Documentary Studies 162S: Farmworkers in NC: Poverty

Charles D. Thompson

Charles D. Thompson

Documentary work is storytelling," says Charlie Thompson, director of education and curriculum for the Center for Documentary Studies. "We use images and films and oral histories to help bring stories of people who are the unsung of our society to larger audiences." In close collaboration with Student Action with Farmworkers, students in Thompson's class become a part of a long history of collaboration, advocacy, and art by documenting and working side by side with farmers in the fields of North Carolina. However, before students can place themselves within farmworking culture, they must understand the complex history of farmwork in America.

"Farmwork has always depended on people who were unable to move out of that work in one way or another," explains Thompson. During the colonial era, North Carolina landowners used slaves to tend and harvest their crops. Thompson says that after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, plantations relied on sharecropping, a system that bound laborers to landowners by requiring workers to trade their labor for the land, goods, and tools they needed, ensnaring them in a cycle of debt.

Today, the majority of farmworkers are migrants, trapped by socioeconomic status. Because many are recent or illegal immigrants, they find their opportunities for alternative employment restricted by language barriers and legal obstacles, or by the necessity to remain undetectable within the society they live, Thompson says.

It is these invisible individuals whom Thompson wishes to show his students. "I want students to speak knowledgably about the fact that there really are human beings who are still part of our food system who are in many cases exploited," he says. However, he adds, he does not want his students to take any action out of guilt or to feel bad about privilege. He wants them "to say, 'I want to do what I can given what privilege I have, to stand with, work with people who are struggling.'"

Even though many of the students who participate in Thompson's class are already involved in social causes, the class is often a life-changing experience because of the close interaction with the people they are documenting, Thompson says. It is this highly experiential learning environment that helps students develop a sense of solidarity and kinship with their subjects. The experience isn't just good for the students, but it also "helps the people who are out there in the field," Thompson points out.

"They get to meet people and feel that they're being noticed. They aren't the forgotten ones."

To remind others of farmworkers and their plight, students work on documentary projects throughout the semester, based on their experiences in the field. This year, students collaborated to put together an exhibit that showed how food reaches dining tables at Duke. The exhibit, which was displayed in November in the Faculty Commons, embodies the core of the course: advocacy and activism.

"We don't necessarily change society by doing documentary work, but we give people tools with which to change society," Thompson says. "We hope we reach people and change minds."


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Charles D. Thompson grew up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. His academic work focuses on farm labor, Latino religion and culture, indigenous peoples in Guatemala and the U.S. South, and Appalachia. He is on the advisory board of Student Action with Farmworkers and serves as a faculty adviser to Students of the World. His new book, The Old German Baptist Brethren: Faith, Farming, and Change in the Virginia Blue Ridge, will be published this year.


Cindy Hahamovitch, The Fruits of their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty
Judith Adler Hellman, Mexican Lives
Allen Parker, Recollections of Slavery Times
Daniel Rothenberg, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today
Charles Thompson and Melinda Wiggins, The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers' Lives, Labor, and Advocacy


One 10-15 page farmworker narrative
Several 1-2 page reflection papers
Several documentary reviews and responses
Documentary projects

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