on this project.  It was fortuitous that Lyndell Nelson, a senior in the Communication Arts Department, was enrolled in both of our classes: as you will read later in this essay, it is Lyndell Nelson’s fine work as lead interviewer and video project director that made for the professional “heart” of the video.

Georgia StatePreparing Students to Engage in the Community

Becky: Preparing Intercultural Communication Students

The Intercultural Communication course considers the important role of social, cultural, and historical contexts in intercultural interactions: course readings are from Martin and Nakayama (2004) Intercultural Communication in Contexts, with supplementary readings from Gonzales, Houston and Chen (2004) Our Voices: Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication.  Student projects required reflection about how others have co-constructed their identity in terms of race, class, gender and sexuality, and about how they are an active agent in creating themselves and the world around them.  Students conducted participant-observer ethnographic projects: they engaged in an event (festival, religious service, etc.) with a cultural group different from their self-identified cultural group.  Students kept journals, wrote papers, and presented findings to the class.

Students prepared specifically to meet with migrant workers by reading and discussing the chapters concerning histories of migration, integration, resistance, culture shock, etc.  In addition, several weeks prior to our field trip students were introduced to Andrea Hinojosa and her work with SEGCP at a series of lectures sponsored by CTCC at GSU.

Lyndell Nelson: Preparing for the Field           

In the Intercultural Communication class we discussed migration and racial and cultural identities. The intimate class setting allowed students to open up to each other early in the semester. We discussed our preexisting stereotypes and expectations of what we would see, feel and experience in Lyons. We were prepared for the language barrier but we were able to communicate with the help of several translators: two students were reasonably fluent in Spanish, and also helping to translate—and who served as gatekeepers to the migrant worker community—were SEGCP Programs Coordinator Lisa Anderson, SEGCP La Red Outreach Worker Lisa Florez, and GSU professor Mondi Mason, head of the nursing and rural health program.

Georgia StateI was also anxious and excited to apply my video production skills in the field. It was hard to balance my training from the two classes; in video production I’d been taught to approach stories objectively and critically, to get the facts and stay emotionally at bay. However, based on the Intercultural Communication class, I planned to treat the experience with an emotional and sociological perspective. The combination of training led to the creation of an eye-opening experience and a worthy product.

 Tyson Davis: Preparing Advanced Video Production Students

Students from the Intercultural Communication class and my Advanced Video Production class merged during the field trip, but prior to that the video production team prepared on their own. Lyndell acted as a lynchpin because she integrated the intellectual and practical material from both classes. 
            Several weeks prior to the trip to Lyons we conducted interviews with Intercultural Communication students. Many students acknowledged their place of privilege and comfort, the reach of their hopes and dreams, and their desire to better understand people who they know live and work in their community but who for all intents and purposes remain in the shadows. We ended up with twenty hours of shooting and editing prior to the trip which mentally prepared the Video Production students for the field.  We also prepared for possible field changes based on weather conditions, the specific location of the workers, and the ethic guiding our project to “do no harm” with respect to the workers’ privacy.  Given the limits of what we might and might not be able to shoot, the pre-event work helped the Advanced Video team consider a range of possibilities in terms of writing and framing the story.

Voicing Dreams, Desires, Inequalities: Documenting an Intercultural Exchange
Due to the heavy rain during the days leading up to our trip, the fields were too wet to harvest.  Consequently, the workers were taking a forced day off: farm workers are paid by the bushel, so if there is no work, there is no pay.  We visited the workers at a “camp” for single men—men whose families are not with them.  The men live in low cement buildings, twelve to a small two bedroom, one bathroom suite: each man paid $300 per week to the farmer who housed and contracted them to work.  Students were shocked to learn that unless the men buy a communal washing machine, they had to wash their clothes in the sink. 

Georgia StateWe assisted SEGCP staff during a health visit, handing out print information about disease prevention, a flyer promoting a free health clinic, condoms, water, and crackers.  The staff also advised a few men about their individual health issues.  During this time we took a few snap shots and videotaped - with the worker’s verbal permission - the exchange between the men, the students, and SEGCP service providers. 

When the health visit came to a close, one of the migrant workers requested help with his cell phone, and one of the SEGCP administrators served as a translator with the phone service provider: this took over an hour to resolve.  Students and faculty were standing around wondering what to do when several of the workers came out into the common area and asked if they could practice their English with the students, and the Spanish-speaking students facilitated the conversations.  One question in particular sparked lively exchange, “Why are some people in Georgia more mean to us than in other states?”  Students tried to explain how recent state laws have caused some people believe “that discrimination is allowed” (Maus in Brice, 2009, np), but they ended up saying that some people are afraid of what and who they don’t understand, which seemed to be the more satisfying answer to the workers.  When one man agreed to a recorded interview, several of his compadres also agreed to talk with Lyndell on camera. 

Georgia StateThe length of the recorded interviews with the workers on the final documentary is approximately four minutes long and richer than can be reported here. The men we interviewed on tape told us that it was necessary to travel north to find jobs because there was no work in their own country.  One man said that his goal was to make enough money to one day start a small business in his home town in Mexico so that he could give jobs to his people.  One man was glad that there were people who cared about them here in Georgia: it is lonely without his family.  The men also said that they very much would like a copy of the video when we were finished with it, and we promised to do so.

At the onion processing plant students videotaped the towering stack of onions packed in wooden crates, the forklifts whizzing between the stacks of boxed onions and the assembly line, and of the workers standing alongside the moving belts, bending over and sorting onions into size categories and packaging them for shipment to regional and international markets: the majority of the workers were Hispanic women.  We did not interrupt their work for conversation.  We returned to SEGCP and interviewed the administrators who talked about the organization’s mission.  Programs Coordinator Lisa Anderson told us that it was their job to go directly into the camps and the fields to bring essentials to the workers, and to coordinate services with other providers.  La Red Outreach Worker Lisa Florez said that SEGCP was a place where needy families could receive counseling, food and clothing, and that administrators act as a liaison between the Spanish and the English speaking communities.

Georgia StateProvocative Responses and Continuing Conversations
The Advanced Video production team put in approximately twenty hours of post production work.  Lyndell and Tyson wrote the voice over for the documentary together, and Lyndell performed the voice-over for the documentary. Tyson used the editing of the project as a “how to” demonstration for his students.  Becky invited the GSU students in both classes, the administrators of SEGCP, and the members of the CTCC committee to attend the first showing and discussion of the project and the future use of the video.  Students also wrote reflective responses to their field experiences as part of their take-home final exam.

Lyndell Nelson and other student participants report that the project greatly contributed to knowledge of the Mexican migrant population in our region, some of the work they do, and why it is that they might leave their homes to work in the US.  Students also took responsibility for how--prior to the class--their perspectives about Mexican migrants and migrant workers had been funded for the most part by negative stereotypes encountered in the media.  Students reported that they were grateful for the opportunity to be of some small service to the workers, and expressed hope that the video could help ‘make a difference.’

SEGCP is using the video to promote their services, and for community education and grant-seeking and fund-raising efforts. The video was shown and discussed at the 2009 CTCC benefit dinner for SECGP hosted by Trinity Episcopal Church in Statesboro, Georgia: the benefit raised a record $2,000 to help fill SEGCP’s depleted food bank.  SEGCP service providers will also distribute copies of the video to the men who participated in the interviews if/when they return to harvest the 2009 crop of Vidalia onions. 

Lyndell, Tyson and Becky have extended this work further in hopes of building a sustainable and mutually enriching relationship with the multiple communities that the projects engage.  Lyndell, who graduated with her BS from GSU in May 2009, completed her internship with WSAV, a Savannah television station, where she used what she learned in the field about having an informed empathy combined with the necessary objectivity to see and connect with the heart of a news story.  Tyson and a new set of student videographers, along with Mondi Mason and her nursing students, will be returning to work with SEGCP during the 2009 onion harvest to document an actual rural health clinic and hopefully interview more students, more workers and other members of our Georgia community. Becky showed the 2008 documentary to her students in Performance, Culture, Communication, a new course she is piloting. The documentary prepared students to conduct oral history interviews of their own for the project entitled Oral History Performance: Mexican Migration and Migrant Workers Out of the Shadows. The goal of the oral history project is to perform the interviews and incite discussion at the 2010 CTCC fund raising dinner for SEGCP and at SEGCP for the Hispanic community there, with students and CTCC members in attendance.  

We are grateful for the opportunity to share this work with readers of Community Works Journal.  Overall we have learned that talking and writing together about our community-based projects meets an ethical obligation to the people we serve in the furtherance of a greater awareness of their need, our mutual human-ness, and our responsibility as activist-scholars, and that fosters a greater understanding of the interdependent communities in which we live and work.

Brice, A. (2009). Report: Southern Latinos not treated with Southern hospitality. Retrieved 24 May 2009

Chatterton, P. (2008). Demand the possible: Journeys in changing our world as a public activist-scholar. Antipode, 40(3): 421-427.

Gonzales, A., Houston, M., & Chen, V. (Eds.) (2004). Our Voices: Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication (4th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.

Kennerly, R. M. (2002). Getting messy: In the field and at the crossroads with roadside shrines.  Text and Performance Quarterly 22(4): 229-260.

-Locating the gap between grace and terror: Performative research and spectral images of (and on) the road. Forum: Qualitative Social Research Special Issue: Performative Social Science 9(2). Retrieved 25 May 2009

[Forthcoming]. Locating community, memory and meaning-making in the performative gap: An experiment in aesthetics, autoethnography, and the ethic of the unfinished.  Iowa Journal of Communication Special Issue: Autoethnography II.

Martin, J. N., & Nakayama, T. K. (2004). Intercultural Communication in contexts (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Sabia, D. (2008). Yearend report: Faculty service grant for “Collaborative Communities.” Office of the Provost Linda Blieken, Georgia Southern University.

Sharrow, G. (2004). "Discovering Community." Community Works Journal Vol. 7, No. 1: pp. 5, 33.

Sitzia, L. (2003). A shared authority: An impossible goal? The Oral History Review (n.p.). Retrieved 17 Feb. 2008

Southeast Georgia Communities Project (2008). [brochure]. Andrea Hinojosa (Exec. Dir.) Southeast Georgia Communities Project, Lyons, GA.

Welcome to SEGCP. Retrieved 24, May 2009

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