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Stuart Mitchell: A passionate advocate for the rural poor

Stuart Mitchell still does not know what to make of the new competition for federal funds to aid migrant farm workers. In this year’s bidding for the U.S. Department of Labor money that undergirds the advocacy and training services of Rural Opportunities Inc., Gov. George Pataki’s administration made a grab for the federal bucks.
It was the first time anyone could recall that a state agency challenged the non-profit agency over funds to help the rural poor. It was a losing effort.
Rural Opportunities, a non-profit agency operating across six states, once again walked off with the prize: government contracts.
Headed by Mitchell since 1977, Rural Opportunities has a track record of handling its budgets well, delivering successful economic development projects and communicating with those who speak English poorly, or not at all.
Mitchell also has considerable experience communicating with people whose politics differ from his own.
“Connect with anyone who will listen,” is part of Rural Opportunities’ plan of advocacy.
But when the nouveaux concerned at the state level snatched at the federal millions, they did it on the sly.
This left Mitchell at something of a loss.
In 25 years, Rural Opportunities has not faced much competition for its “market segment” of the disadvantaged community–the desperate, transient, rural poor scattered far from urban centers of political power.
What could Rural Opportunities have done to prompt the princes of privatizing, the earls of individual responsibility, to sneak down to Washington, D.C., and bang the tambourine for migrant farm workers?
Or at least for the 2.2 million bucks the Labor Department had earmarked for the rural poor.
Though Mitchell does not know, he is still connecting with anyone who will listen, or with anyone, until they listen.
He has met with new state Commissioner of Labor John Sweeney, who acknowledged Rural Opportunities’ expertise.
Rural Opportunities’ executive director has not missed a meeting of the commissioner’s farm minimum-wage advisory council since 1980. Now, he thinks, is no time to start.
Big chunks of Rural Opportunities’ money in the past have come from state and county programs, as well as federal sources.
Legislation before Congress would rip the strings off all federal aid, leaving it to states to dish the money out. This would put Rural Opportunities’ fate in the hands of those who earlier this year went head-to-head with the veteran agency–and lost.
Mitchell has little experience with the internecine strife and rivalry that afflicts much of the non-profit community.
He owes this, as he says he owes his sense of purpose and achievement in life, to the brutal plight of his constituency.
The poverty line is a step up for migrant farm workers. The hoi polloi of the non-profit community do not fall all over themselves to get a piece of farm-worker action.
Rural Opportunities is the biggest farm-worker agency in the state. Although it runs Migrant Head Start programs for toddlers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey, it does not run the program in New York.
Another farm-worker agency does, and does it well, Mitchell says. Migrant-labor agencies for years have run on margins too tight to allow competition for the sake of competition.
If the state takes over, Mitchell fears, those margins will disappear.
“One-size-fits-all training programs will focus on the people closest to being able to get jobs and discard the tough cases like migrant laborers,” Mitchell worries.
But if the changing of the political guard throws barriers in the agency’s path, Mitchell says, they will not be the first obstacles Rural Opportunities has ever seen.
“Our services equip the rural poor for mainstream economic life by getting them over language and training barriers,” he says.
Two levels of minimum-wage law existed in New York when Mitchell started out: one for migrant farm workers and one for everyone else.
“Keeping migrant farm workers second-class citizens with statutes and keeping them out of sight with stereotypes is a terrible social cost,” he says.
“If migrant laborers were the lazy, shiftless alcoholics the stereotypes say they are, there would be no agriculture in this country,” he adds. “These are people who work 60 hours a week just to survive.”
Mitchell is unfashionably and unrepentantly clear about Rural Opportunities’ purpose: “The reason we are doing this is because there is something wrong with the system, not something wrong with the people.”
At 51, Mitchell is as ready to march cheerfully on Albany for migrant laborers as he was at age 21 to march in rural Tennessee for black sharecroppers.
In 1965, he was a college student fresh from his family’s Wayne County dairy farm, already the blend of Ivy League and grassroots that he is today.
A Cornell University student, he joined the Congress for Racial Equality. Racial equality in those days was the kind of cause that got some college kids murdered.
Pictures show him marching in the front ranks, the summer that 90 percent of the sharecroppers’ kids boycotted segregated schools in Fayette County, Tenn.
It was the start of school integration in rural Tennessee and the end of Mitchell’s plans to return to his family’s dairy farm.
Are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve been jailed in Tennessee? No.
But he grew older, calmed down and suited up for the corporate boardrooms where the charity action is, right?
No again.
After Tennessee, after getting his bachelor of science in agricultural economics and rural sociology from Cornell, Mitchell earned a master of divinity degree from Colgate Rochester Divinity School and was ordained a United Methodist Church minister.
His ministry put him to work with migrant laborers in Wayne County during the early 1970s as a chaplain, coordinator of health programs and then executive director of a multiservice agency.
By 1973, he was on board with Rural Opportunities, adding housing and economic development to the repertoire of service areas in which he is experienced.
Recent pictures show him still marching for farm workers, still in the front ranks.
Corporate boards interest him about as much as migrant farm workers interest corporate boards.
The rich, after all, do not give to the poor. The poor give to the poor and the rich give to the rich, as Mitchell reads the statistics.
“Industrial business needs an expendable minimum-wage work force to drive the cost of fast food down and the price of stock up,” Mitchell says. “Business is not interested in training people who only have a fourth-grade education to start with.”
And as for charity–don’t say the “c” word to Rural Opportunities’ executive director.
“Charity is a code word for racism used by privileged people who feel they got to the top because of something they, personally, did,” Mitchell says.
“They cannot see that others–mostly persons of color–don’t have the boot-straps to pull themselves up with. They will not admit that they are privileged and that privilege carries responsibility.”
One local deep-pockets philanthropist was shocked that Rural Opportunities’ board is run by farm workers.
“He said we should have people with connections into the philanthropic establishment,” Mitchell recalls. “But grassroots input keeps us honest. Just because our board does not understand the politics of the rich, does not mean they don’t understand what they need to become real participants in the economy.”
Mitchell ditched an invitation to the Ryder Cup to attend the graduation of five migrant workers from machinist training.
The idea that five people now have full-time, year-round jobs excites him profoundly. Moving people from annual income levels of $4,000 to the $15,000 range–in seven weeks of training that cost only a few thousand dollars–Rural Opportunities’ newsletters are full of such successes.
Mitchell manages a high-tech administrative infrastructure that tracks dollars and performance with a precision worthy of any large corporation. It covers everything from emergency aid to poor families in crisis to a rural venture fund for new businesses.
“Rural Opportunities has survived for 25 years because we operate at a level of institutional sophistication that makes people take us seriously,” Mitchell notes. “They know we deliver a good
product–training, jobs and housing–and that their money will be protected and well-spent.”
Rural Opportunities has not survived day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, on hostile territory without friends like the United Way Services Corp. and developers including affordable-housing partners Mark IV Construction Co. Inc. and Wilmorite Inc.
Karen Noble Hanson, vice president of Wilmorite, was executive director of Rural Opportunities when Mitchell arrived. Last year, she brought the clout of Rochester’s largest real estate developer to bear on Rural Opportunities’ side when it bought the 524-unit Crossroads Apartments in downtown Rochester.
Crossroads residents pay 30 percent of their income for apartments that would have converted easily to pricey condominiums.
Given Rural Opportunities’ to-the-penny fiscal expertise and its economic development power, the United Way and developer alliances are understandable.
But given the politics–or lack of political power–of the farm-worker constituency, other old allies are harder to explain.
Grower Gerald Verbridge is someone you would expect to find on the other side of the table from the farm-worker advocate.
“The problem with that picture is that anyone who starts out on the opposite side of the table from Stuart is looking across that table at the best in the business,” Verbridge says. “He is a tireless worker of tremendous ability. He does not make it easy to refuse to work with him.”
Then there is William Johnson Jr. The rural poverty agency is not now nor has it ever been likely to get many votes for the Rochester mayor.
It was not politics that brought the two together, Johnson recalls. It was the poverty of the non-profit community.
In the early 1980s, Johnson was head of the Urban League of Rochester N.Y. Inc. and trying to sell his board on what then was a radical idea.
Mitchell already was proving that non-profit groups could help fund themselves with appropriate profit-making activities.
Johnson picked Mitchell’s brain for his position paper and convinced the Urban League board non-profits “could and should” earn part of their own way. The two became friends.
Johnson says he is “delighted that Stuart has moved his family to Rochester.”
Mitchell began to call Rochester home only recently, after 50 years of country life.
Heidi, his wife of 18 years, served as pastor of a Methodist congregation in Wayne County for much of that time. This year, cancer took her out of the pulpit and put her in a wheelchair.
The Mitchells’ new home in Rochester is closer to her doctors. Navigating his wife’s wheelchair, Mitchell says, “gave me a whole new view of barriers–just when I thought I had seen every barrier there is.”
Jennifer, 25, Mitchell’s daughter from an earlier marriage, arrives in town soon to help care for Heidi. Son Stuart, 29, lives in New Hampshire.
And daughter Anna, 14, is “having the time of her life in Rochester.” She is, Mitchell says, “unbearably excited” about finding other African-American children. Adopted five years ago, Anna is of African-American and Korean heritage.
Mitchell cannot say what is in Rural Opportunities’ future. He is not even sure how long he will be able to talk about it, given pending legislation that would restrict what non-profit groups can say.
Any agency with a better grasp of the problem of rural poverty is welcome to give Rural Opportunities a run for the dwindling aid money, he says. His organization has been competing on the merits of its programs, and winning, for a long time.
It was roughly 21 years ago that the Labor Department first instituted competitive bidding for funds to help migrant farm workers. Rural Opportunities’ small activist core was irritated it had to leave the fields to hurdle government red tape.
The fact of competition did not bother Rural Opportunities. It was the motive behind the competition that stung, according to a verse written by Hanson, then Rural Opportunities executive director:
“Today in Washington we learned that we must spend the next two months
–competing to continue to serve
–competing with groups that have
no farm worker constituency
no farm worker or minority staff
no past experience
–groups that have only a disdain for the poor
and a desire for money.”
What Rural Opportunities now faces is a similar turn of the cycle that periodically threatens funds for the rural poor, says the Wilmorite executive, who wrote those words in 1974.
“We saw it in 1974, we saw it under Nixon and we are seeing it now,” Mitchell’s predecessor says. “State agencies are not inclined to provide services to those who are very hard-working, and still very poor. They don’t want to do it and they don’t know how to do it.”
Of Mitchell, who must meet the challenge, she says: “(He) lives simply and cares deeply.”

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