Farmworker Organizer Dies But Her Work Lives On

Joan Papert Preiss,  1925-2012

In the fall of 1987, I was taking a Duke Public Policy leadership class and called Joan Preiss to ask her if I could do a student internship with the Triangle Friends of the United Farmworkers (TFUFW) as part of my coursework. I had just finished a life-changing summer internship in Belle Glade, Florida supporting farmworker organizing, but what, I thought, could I do to advocate for farmworker justice in Durham, North Carolina?

Joan, who died recently at age 87, quickly set me straight.

Before the influx of Latinos to North Carolina in the 1990s, before Student Action with Farmworkers officially started, and before the Farm Labor Organizing Committee launched a NC campaign, Joan Preiss had dedicated her life to building TFUFW.

As I arrived at her home near campus, she led me upstairs to her spare bedroom, which was filled with a typewriter, office supplies, files and posters of the United Farmworkers (UFW) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).  She bluntly asked me what I could do to support the rights of farmworkers to unionize. As a 20-year old, I stumbled for an answer. She quickly told me about the UFW’s grape boycott, handed me a VHS videotape and told me to watch it.

I came back the next week inspired by the video’s stories of farmworkers organizing in the face of chemical pesticide exposure that left their children deformed.  Joan asked me if I wanted to get Duke to support the grape boycott. I laughed nervously. Me? Sure, I had participated in Anti-Apartheid protests and Central American solidarity efforts at Duke, but at the time we had no organization on campus to support farmworkers. What we did have, though, was Joan.

Joan helped me step-by-step to organize my first political campaign. By the year’s end, I had shown the video to various dorms and organizations on campus and had petitioned Duke’s religious leaders to back the boycott. Before the school year had ended in 1988, we met with university leaders along with a committee of supporters and convinced Duke University to support the UFW Grape Boycott by banning grapes in the cafeterias.

I spent the next summer working with FLOC in Toledo, Ohio, thanks to Joan’s networking. Yes, Joan Preiss was an extraordinary social networker. She did back then what some believe the Internet can do today for activism. I am now a sociologist and study digital activism. While Internet utopian-ists wax about the power of online movements, such as Kony 2012, people forget that taking agit prop videos into people’s homes is not novel to the digital era. Joan did just that and more. She fostered deep personal connections with those she organized.

I spent a lot of time with Joan during my college years and beyond, whether in her office mailing flyers, at shopping centers while she dressed up as a bunch of grapes, or at her house for parties for her activist friends. She never stopped organizing.

And even after her death, she is still organizing – through all of the activists whom she has inspired over the years. Joan Preiss, Presente!




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