Sunflower Community Action;
helping people help
Maria Arteaga has her work cut out for her.
In August, Arteaga was given the momentous task of becoming the sole community organizer in Southwest Kansas for Sunflower Community Action, a Garden City-based organization designed to help people help themselves.
In listening to her speak, it’s quickly apparent how the collection of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (see Page 12) will help the organization, which was initiated in Garden City through the support of Catholic Social Service in the Diocese of Dodge City.
“We are a grass roots organization,” she said of Sunflower, which also has offices in Wichita. “We go from place to place, door to door, to find real issues from the people who are living them. We try to get a group together and bring out the leadership skills of every single person so that their voice can be heard.”
Amid the myriad of issues Arteaga will address is immigration, labor rights, police accountability, cleaning up neighborhoods, and family rights.
“We have issues in Wichita where kids are being taken out of their homes for truancy,” she explained.
Imagine a single mother working at a fast food restaurant. One day her child is caught skipping school. According to Arteaga, that child can be taken from the home if the mother does not fulfill a certain set of criteria, such as being home to cook a meal when she would otherwise have to be at work. If the mother takes the time to do this, she could lose her family’s sole source of support.
It’s a problem not only affecting immigrants, although immigrants make up the majority of people helped by Sunflower. A general lack of awareness of labor laws, personal rights, and a lack of English skills leave immigrants a prime target for unscrupulous employers, landlords and others seeking to take advantage.
“Another thing we work with is labor rights,” Arteaga said. “We’ve found restaurant workers, hotel workers, laborers, who are getting paid less than minimum wage. They don’t know their rights. It’s not only immigrant workers. They don’t know the laws to the extent that they know what to ask for -- how much money they can get paid, or what overtime counts as.”
According to Arteaga, Sunflower also works with “fair lending and auto title loans, in which people are taken advantage of and sometimes have to pay up to three times more than their loans once were. All these loans seem to be targeted to people of color -- Hispanics, and low income people. Most of these people end up losing their cars, homes, or end up in big debt.
“When it come to workers justice, we work not only with those getting paid the minimum, but also getting their last pay check, work abuse, and fairness for all.”
Sunflower does not solve their problem for them. What they do is organize groups of people who have common issues and teach them how to help themselves.
“God says, ‘Help yourself that I will help you.’ That’s what we teach. We don’t do your job. You’re living it. You experience it. You have your voice. You take that voice and that power and take control of the situation. We just facilitate everything for you to be able to do that.”
Through various workshops, groups of individuals are taught leadership skills that they can use to organize meetings, including inviting upper level management or politicians to observe the particular situation.
When a mobile home park owner refused to provide adequate sanitation or security lighting, Sunflower organized the residents and invited the owner to a meeting.
“We invite the media and everyone in neighborhood,” Arteaga explained. “We tell the landlord, ‘All these people are here to ask you to please do this.’ We try to reason with him because we don’t want to go to direct action. We have gone there, and it has gotten us results. But we don’t want to do that if possible.
“We show everyone how it’s done so you can take action on your own and make change for your families and communities,” she said.
Another project of Sunflower Community Action is the Dream Act, which gives students with high grades who want to be teachers, nurses, lawyers, etc..., but who don’t have the proper documentation, the ability to accomplish “their dreams and become something in life. And that would help our economy. A lot of people think immigrants are hurting our economy. They bring businesses; they try to expand.”
If you would like to donate to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, send a check made out to the Diocese of Dodge City to: Attn: CCHD Collection, P.O. Box 137, Dodge City, Kan., 67801.
The theme for this year’s CCHD collection is “Families are struggling. Faith is calling.”
“The mission of CCHD is crucial in 2009 -- to uplift and embolden all who are one layoff or one medical scare away from the poverty line -- and all who are already there,” said Bishop Roger P. Morin of Biloxi, Miss, chair of the U.S. bishops’ CCHD subcommittee.
According to the agency, CCHD-funded programs “empower the poor and marginalized to make decisions, seek solutions to local problems and find ways to improve their lives and neighborhoods.”
Editor’s Note: Catholic News Service contributed to this article.