July 15, 2013

J-Build Portland: A Group United

A Recap of J-Build Portland, July 1-7

By Daniel Barondes

This week J-Build changed its focus from working with City Repair (during which we built and delivered mobile libraries to various locations in Portland) and teamed up with  Habitat for Humanity, the Sigma Project and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN). For those readers who struggle with languages (myself, included) PCUN  translates to the Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United. PCUN essentially lends a hand to undocumented migrant workers who find themselves at a loss when it comes to their fight for better wages, housing, and overall treatment.

Facing New Realities Together

We began our time with this agency by viewing the homes in which the workers live. However, we soon came to the conclusion that calling these living arrangements a “home” is quite misleading. Some workers stay in cramped two-bedroom shacks where one will often find a total occupancy of ten or more residents. Air conditioning is completely out of the question and we quickly realized that it’s not only the farmworkers who live in these disturbing conditions, their children do, as well. It is upsetting to imagine the hardships that these people, who are not treated as such, face on a daily basis. A normal day for a farmworker consists of extremely long hours, backbreaking physical labor, and little rest; some do not even eat.

One might ask why these farmworkers do not simply demand proper treatment, or perhaps stage a strike. Our visit led us to ask an important question, one that has been pivotal in PCUN’s endeavors–should migrant farmworkers, most of whom live in this country illegally, possess the “inalienable rights” enjoyed by American citizens? Recent events have shown that reactions to this debate are overwhelmingly against the workers. In addition, those farmworkers who are, in fact, citizens of the United States are still hampered by the fact that the rights of farmers to organize and initiate collective bargaining is interestingly left out of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Overall, we were shocked by the injustices farmworkers (migrant and stationary, alike) face. Unfortunately, it is difficult for either side to concede, because many of these migrant workers are here illegally in the first place. It is an issue that remained at the heart of our discussions throughout our time working with PCUN, and one which we will likely continue to struggle with during our last week in Portland, and even after we return home.

Working Together

While volunteering with PCUN, we assisted with various on-site construction projects  that included building a bioswale to regulate water runoff, constructing a shed for tools, painting a handicapped ramp, planting flora on top of a green roof, and installing a new fence to surround PCUN’s headquarters. A big part of PCUN’s ideology is sustainability and this value can be seen by their CAPACES Leadership Institute, a building that is 100% GREEN and totally self-sufficient.

Later on in the week we spent time with Habitat for Humanity where the J-Build ‘Rip City Crew’ (our group’s nickname, credits to Professor Josh Sklar) taped virtually every door frame, window, and corner for painting. The house we were working on was located in Southeast Portland and was part of Habitat for Humanity’s revitalization project. Although the paint fumes may have smelled somewhat offensive, the work was still gratifying.

We also became acquainted with Jesse, aka Sigma, founder of the Sigma Project. This project “was founded to grow sustainable local produce for the disadvantaged community while creating independence through the teaching process.” Some of the work we performed included removing the sod from a future garden, landscaping work, and planting seeds.

Growing Together

And while we’ve worked hard, we’re also taking advantage of our three short weeks in Portland. Last Tuesday, to celebrate the birthdays of Elliot and Tobin, the counselors surprised us with a trip to Voodoo Doughnuts, a locale which features a wild assortment of doughnuts, from fruit loops to maple syrup with bacon. On July 4th we took advantage of our day off and slept in late (a.k.a. 9 a.m.) had a breakfast of delicious pancakes. We visited the biggest urban park in the United States, walked a couple trails and spent the rest of the day at a popular Blues Festival, where we listened to some “killer” jams. As July 4th came to a close we viewed a firework display over the Willamette River before heading for home.

On Friday, the crew prepped for our camping trip, and at around 3 o’clock we packed up our belongings and headed for Oxbow Regional Park. J-Build spent three days and two nights at Oxbow and it was a major bonding experience. On Saturday we played Truth-Truth-Lie, a game where we were divided into groups of three. Two people came up with a truth, while the other stated a lie. It was the job of the other groups to determine who is telling the lie. This game was not only fun, but also revealed a great deal about ourselves and our lives.

On Sunday we discussed, in groups of five, the importance of religion in marriage and everyone shared his or her opinion on the matter. I personally feel that we arrived at the park as a group of volunteers – with some knowing certain people better than others – but left as an inseparable family. We shared Shabbat and Havdallah together, meals by the campfire, nights  under the stars, a little karaoke singing, and most importantly, our thoughts, feelings and values (some quite personal). This week has served as a crucial discovery stage for everyone on J-Build Portland. I can only imagine what the next two weeks have in store.

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