“Yon Sel Ko”: Timely wisdom from the Haitian peasant movement at the root of the CIW

Representatives from worker and women’s rights organizations from Lesotho in Southern Africa join with representatives from the CIW and the Fair Food Standards Council in Immokalee last year following a multi-day workshop on the structure and function of the Fair Food Program. The visit was a crucial moment in the development of an important new replication of the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model that broke ground in Lesotho later that year. The painting in the background is by a Haitian artist and farmworker from Immokalee, Denis Remy, and hangs at the heart of the CIW community center.

As our nation’s public health experts urge us to do our part over the next 15 days to limit the death and devastation that COVID-19 will ultimately wreak, a lesson from the Haitian peasant movement at the root of the CIW, the Peasant Movement of Papaye, provides a timely reminder that we are, in fact, all connected…

Earlier this week we wrote that the horrible COVID-19 pandemic in which we find ourselves enveloped today “serves as a reminder that we do not, we can not, live alone in this world if we hope to survive… to borrow Dr. King’s metaphor, we live in a “world house” and if we are to protect that house, we must protect it together.”

Two days ago, our public health officials let us know exactly what we must do to protect our house, and underscored the crucial importance of the next 15 days in determining the extent of damage that this terrible virus will visit upon us:

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, emphasized in a media phone call that the next 15 days would be critical in combating the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We are in a crucial inflection point in this fight,” he said. “And we feel like the next two weeks are critical in our response. And therefore we are asking Americans to lean in for the next 15 days to slow the spread.”

Adams said that the number of sick people in the U.S. on Friday resembled the numbers in Italy from two weeks ago. For that reason, he said inaction would lead to dire circumstances. He said he was hopeful that Americans would take the threat seriously. 

“It’s going to be a tough several weeks ahead,” he said. “And things will get worse before they get better. But if we work together, and support our neighbors and each other, I’m confident we’ll get through this.” 

The prescription was simple: Social distancing.  Stay home.  Young and old.  

The Surgeon General added a special message for the American youth who may have mistakenly taken the fact that the virus is more deadly for older people and those with underlying conditions to mean that they were somehow immune from harm and so exempt from the nationwide call for solidarity through social distancing:

While the elderly and sick are the most vulnerable, Adams urged all people to take this seriously. Adams spoke directly to younger people, who might feel less inclined to practice social distancing:

“You don’t want to be the one who gives it to your grand-pop, your nana, or that loved one who you are going to see over Easter,” he said.

We here in Immokalee – a community that is particularly vulnerable to the potential devastation that this moment holds, due to the grinding poverty, crowded living conditions, and harsh working conditions unique to farmworker communities and labor camps around the country – join in urging our allies, young and old, to heed our public health officials’ warnings and to practice strict social distancing, particularly in the 15 days to come, to flatten the curve and help limit the death and destruction visited upon those more vulnerable among us.

The immortal words of the poet John Donne ring as true today as they did when he wrote them in 1623: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

“Yon Sel Ko”…

As it happens, we here in Immokalee also have a unique message from our own history to share at this critical moment that reminds us that we are, each of us, “part of the main.”

A photo by Daniel Zwerdling from an NPR story following the Taco Bell boycott victory in 2005 featured the painting hanging in the CIW’s first community center. Also pictured is Romeo Ramirez, an early CIW staff member.

The photo at the top of this post features a painting that welcomes all who enter the CIW’s community center in Immokalee.  It was painted by a Haitian artist and farmworker, Denis Remy, in early 1996.  Denis was a leader in the first general strike in Immokalee in November of 1995, during which he was (unjustly) arrested.  After his release he painted the piece and donated it to the CIW to hang in our first-ever community center (right), a small, storefront office just a block from where the CIW center stands today.  

The work represents the essence of the CIW’s message in the immigrant farmworker community of Immokalee, where for years ethnic and linguistic divisions were exploited by farm bosses and owners to keep workers from coming together around their common interests and pressing for more just conditions.  At the upper left corner are the words, in Haitian Creole, “Yon Sel Fos,” translated in Spanish on the right, “Una Sola Fuerza,” or “One Strength”.  It was that message – that only when we realize that we are one community of workers with common interests, regardless of race or nationality or gender, can we truly come together to defend those interests as one, unified force – that overcame the historic divisions that had left Immokalee vulnerable to the predations of crewleaders and growers for generations and launched the movement that ultimately gave birth to the Fair Food Program. 

But the roots of that message run deeper than even the foundational 1995 general strike in Immokalee. 

The Haitian peasant movement, Mouvman Peyizan Papay (the Peasant Movement of Papaye), was founded in the 1970s in the Central Plateau region of Haiti, and by the 1980s had become a national movement made up of thousands of small groups based in rural communities around the country.  Many of the CIW’s key early leaders were longtime members and “animators” (the Haitian term for organizers) of the MPP before coming to Immokalee in the early 1990’s as political refugees, following a military coup there.  The organizing skills and culture they brought to Immokalee were crucial strands of the unique DNA that gave rise to the CIW in 1993.  It could be argued that the MPP was the rasin manman – or “mother root” – of the CIW, the taproot that ran from the Caribbean all the way to Florida, the source of all that was to grow in Immokalee’s fertile ground, from the the early strikes of the 1990s to the Worker-driven Social Responsibility model that spread to three continents, and counting, today.

Indeed, the words on the upper left of Deny’s painting, “Yon Sel Fos” are a paraphrasing of one of the definitional metaphors of the MPP, captured in the words in the headline of today’s post, “Yon Sel Ko.”

As part of an organizing strategy that keeps thousands of small groups, each with an average of 10-15 members, successfully bound up in a national peasant movement with tens of thousands of members, the MPP designed a series of initial meetings that all MPP “gwoupman” undertake in the process of formation.  Each meeting has a theme, a reflection on a crucial concept – on the forces that keep us divided, the beliefs that we hold that aid those forces, and the beliefs we need to adopt to overcome them – that fosters the community consciousness crucial to long-term, sustainable organizing.  

One of those meetings is titled “Yon Sel Ko,” in which group members begin with a reflection on the human body, and the natural interconnectedness of all its limbs and parts.  If someone pulls on your hand, your whole body moves; on your foot, your whole body moves; pull on your leg, your arm, your head, and your whole body moves.  Though every limb and part of our body is different, and has a different function, every part of the body is indivisible from the whole.  From there, the connection is made to the community as a single body made up of many parts, in which what happens to one of us affects us all.  If the nascent gwoupman is to become a successful, healthy group, the fate of one of its members must be understood, and felt, to be the fate of the group as a whole; likewise, the fate of each group is the fate of the movement as a whole, and the fate of the movement, the fate of the country.  From that foundation, millions of peasants who had been marginalized and exploited for centuries in Haiti were able to find their voice and take their seat at the country’s table for the first time through the work of the MPP.

Our challenge today…

In the early days of the CIW, that message, translated to the hardscrabble world of Immokalee as “Yon Sel Fos,” rang out in the dusty streets of a long-invisible farmworker community for the first time, and as with the MPP, we overcame forces that had relentlessly exploited those who harvest our food for centuries.  But we cannot claim ownership of the concept.  From Donne’s famous “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” to the IWW’s “An injury to one is an injury to all,” to Dr. King’s “single garment of destiny,” and to the MPP’s “Yon Sel Ko,” the concept has echoed down through history whenever, and wherever, communities have faced an existential challenge. 

Today, we face another such challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic.  And though we are sure to face unimaginable struggles and sadness in the coming days and weeks, we here in Immokalee are heartened by a simple thought, captured in a message from social media this week, one of so many messages urging real solidarity in the face of this monster: “Never has it been so easy to save another’s life – stay home.”

And so, our call from Immokalee to the Fair Food Nation has never been so simple. Stay home. Please, stay home.  

For the next 15 days, if you truly believe that we are all connected, that we are all limbs of a single body, then you will act accordingly, and you will save lives. Our struggle with this virus will not end in 15 days, that much is clear. But what we do over the next two weeks will determine how many people die, plain and simple. Yes, we have already lost precious time to the unconscionable inaction of those who hold the power to mobilize our nation from Washington. They left us uninformed and unprotected as the tsunami that threatens us today approached our shores. That must be said. But we are not powerless to protect ourselves. What we do in the next two weeks, each and every one of us – our actions, and the actions we model for others we love – will determine whether we overwhelm our health care system with desperately sick people and force our brave medical professionals to ration care, or we maintain a manageable flow of critical patients and weather the storm.

Nou tout se yon sel ko. 

Please, do your part.