I believe that law is the ultimate means for justice. Yet I know how it alone cannot protect those who follow it. When the partners in my family’s small business pulled out of their contracts, my father was advised that the expense he would incur made his dire situation not worth the fight, even though the law was “on his side.” With little capital and no support, my father’s health collapsed with the company. As a young girl, I witnessed my first case of injustice: those who broke the law continued their lives—some even prospered—but a modest, law-abiding family lost their livelihood.
Seventeen years later, I sat on a park bench in rural Apopka, Florida, interviewing an activist for farm workers’ rights. The park lay on the shore of Lake Apopka, the state’s second largest fresh water body—and the most toxic. By then, I was no stranger to seemingly impossible cases of social injustice. It was a little over a year since I had organized a community forum on homelessness in Orlando, FL. In that case, a pastor had sued the city to overturn a new ordinance, which had essentially outlawed feeding the homeless in city parks. The ordinance was passed just as Orlando was preparing a drastic redevelopment project in which the fate of the city’s overcrowded homeless shelters was unclear. I created this forum because I believe that the first step to solving any problem is to bring all sides to the same table, especially for an issue as heated as this had become in my community. For the first time the plaintiff, city officials, and a key contractor of the project came together to address this growing controversy. That night, they found more commonality than discord, even from such disparate perspectives. Still, once the event ended and each man went his way, dialogue seemed only the first step, nothing more. Even in the best of faith, how could talk transform into action on its own? After all of my efforts, I left that evening dissatisfied and keenly aware of my limitations. Then months later, a District Court struck the ordinance down—and I had a revelation.
I arrived in Apopka with the pastor’s success fresh in my mind. Having witnessed firsthand the power of the law to produce the action needed for change, I was hopeful that justice for the former farm workers of Lake Apopka was possible. I was also optimistic I would never again hear the words “This fight is too hard. You are on your own.” Yet that is exactly what I heard.
“People just lost hope,” said the activist. Fifty-eight and uninsured, herself a former farm worker, she bore the scars of her community: her toes were twisted masses of scar tissue where the toenails had fallen off after heavy exposure to chemicals in the fields. She wears hair weaves to hide much of her premature baldness and her body still struggles through cancer, lupus, and diabetes. When the government chose to “restore” Lake Apopka by flooding the farms that drained much of the Lake originally, they did so with the health of protected storks in mind, not that of the former laborers, most of whom live along the Lake’s toxic shores. When the farms were bought by the state in the early 1990s, an entire community of workers lost their livelihoods. After receiving nothing from the land deal, they were left uninsured and without legal recourse to address the wide suffering caused by long-term exposure to pesticides. In Lake Apopka, injustice floats on the surface.
Throughout my education, I’ve involved myself in many topics, many problems. But none has resonated with me like the plight of Lake Apopka’s former farm workers. Because of my own experiences, I dare to believe I can understand theirs. Again, I have done all that I can: we organized a community forum to bring this injustice out into the open, we’re working to establish an internship for students at the Farmworkers Association of Apopka, and we raised nearly $1700 in two weeks to provide 196 farm worker families a turkey this Thanksgiving. Still, the dissatisfaction lingers.
I’m not so naïve as to believe that the law always results in justice, but recognizing this does not diminish in any way my drive for a just outcome. I have seen those I love brought to their knees because they were forced to stand alone against long, hard odds. To me, a degree in law is part of a natural progression; a progression punctuated with real-life experiences that have shaped my belief in the law as the ultimate means for justice. But the power of the law falls short when no one is able or willing to use this knowledge to fight on behalf of those who cannot. I’m no caped-crusader, but I am willing to learn how to help. For people like the farm workers, for honest men like my father, it may be this small support that makes all the difference.
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