A Lifelong Ally for Social Change
Sister Ann Kendrick has been fighting for migrant farmworkers in Apopka for 50 years. She and three fellow nuns began the Office for Farmworker Ministry in 1971 to meet the many needs of impoverished farmworkers and immigrant families. In 2007, the Catholic nuns changed the name of the organization to Hope CommUnity Center, and it became independent from the Catholic Diocese. Along with a heaping helping of hope, they offer assistance with academic support; college and career access; youth and family programs; immigration services; advocacy and community organizing; and social services including access to food, health care, housing and financial assistance.
An activist who doesn’t think twice about filing a lawsuit or marching on City Hall, Sister Ann Kendrick says the immigrant community is made up of noble, responsible people who value family, hospitality and the dignity of a good day’s work. In addition, agriculture workers have been deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We believe that the struggle for real social change, for the creation of the beloved CommUnity, involves all of us because our own liberation, our own freedom, is tied up in the freedom and liberation of all people,” Sister Ann Kendrick said.
How did you happen to take up the mantle of impoverished migrant farmworkers in Apopka five decades ago?
I came to Florida from the Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., area after the Catholic Diocese of Orlando invited me along with my fellow Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to reach out to the migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Central Florida. I had been teaching Spanish at the high school and college levels, trying to foster an understanding that language is part of culture, that culture is a bigger, deeper thing, and that there are people in the world whose vision and way of being is a little different. I hoped others would be curious and want to learn from them. I was supportive of farm labor leader Cesar Chavez in California, and I was urging my students to boycott grapes, wine and other products to bring attention to the plight of migrant workers and their need for collective bargaining protection.
In the Catholic Church, the Vatican Council was calling on nuns to return to the roots of our religious congregations. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur was founded to teach people “what they need for life,” to show the goodness of God and to serve in the “most abandoned places” where people are suffering. So I left the formal classroom and moved to the classroom of the orange groves, vegetable fields and horticultural nurseries, working among the African American farmworkers who came to Florida from Alabama and Georgia. It was also the beginning of the influx of Latinx workers from the valley of Texas and Mexico itself.
We were pretty sure we did not want to establish churches. Lots of people are involved in their churches, temples and mosques of choice, but does that bring any real change to the poverty, injustice, exploitation and rejection that people of color who are living in poverty are experiencing? We needed to work in a different way. Central Florida was and is a very racially divided society, and there was not one place where people of different racial identities lived together.
So we moved into the Black community in South Apopka to begin our work out of the garage of our house and the trunk of our car. We did not begin any projects or set any direction other than listening and learning. We built relationships with people, gained their trust, and heard about their hopes and dreams as well as the suffering and oppression they had experienced. I had planned to stay for a year or two, but I fell in love with the community and with the possibility of making a difference, of shifting power and of confronting issues that held the people hostage.
After you spent time listening and gaining the community’s trust Sister Ann Kendrick, how did you begin to help the people?
“Planning is important, but I have learned that in this work, surprising moments sometimes emerge that offer the best opportunities for making real change. And so it was with health care. There was no adequate health care for people of color. Black and brown people had to travel to Orlando to seek help, and even that was pretty inadequate. Farmworkers were dying from tuberculosis as well as exposure to chemicals in the workplace.” – Sister Ann Kendrick
We were invited to a community meeting, which resulted in the formation of a core group of leaders from the Black and Latino communities. We sought and received a federal grant to provide health care to the migrant farmworkers and opened a health care clinic in Apopka in 1972. It was in a trailer under a tree with one doctor, a nurse and one other “do it all” employee, but it has grown to become Community Health Centers, which provides affordable care to 70,000 patients, with more than 540 employees in 15 Central Florida locations.
“What’s next?” became the clarion call. Housing! People had terribly inadequate housing, but we didn’t want to build rental units that we would have to manage. Who could help us? The Quaker Church has practice in building “self-help housing”— where prospective homeowners participate in some aspects of construction — so we asked the Quakers for help, training and guidance, and we incorporated Homes in Partnership. It has built thousands of homes for low- to moderate-income families.
Financial services emerged next. Low-income people, families and farm laborers, who can be targeted and exploited by predatory lenders, often distrust financial institutions and hide their money under their mattresses. Fair loans at competitive rates are not available, and immigration status is a barrier. So once again we sought out resources to explore a possible solution. Since credit unions are democratic, cooperatively owned financial institutions, we joined the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions and learned the trade, founding the Community Trust Federal Credit Union. We operated at a basic level for more than 30 years, with a mission of putting wealth into the hands of low-income families of color, with the help of volunteers. Three years ago, we merged with the Self-Help Credit Union family and built a branch in Apopka.
Sister Ann Kendrik, as your organization has grown over decades, how has it stayed faithful to its original mission of empowering migrant and seasonal farmworkers?
With all these projects spawned from the grassroots energy of our community leadership, sometimes it can be difficult to stay true to our founding vision — empowerment of the local community — and to remain responsive to people’s needs. We felt there was a need for a membership organization of farmworkers who were dedicated and involved in their communities, and in 1983, the Farmworker Association of Florida was founded in Apopka. We work directly with the organization, which now has more than 10,000 members and five locations in Florida. They help keep the rest of us engaged and on task.
In the early days, besides working with the United Farmworkers Union of Cesar Chavez to help win a collective bargaining agreement between Coca-Cola Co. and the orange harvesters working for Minute Maid, owned by Coca-Cola, we engaged with the Black community leaders of South Apopka to address inequities in public services and infrastructure. Several Black residents sued the City of Apopka, alleging that adequate municipal services were not provided in South Apopka. That resulted in the city being required to develop access to water and sewer services, paved roads and sidewalks as well as recreational facilities in the African American side of town before any more federal revenue-sharing dollars could be spent developing high-end subdivisions in the white areas of the city.
The longevity and success of Hope CommUnity Center has been and continues to be the agile ability to read the signs of the times, tune into the suffering and dreams of the community, and pivot to see how we can respond, always with the leadership and involvement of the local community.
What services does Hope CommUnity Center provide in its attempts to move farmworkers and immigrant families toward social and economic justice?
Hope CommUnity Center is dedicated to the empowerment of Central Florida’s working poor and immigrant communities through education, advocacy and spiritual growth. Programs developed under its umbrella include academic support, which includes tutoring; college and career access; youth and family programs; immigration services, which includes helping people apply for citizenship; advocacy and community organizing to help immigrants and people of color; and social services including access to food, health care, housing and financial assistance.
We changed our name from the Office for Farmworker Ministry to Hope CommUnity Center because not everyone we served was considered a farmworker. Some worked in agriculture but not on a farm. Also, many have moved on to construction, landscaping and cleaning homes and offices, but they are still in need because of low wages and discrimination.
We took “ministry” out of our name because for many people that word indicated that we were trying to proselytize or recruit people for our church. That is NOT who we are. We are an organization born of our faith and belief that the God of our many different understandings calls us to “sacred transformative work in the world.” We believe that the struggle for real social change, for the creation of the beloved CommUnity, involves all of us because our own liberation, our own freedom, is tied up in the freedom and liberation of all people. As the spoken word poet Micah Bournes says, “You never stop fighting for your own.”
You and Sisters Gail Grimes, Teresa McElwee and Cathy Gorman spoke up for the poor for decades, and sadly, McElwee passed away in January at 91, 10 years after Gorman’s death. How are you and Grimes adapting? Do either of you plan to retire?
With an eye to the future, we are growing young leaders from the community who are already running programs and will carry on. A year ago, Hope hired its first executive director, Laura Pichardo-Cruz, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed us down a bit. We are adapting and working differently, but Gail and I do not plan to go away anytime soon. In fact, right now we are thinking deeply about the future and the work we are called to do in this next chapter of our lives. For example, how can we respond to what COVID-19, systemic racism and white supremacy have taught us as we move forward?
I am 76 and Gail is 81. We have a good board of directors and a staff of 30, most of them younger than the two of us. Hope CommUnity Center will carry on with energy because the organization is connected to the community and listens to the suffering and dreams of the people. Hope is agile and versatile in adapting to new challenges and opportunities.
Why have you, Sister Ann Kendrick devoted your life to this cause?
I fell in love with the people, the community and the possibility of making a significant difference by becoming an ally for social change with them. I love that the little bit we put into the work makes such a big, long-term change in people’s lives. They come alive. They grow in confidence and ownership of their power as human beings to create new and better conditions for life. It is a blessing for me to be able to do this work in this noble, hospitable and generous community where I receive so much more than I give.
How many people have you helped through the decades? How can people reading this right now help you help even more families?
We help more than 6,500 people in Central Florida each year. During the pandemic, we also delivered over 18,000 meals. With this food, we deliver love and connection as well.
As an Indigenous Australian activist once said, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” And so we do.
“I am proud that we have stayed the course and have continued to adapt and pivot, but mostly I am proud that we held onto our beliefs in the goodness of people, the power of community and the love of God. “- Sister Ann Kendrick
If anyone wants to work with a grass-roots organization and movement for social change, not just provide services, Hope CommUnity Center welcomes them. Ninety cents of every dollar we receive goes directly to our programs, and we need volunteers as well as financial assistance. We need everything!