Olivia Joyner

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Olivia Joyner discusses the community where she grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She describes the lack of diversity in her neighborhood, but for her interaction with Hispanic populations through her Spanish-immersion elementary school and volunteering in the clinic her mom worked in. Joyner describes her interest in Mexico and Hispanic culture in general from a young age and how that has developed into her current career goals. She explains her desire to work with migrant farmworkers and some of the difficulties that members of this population face. Joyner also discusses her volunteer work with Carolina Language Partnership and some of the resources that are available to food workers at UNC. She discusses her reluctance to publicly discuss politics and the importance of being informed and respecting others’ opinions about issues. She discusses the importance of creating awareness about the food system and the workers within it and what UNC has done to address this. Finally, she discusses the financial challenges that undocumented students face and the institutional difficulty of meeting these challenges.



Claire Weintraub: Okay this is Claire Weintraub. I’m here with Olivia Joyner. It is 10:03 on March 8 and we are in the Undergraduate Library at the University of North Carolina. Olivia, do I have your consent to interview you today?
Olivia Joyner: Absolutely.
CW: Great, so today I’m really interested in talking to you about your background, your experience with immigration or with immigrants and how this has shaped your views and sort of what your views are of immigration and how it’s affected our community. So, can you just tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, who you are?
OJ: (laughs) So I am a sophomore here at UNC and I am studying health and environment in Latin America through the global studies major. I’ve lived in North Carolina my whole life. I lived in Kinston for a year and then my family moved to Raleigh and we’ve been there. I’ve taken Spanish classes since I have five years old and its always been something that I’ve been really interested in and loved and I always knew that I wanted to work in some form or facet with some job where I could speak Spanish and or live in Mexico. I’ve just always like felt drawn to live on the other side of the border. I like to nap. (both laugh) Is there anything else you’d like to know?
CW: Yeah, no that was great. So you said you grew up in Raleigh mostly. Can you like describe the community of Raleigh a little bit? Maybe, sort of what, what it’s like, people’s attitudes, demographics, just sort of things like that. What it was like growing up there.
OJ: So, the first year of my life I lived in Kinston and it was super rural and then it developed like very quickly and that’s why my parents moved out. So, they moved to Raleigh and we live in a fairly like affluent neighborhood and I think all of our neighbors up until the last like five years were white. And, we’ve had a few Asian families move in, which has been, which has been cool. But, Raleigh is a huge city being the capital so we don’t live downtown, but when you go downtown you definitely, it’s like a whole different feel. You see people who come from all over. You can hear all different languages. There’s a huge homelessness population, which is very unfortunate. So, it’s kind of like I grew up in, within my neighborhood it’s kind of like its own little bubble. But I attended a Spanish immersion elementary school, so from kindergarten I-kindergarten to fifth grade—I was in classes with a lot of native Spanish speakers. I think the demographics of the school was like fifty percent Hispanic, fifty, maybe like forty percent white, ten percent black. It was pretty evenly distributed amongst the two groups. So that was pretty neat because in my neighborhood, it was just all kids that kind of looked like me. And then my mom works of Alliance Medical Ministry, which is a clinic-a medical clinic-that serves people in Wake Country without health insurance. So, I grew up kind of like helping out there and helping translate and fill out paper work and stuff and so that was neat because I got to have contact with a lot of immigrants from Mexico and anywhere in Central and South America. And then lately, there’s been a large refugee population that has come to the area and a lot of them are from Burma. And, so that’s been really neat ‘cause that’s been a lot of my contact like before coming to UNC with immigrants, migrants, and refugees. There’s a community garden, and we would have work days, and we would pick vegetables together and they made sure to like plant vegetable that were familiar to people from different countries and everyone would just kind of like get together and talk. So that was really cool and I (laughs) don’t remember what the question was.
CW: Yeah, no, you answered it. So, when do you first remember sort of like becoming aware? So you said like in your neighborhood it was mostly white, but then in your school it was pretty diverse. When do you really first remember becoming aware of immigration or the fact that, you know, people were coming from other places? Do you have like sort of a memory of when it first became something on your mind or was it always just kind of present in your life?
OJ: I feel like it was always just kind of present. ‘Cause I was just taught from kindergarten to like really value Spanish and the Spanish culture. Like, we would have these huge festivals every year where we would have to learn all about this certain country and learn their dances and wear, like make costumes and so it was exciting for the students who were from that country to be able to kind of share their experiences with us. And I was like ‘oh that’s so cool because like now I have a friend from Venezuela.’ So, I think like in the back of my mind there was always kind of a separation, like I’m white and they’re Hispanic so like we’re different, but we’re in the same classroom together. But, we learn Spanish and English together from kindergarten so I think that played like a major role. Yeah and just kind of like (trails off)
CW: Do you think that because of your experiences, your mindset about immigration varied from other people in your community? Or what kind of attitude as whole on immigration did you see, especially with like more recent increases in the refugee population? Have people been pretty accepting or has there been any kind of tension caused by that?
OJ: Yeah I definitely think it impacted my mindset. One of my major pet peeves is when people just like categorize anyone that’s Hispanic as Mexican. Like, you don’t know (laughs). In high school, it was-pretty much in high school and middle school it was a little bit different, because similar to your experiences, the classes became kind of divided amongst like academic honors and then AP IB classes. It was kind of like mostly white students in the upper level classes and minorities below so then I started to feel kind of the division amongst the groups and I didn’t really feel connected to the Hispanic community anymore. I don’t think that I was aware of any refugee issues, probably until like the last three years. I guess when people started talking about the Syrian refugee crisis, I started to pay a little bit more attention to it, but I only ever thought of immigration as like people coming here because they want a better life, not like they’re fleeing harm. So it’s been kind of interesting to see how that’s played out in the media and how people, not everyone wants to accept them because they think that they’re people that are going to come harm us. But like, they’re fleeing harm themselves so I don’t know. That’s just been really interesting to see.
CW: Yeah so you said growing up you were sort of involved in working with immigrants through your mom’s work. When did you—when you came to UNC or just when in your life did you decide that you personally wanted to pursue any kind of like interaction or service work with immigrants more? Or what was your experience with that?
OJ: My whole life I’ve been—I’ve always said that ‘I want to live in Mexico. I want to live in Mexico.’ And I didn’t really have a reason, but I’ve always had an interest in food topics. So I came into UNC thinking ‘I want to do nutrition.’ And then I realized that I didn’t like nutrition and then in my first year seminar, I became more aware of issues of immigrant, or like migrant labor rights for agricultural workers. So, that kind of became my passion and so I’ve kind of narrowed down my ‘I’d like to live in Mexico’ to ‘I’d like to work with people coming from Central and South America into the US to work on our farms.’ Whether its permanent or seasonal migration and whether they’re documented or undocumented, or people who have come in through the bracero program. And so, I’ve kind of decided within the last year that I’d like to work-do some kind of social work in some kind of clinic that serves migrant agricultural workers and providing them with outlets to medical care and to legal services because that’s kind of what I’ve seen play out in my mom’s office and it’s so crucial for people who work these really long hour shifts and really repetitive or dangerous work, and they’re either not documented or they can’t afford to have health insurance. So, these are the people who usually need it the most and they don’t have access to it. So working in some kind of social service setting, where I’m not a doctor and I’m not a lawyer, but I’m connecting people to those services and maybe serving as a translator. Because I’ve realized that I like to have a lot personal one-on-one contact with people and do a kind of more grassroots movement, so meeting with families or individuals and being like ‘okay, who are you and what do you need? And what can I help you with?’ and then connecting them to larger organizations.
CW: So have you had any experience working with farmworkers in the past? Or, yeah, what specifically about that—how did that catch your interest I guess?
OJ: My family has always been kind of connected to like the Eastern United States and we have a lot of family friends that are farmers and so that’s—I kind of grew up knowing the importance, like value the people who grow your food and value good food. And, I think a lot of times we think of like this white old man as the farmer and that may be the man that owns the farm, but generally the faces of the people behind the labor are from—It’s largely a Hispanic population, but people from all over. And so, the little contact I’ve had would be just serving as a translator at my mom’s office. But, I have applied for an internship position this summer with Student Action with Farmworkers. And I was hoping through our class project to be able to work with Alianza, which is a farmworker advocacy group on campus, but they aren’t a thing anymore, so I’ve been working with CLaP, which has been also really cool. And it’s something totally different, because I’m doing tutoring sessions with people that are not farmworkers.
CW: Yeah, can you explain a little more about what CLaP is?
OJ: Yeah, so it stands for Carolina Language Partnership and basically it’s a student organization that pairs students with different UNC faculty mostly from the dining halls and also a lot of housekeeping staff and you walk around the dining halls you see that there’s a large—a large number of them—when you just look at them you think like ‘oh Hispanic, Asian, black.’ There’s a lot of refugees from Burma that have come through different countries, a lot of individuals from Korea, various countries in Central and South America. So basically, I work five times a week and I do two sessions of—okay, so (laughs)—ClaP also works with the Carolina Swim Clinic. So, the Carolina Swim Clinic offers free swim lessons to children on weekends and all of the families that have chosen to participate in that have been Hispanic so we offer to teach English lesson to the parents while their kids are having swim lessons. So, I do that twice on the weekends. And then, three times during the week I meet with individuals from Burma and teach English and then homework help with the children.
CW: Cool, so since coming to UNC have you noticed—how would you describe the attitudes toward or discourse about immigration at UNC? And, how would you compare that to the community you grew up in?
OJ: Yeah so, my parents always taught me not to talk about politics and so I never really knew my parents’ stances on political issues and I didn’t really ask anyone what theirs were so I’m not sure what my community would say. I could probably guess what their views are, but I don’t know if that’d be fair. But, at UNC it’s a fairly liberal campus and so I think generally the attitude has been accepting of immigrants, migrants, refugees, but that’s definitely not true for every student and faculty member. But, I think the majority of the opinions that have been voiced or advocated for have been, yeah like advocating for migrant rights, but I also feel like I seek out classes that are pro-immigration or not anti-immigration so I’ve done like immigration and health classes and like global studies and farmworker advocacy classes. So, I tend to kind of put myself in setting where I’m surrounded by like-minded students so I haven’t really had any contact with people who are like ‘no stop, stop other people from other countries from coming in.’
CW: So, would you say—so you sort of grew up in a not very political household or environment. Do you think since coming to UNC you’ve become more interested in or more comfortable talking about politics? Or, do you still tend to maybe stay away from the political side of things and more interested in I guess the academic side? How’s your experience with politics changed?
OJ: I am still very uncomfortable with political advocacy, like I—I was like ‘go all my friends who are going to the Women’s March and all the different marches’ but that’s just not something that I’m comfortable with. But, I have been playing around with the idea of going to the rally on March 21, which is kind of like boycotting Wendy’s because they have not agreed to sign onto the Fair Food Program, which would provide like one cent more per pound to the tomato pickers. And they pick like 300 pounds of tomatoes a day so that’s adding like three dollars a day to their paycheck, which is like a huge, huge deal for that subpopulation. So, I guess the only like political anything that I’ve ever been interested in is like rights for workers that we intentionally kind of bring here and then say ‘you have no rights, no resources. We’re keeping you kind of out of sight.’ So I’m slowly opening up to the idea of—I would definitely stand up for something I believe in, but I don’t know if I would go out publicly and do something.
CW: What do you think it is about sort of that like open political statement that makes you kind of uncomfortable?
OJ: I definitely—part of it would be like accidentally saying something that is incorrect or is super controversial or is going to offend someone, because I know that if I am super passionate about something, there’s someone else who is equally as passionate about the opposite side. So I don’t want to butt heads with anyone. And just kind of growing up my family was kind of always in, not like the public view, but just because of who my grandfather was people always kind of had their eye on me and would tell my parents if I had done something wrong. ‘Olivia’s doing this’ even if wasn’t doing anything bad, so I was just always taught to like keep a low profile and that would—like participating in some kind of political activism would definitely not be keeping a low profile. (laughs)
CW: So, sort of going off this idea of political activism, but also your interest specifically in farmworker communities, what do you think the role is that allies should or do play in movements like that? So, people like you who aren’t a migrant farmworker obviously, but maybe have more of a voice or more resources to sort of create public awareness.
OJ: Yeah, I think the key word there is just ‘awareness’. I think that just because of the culture and society that we live in—I’m going to make this example specific to farmworkers. We go to the store, any kind of food we want is there, its generally pretty cheap, you just buy it, you eat it or you throw it away, whatever. And, I think that’s it’s really important to think about—I guess this could go for like any product, like working in factories or like service industries—the faces behind the labor. And just recognizing that by purchasing produce you are yourself kind of coming in contact with a migrant, so people are like ‘oh no no, I’ve never talked to anyone or interacted with anyone that comes from another country’. Well, by purchasing these products, you’re directly impacting their life and they’re directly impacting yours. So, just realizing that there is that connection and that also that the people that are in these jobs are very vulnerable and they’re not generally paid great and the living conditions and the working conditions, nothing’s very good. So, just realizing that when you buy an avocado for like a dollar, it’s so much more than just buying an avocado for a dollar, like there’s so many factors that play into that and I think a lot of my interest in that comes with just being in a lot of classes that focus on globalization. But then, just realizing like when you get on a public bus or you take yourself to the dry cleaners or you stay at a hotel or you have your house cleaned, like literally anything, that you may—or you probably are impacting a migrant’s life and they’re impacting yours and then if we, say ‘no more people from other countries can come in’ and if we somehow found every person from another country and kicked them out, so many different industries would just actually fall apart, like construction and like all of that.
CW: So, what do you think, if anything, can be done to sort of get people who are not willing to seek out that knowledge or maybe are intentionally a little bit ignorant about that, to make them aware of this impact that migrants really do have on everyone’s daily life?
OJ: Yeah so I think it’s—it’s hard unless people really start working with like some organization where they’re put in contact with these individuals or they pair up with a refugee family who’s just moved here and like they help them assimilate. Until you really have a lot of one-on-one contact with people it’s hard to understand. But, something I’ve seen with a lot of food campaigns is having photos of farmers on food, which I think helps ‘cause like in the dining halls now we switched over to—what is it? Larry’s Beans I think in the dining hall. And so they have this whole photo campaign and its pictures of the actual people that are—that are harvesting these coffee grounds or these coffee beans and so it’s just saying like ‘there’s a face to this food. It wasn’t just picked by a machine and transported here.’ So I think part of it is just seeing that—seeing the faces behind the products that you purchase and then coming in contact. So a lot of it is just people individually taking that step to reach out to other people. So I think it’s complicated. There’s not like a one size fits all solution.
CW: So you said that UNC has been sort of trying to do more to give a face to maybe where the food is coming from. Do you—have you seen any impact, like have you seen people sort of talking about this or do you think its increased awareness? Or do you think there’s more they could be doing on a campus level to create this kind of discussion happening?
OJ: Um, I think UNC has done a nice job of setting up resources for housekeeping and dining hall staff, who for the most part come from places other than the United States. Like having the Carolina Campus Community Garden, which has students plant and harvest produce to give directly to them and then having the dining hall workers—like having all those stations open so you can see them cooking and you can talk to them. And then having organizations like CLaP that work to provide like language services, daycare services for those individuals. But, I feel like a lot of that is also student-run so I don’t know exactly what the university itself has done for these individuals because—like with the dining hall service, these individuals are hired through the Aramark company. They’re not hired by UNC. UNC pays Aramark to bring in workers, so there’s a little bit of a disconnect there. And I think there’s respect for the workers. They’ll do that, like Feed the Five Thousand meal, where they more everyone outside and they encourage like talking to the different workers, but I don’t know exactly. Also, UNC has not signed on to anything. I know there’s been a little bit of pressure to provide financial support for undocumented students and I think right now it’s like these individuals are particularly vulnerable to being deported if their names are put out there. But students who come to UNC and do not have US residency have to pay out of state or out of—or international rates, which is crazy expensive and I think president Spellings did some work on that issue and got it passed where she lived in Texas, so that’d be awesome if she could do it here. But, there hasn’t—there’s been push for it, but there hasn’t been any like ‘we’re going to take action to help our undocumented students.’ So that’s kind of sucky, but
CW: Yeah, so why do you think that—where did you think the inaction is coming from? Do you think it’s just sort of politically infeasible or maybe not—just they haven’t built enough support for it yet? Or how do you see this playing out?
OJ: It’s—it’s risky for a university or like the university chancellor or president to say ‘here is my position on undocumented immigration and we’re going to support it and we’re going to support them financially.’ And I think that it’s risky in terms of who the university, like donors and funders are and whether or not those individuals would pull out their money. And also, there’s definitely the risk to saying ‘here are our students who we’re giving money to because they’re not actually US citizens.’ Because then, they could be taken out of the country. But I think a lot of it is like who’s connected to the university, who pays for our services, and what will happen if we take a stance like one side or the other. They have to stay somewhat neutral, because they want to be supportive and say ‘all students are welcome.’ But you can’t say like ‘this is our view,’ because we are a public university and it is UNC and we’re the first public university so there’s just a lot of things that could—could change, if they take a stance. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily unethical for them to not support, because I understand where they’re coming from. I think it’d be great if they did support those students, but I get that it’s tricky.
CW: If you think there’s not really much that’s feasible on an institutional level, do you think there is more action that can be taken on a student or grassroots level to support the undocumented community at UNC?
OJ: Yeah so the issue is that there needs to be a lot of money raised, because to knock down tuition from an international or out-of-state rate to an in-state rate for multiple students for multiple years, that’s a lot of money. So there are organizations on campus like So Good Pupusas, which do like food truck and catering services and that money goes towards scholarships for undocumented students. But, it’s like they get to choose two students to each receive a thousand-dollar scholarship, so there’s still a huge deficit. And so there needs to be like some big donor or some big organization to constantly supply with money. So I think it’s awesome that there are these small organizations that are really rallying behind these issues, but that will never be enough unfortunately.
CW: So, like beyond financial assistance I guess, maybe going back to this idea of allies to a movement, what do you think you or me or like any other student who is not an undocumented—or not an immigrant—is there anything that we can be doing to sort of show our support?
OJ: Yeah I think that’s difficult ‘cause like a huge issue is money and it’s not like we can just throw thousands of dollars at this issue. I think what it comes down to on like a basic level is understanding that there are students here who are undocumented and that we need to support them. But then there’s the issue of how do you support them when the issue is financial. So I think when you can, like buy some pupusas from So Good Pupusas, but if there is a push to have the UNC administration change the tuition policies, to think about that issue and pick your—like take your stance on the issue and then support it. So if you say ‘I don’t think they should be paying the same as in-state students,’ that’s your opinion—that’s your position, that’s fine. But, if you think that they should be paying the same rate and there is that—some push coming from students to the administration, to jump on that and rally alongside them and try and pull more—just educate more people on the issue so that people can then choose their stances. So I think a lot—it’s really important for everyone to educate themselves and then be able to think what they think, but then if you’re in support of something, rally behind it. Even though I’m not the best example of that, because I don’t like to be politically active, but I know a lot of people on this campus do so I think it’s awesome and they should keep pushing.
CW: Cool, well I think that’s all the questions I have for you today. Thank you so much for letting me interview you.