Crops of Connection
The Last Word
by Rachel Winner '09
October 3, 2011
Rachel Winner ’09 (left) works with children in the Community Links International afterschool program in Tecuanipan, Mexico. Here they perform a skit wearing the masks of characters they have created—a butterfly, a bee and a dark knight.
Riding the trains through the Chinese countryside during a Dickinson summer program, I always concentrated on the farmers trudging through the rice marshes behind their yaks and carts. These marsh marchers are the foundation of Chinese society—they grow the food placed on every table at every meal all across the country. Three years later, zipping down the road past rows of corn in Mexico, I stare out at the campesinos (farm workers) meandering through the milpas (corn fields) with their machetes in hand. I realize the parallel social structures and begin to draw connections between their lives and my own history.
Today I had the opportunity to join our neighbors, who were planting beans. They create rows by walking barefoot across the field, and in each footprint, they drop three beans, then top them with the swish of a foot. No tractor. No measurements or straight lines. Just step. Drop. Swish.
I close my eyes and see myself on the Dickinson College Farm. The wind smells of a moist mixture of mustard greens, sweet grass and compost. My co-workers are sweating in the greenhouses as they thin the bean sprouts. Farm Director Jenn Halpin is hard at work planning the next cycle of crops. Here in Mexico, the wind smells of burnt garbage, donkey dung and approaching rain. The wild dogs relieve themselves in the dusty rows of corn, then bolt into the road to chase a speeding bus, barely avoiding being clipped. Even though the smells, sounds and rituals are different, with my first few steps in the bean field I think, “I know you. I, too, am a farmer. I, too, am connected with the land.”
It was on the College Farm that I first realized my passion for making connections. People would step onto the land, and you could visibly see their shoulders relax and the stress escape them like steam. They felt inspired by our team’s work—the tenderness with which we cultivated the land and animals, the proactive changes we were making in the school’s culinary and waste-management programs, the subtle alterations we were enacting in municipal policies. Our guests wanted to be part of that, and I loved firing them up about their potential.
Similarly fired up, I decided to apply my Dickinson education to a volunteer position in Mexico. I have been working for Enlaces Comunitarios Internacionales (Community Links International) since March. We guide American student groups through service-learning experiences in a small village called Tecuanipan.
Through service projects, the high-school and college kids learn about environmental, political and social issues in Mexico: How do our policies affect Mexican immigration into the United States? Everyone in Tecuanipan has family members who have supported them by washing dishes or spinning pizza dough in New Jersey. The students witness the water crisis firsthand when they stay with host families and pour water from buckets to flush the toilet waste straight into the river. This inspired us to build a dry-compost toilet to divert some of that waste from the streams. We constructed it with cob, which is an ancient and geographically diverse building material, using clay, hay and mud, to demonstrate natural building practices and reinforce environmental responsibility and local investment.
I see my work as promoting the positive aspects of globalization—bringing together citizens of the world. I want to evoke that association for groups that come to visit: an experience, a conversation, a familiar smell to trigger a connection. You are part of me, and we are all linked beyond our nationalities to the greater issues that face this and future generations. I want to connect people, and I thank Dickinson for connecting me.
Rachel Winner ’09, a native of Asheville, N.C., earned a B.A. in international studies and minored in Spanish. She worked for the Dickinson College Farm for three years and was a resident of the Treehouse. Rachel played for the Jive Turkeys ultimate Frisbee team for four years and was captain her senior year. She intends to stay in Mexico until November, after which she may pursue a master’s degree in sustainable food or work in another international nonprofit in sustainability.