The Good Neighbors: Humanity at the Core

In 1936 the San Francisco News commissioned John Steinbeck to write a series of short essays recording the working and living conditions of the migrant labor force that had moved into California in the wake of the dust bowl. Through The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck guided urban and political California on a painful and irrefutable tour of squatter camps, labor disputes and the beauty of people helping each other. As is always his strength, Steinbeck delivered humanity. He went into the environment, met people and wrote with incredible truth and empathy.

From Article 1

They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain.

And then they have made the crossing and have seen often the death of their children on the way. Their cars have been broken down and been repaired with the ingenuity of the land man.

Often they patched the worn-out tires every few miles. They have weathered the thing, and they can weather much more for their blood is strong.

They are descendants of men who crossed into the middle west, who won their lands by fighting, who cultivated the prairies and stayed with them until they went back to desert.

And because of their tradition and their training, they are not migrants by nature. They are gypsies by force of circumstances.

In their heads, as they move wearily from harvest to harvest, there is one urge and one overwhelming need, to acquire a little land again, and to settle on it and stop their wandering. One has only to go into the squatters’ camps where the families live on the ground and have no homes, no beds and no equipment; and one has only to look at the strong purposeful faces, often filled with pain and more often, when they see the corporation-held idle lands, filled with anger, to know that this new race is here to stay and that heed must be taken of it.

It should be understood that with this new race the old methods of repression, of starvation wages, of jailing, beating and intimidation are not going to work; these are American people. Consequently we must meet them with understanding and attempt to work out the problem to their benefit as well as ours.

I grew up in a world only partially removed from Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley. The Imperial County is the poorest in the state of California. With a per capita income of $16,409, an unemployment rate of 22% and a dependence on migrant labor, the similarities are real. Even though I have been gone for over 15 years, my move to the big shiny city (San Diego), catches me feeling the tug of my hometown. I care about my people more now than I ever have before. Even sitting with my family at the dinner table tonight was pressing. My wife and I led our five and six year olds into a conversation about their great-grandparents coming to this country from far away places like India, Mexico and Poland. We crafted (on-the-fly) questions and stories about our parents growing up in Holtville, CA and Toledo, OH. Fields and factories. We both want them to care about where they come from and, in turn, care about where other people come from.

This is the heart of The Harvest Gypsies undertaking. I teach the humanities and through my 12 years in the classroom I have repeatedly encountered a defining truth for our set of disciplines: We really do need each other. We need to know the stories that produce our culture. We need to understand the paths we are on and how far along them we are. We need to realize our role as part of the whole.

Steinbeck nails this midway through his series of stories as he talks about a grassroots organization of migrant laborers in a work camp. They were called The Good Neighbors Committee. They were heroes.

Article 4

These Good Neighbors are not trained social workers, but they have what is perhaps more important, an understanding which grows from a likeness of experience. Nothing has happened to the newcomer that has not happened to the committee.

A typical manager’s report is as follows: “New arrivals. Low in foodstuffs. Most of the personal belongings were tied up in sacks and were in a filthy condition. The Good Neighbors at once took the family in hand, and by 10 o’clock they were fed, washed, camped, settled and asleep.”

Like Steinbeck, artists and professionals throughout history have found their skills flourished most when applied to a human dilemma. No matter the era, we have always needed writers, thinkers, inventors, politicians, business owners and educators to meet their market with an ear first and an offer second. Our system is as broken as ever. What may be worse is that our solutions are decreasingly passionate, personal and human-centered.

We need to join The Good Neighbors Committee and we need to spread word about other Good Neighbors when we meet them.

If you are a teacher like me or an “anything else” join me in listening longer, facilitating more intentional sharing of our heritages and histories and designing work that makes life better for everyone. With attention and intention we can change things. Many movements are happening. Worldwide, industries and their think-tanks have developed methods for reaching and affecting the human element. Initiatives like IDEO‘s Human-Centered Design are attempting to match technology, innovation and social need. Let’s all be a part of the solution.

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